Helen Churchill Candee
Helen candee 1901.jpg
Helen Churchill Candee in 1901
Born October 5, 1858(1858-10-05)
New York City
Died August 23, 1949(1949-08-23) (aged 90)
York Harbor, Maine

Helen Churchill Candee (October 5, 1858 – August 23, 1949) was an American author, journalist, interior decorator, feminist and geographer. Today she is best known as a survivor of the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912 and for her later work as a travel writer and explorer of southeast Asia.

Early lifeEdit

Helen was born Helen Churchill Hungerford, the daughter of New York City merchant Henry Hungerford and his wife Mary Churchill. She spent most of her childhood in Connecticut. She married Edward Candee of Norwalk, Connecticut, and had two children by him, Edith and Harold.[1] After her abusive husband abandoned the family, Helen Candee supported herself and children as a writer for popular magazines such as Scribner's and The Ladies' Home Journal. She initially wrote on the subjects most familiar to her—genteel etiquette and household management—but soon branched into other topics such as child care, education, and women's rights. For several years she resided in Oklahoma, and her stories about that region helped to catapult her to national prominence as a journalist. Helen Candee divorced her husband in 1896, after a lengthy separation.[2]


Candee was a strong feminist,[3] as evidenced by her best-selling first book, How Women May Earn a Living (1900). Her second book, An Oklahoma Romance (1901), was a novel that promoted the possibilities of settlement in Oklahoma Territory.[4]

An established literary figure, Candee moved to Washington, DC, where she became one of the first professional interior decorators. Her clients included then Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Theodore Roosevelt. Candee's book, Decorative Styles and Periods (1906), embodied her principles of design: careful historical research and absolute authenticity.

While in Washington, Candee also pursued an active social life, serving on many civic boards, and involving herself in Democratic politics. Yet her friends were a varied lot, from liberal reformer William Jennings Bryan to ultra-conservative First Lady Helen Herron Taft. Her friendship with the Tafts was long-standing, despite their differing opinions on women's rights. She was also close with President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife; two of Candee's most important decorating commissions came from the Roosevelts, the first (in 1907) being the selection of a pair of Louis XVI chairs for the First Lady, the other a general consultancy in partnership with architect Nathan C. Wyeth for a remodeling of the White House's West Wing (in 1909).[5]

Candee was a trustee for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a member of both the Archeological Society and the American Federation of Arts, and was on the board of the Washington chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

In her early years as a journalist, Candee wrote fiction for traditional women's interest magazines like Harper's Bazaar, Woman's Home Companion, The Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Her later articles, focusing on design, art and culture, appeared in American Homes, International Studio and the American Magazine of Art. Helen Candee also contributed to many of the leading literary and political journals of the day: Atlantic Monthly, The Century, Metropolitan, Scribner's and Forum.

She wrote eight books –– four were on the decorative arts, two were travelogues, one instructional, one fiction. Candee's biggest seller was The Tapestry Book (1912) which went into many editions.

Helen was traveling in Europe in the spring of 1912, completing research for The Tapestry Book, when she received a telegram from her daughter, Edith, informing her that her son, Harold ("Harry"), had been injured in an automobile accident.

Aboard the TitanicEdit

Candee hurriedly booked passage home on the new luxury ocean liner, Titanic. On the voyage, she socialized with other prominent travelers, such as President Taft's military aide, Major Archibald Butt, and the painter Francis Davis Millet.

Candee was able to board lifeboat 6 but fell and fractured her ankle in the process.

Later lifeEdit

Candee subsequently gave a short interview about her experiences to the Washington Herald and wrote a detailed article on the disaster for Collier's Weekly.[6] This cover story was one of the first in-depth eyewitness accounts of the sinking published in a major magazine. The article hinted at a romantic involvement with an unidentified male passenger, believed to be an amalgam of two of her escorts en route, New York architect Edward Austin Kent and London investor Hugh Woolner.[7]

Candee's Titanic injury required her to walk with a cane for almost a year but by March 1913 she was able to join other feminist equestriennes in the "Votes for Women" parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, riding her horse at the head of the procession that culminated at the steps of Capitol Hill.

First World War, Asian travel and later lifeEdit

During World War I, Candee worked as a nurse in Rome and Milan under the auspices of the Italian Red Cross which decorated her for her service.[8] One of her patients in Milan was Ernest Hemingway. After the war, she traveled to Japan, China, Indonesia and Cambodia, and her adventures became the basis for two of her most celebrated books, Angkor the Magnificent (1924) and New Journeys in Old Asia (1927). Candee was honored by the French government and the King of Cambodia for these works; she was also commanded to give a reading of Angkor to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.


Helen Candee, son Harry, their guide and "Effie" the elephant at Angkor Wat, 1922

Angkor the Magnificent was the first major English-language study of the ruins of the ancient Khmer temple Angkor Wat and its environs. Called the "Lost City" or the "Wonder City," Angkor Wat is considered one of the great man-made wonders of the world. Largely unknown to Westerners until the publication of Candee's book, its popularity laid groundwork for the modern tourist market in Cambodia.[9] On Candee's initial southeast Asian trips in 1922-23 she was accompanied by her son, Harry, with whom she trekked through the then dangerous jungles with their native guide, riding atop the great elephant she named "Effie." On later visits, the author was joined by her friend and collaborator, illustrator Lucille Douglas. Although The Tapestry Book was the most lucrative book Candee wrote, Angkor the Magnificent was the most acclaimed.

The success of Angkor and New Journeys led to a prosperous secondary career for Candee as a lecturer on the Far East, while her work as a journalist continued apace. She was briefly Paris editor for Arts & Decoration (1920–21), and remained on that publication's editorial advisory staff for several years.[10]

In 1925, Candee was among the nine founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers.[11] As late as 1935-36, when she was almost 80, Candee was still traveling abroad, writing articles for National Geographic magazine. Her first books on interior design The Tapestry Book and Decorative Styles and Periods were re-released in 1935 and 1938 respectively, the former in a collectible boxed issue.

Helen Churchill Candee died at age 90 in 1949 at her summer cottage at York Harbor, Maine.[12]


Helen Churchill Candee was a supporting character in novelist Danielle Steel's No Greater Love, based on the sinking of the Titanic.

She was also portrayed in cameo in the Walt Disney 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), about producer James Cameron's expedition to the wreck of the Titanic. Her part was played by actress Adriana Valdez. The scene in which Candee's character was featured recreated her supposed visit to the bow of the liner on the evening before it sank. This story, based on a possibly romanticized manuscript of Candee's, is believed to have inspired the famous "sunset" love scene between characters Jack and Rose in the earlier motion picture Titanic (1997).[13]

Titanic-related items belonging to Helen Candee, including a flask and a locket she carried with her on board, were auctioned for record sums in 2005-06. Letters and the manuscript thought to have inspired Cameron were also sold by Candee's family at this time.[14] In 2007, Helen Candee's former Washington home at 1621 New Hampshire Avenue was acquired by The Fund for American Studies. In 2008, her Angkor the Magnificent was re-released in a special edition that includes a new foreword and a biographical profile. In 2009, the newly-appointed Ambassador to Cambodia, Carol Rodley, presented a copy of the reissued Angkor as a protocol gift to King Norodom Sihamoni on her arrival at the palace in Phnom Penh, Khmer.


  1. Biographical Cyclopedia of U.S. Women (1924)
  2. Linda D. Wilson, "Helen Churchill Candee: Author of an Oklahoma Romance," Chronicles of Oklahoma, 75:414 (1997)
  3. Woman's Who's Who of America (1914)
  4. "An Oklahoma Romance", Pearson's Magazine, April 1902, 452-53
  5. Helen Churchill Candee, Angkor the Magnificent (2008)
  6. Helen Churchill Candee, "Sealed Orders," Collier's Weekly, May 4, 1912, 10ffa
  7. Helen Churchill Candee, Angkor the Magnificent (2008)
  8. Biographical Cyclopedia of U.S. Women
  9. Helena Daily Independent, Jan. 14, 1927
  10. Biographical Cyclopedia of U.S. Women
  11. The Times(East Chicago, Indiana), Oct. 2, 1926
  12. New York Times, Aug. 24, 1949
  13. "At Last, the End of the World," ABC News, May 23, 2007
  14. The Daily Telegraph, April 15, 2006; The Scotsman, Sept.1, 2006

Further readingEdit

  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1900). How Women May Earn a Living. Macmillan & Co.. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill, Bigham, Randy Bryan, Davis, Kent (2008). Angkor the Magnificent. DatASIA. ISBN 978-1-934431-00-9. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1924). Angkor the Magnificent. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1901). An Oklahoma Romance. Century. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1906). Decorative Styles and Periods in the Home. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1912). The Tapestry Book. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1916). Jacobean Furniture. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1927). New Journeys in Old Asia. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 
  • Candee, Helen Churchill (1930). Weaves and Draperies:Classic and Modern. Frederick A. Stokes Co. 

External linksEdit

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