In recognition of Women’s History Month, Laura Newcomer chronicles the life of Helen Churchill (Hungerford) Candee (10/5/1858 – 8/23/1949), a world traveler, journalist, women’s rights activist, and contributor to National Geographic Magazine.
“If I fail to obtain the house of dreams, I would say the quest alone had brought lasting joy.”
-Helen Churchill Candee on the search for the perfect pied-a-terre, in one of her last articles for National Geographic.
In 1934, 76-year-old Helen Churchill Candee set off in search of adventure. Her destination: Europe, where she traveled throughout the English countryside, the Normandy coast, and the Italian Riviera, chronicling her experiences for National Geographic magazine.
Though this marked her Geographic debut, Candee was no newcomer to the world of publishing. After separating from her husband (she eventually divorced him in 1895, citing abuse), Candee chose to support herself as a writer, quickly gaining national esteem as a journalist for her political work in such prestigious journals of the day as Atlantic Monthly and Forum and as a fiction writer for Harper’s Bazaar, Woman’s Home Companion, Literary Era, The Century, and The Illustrated American. Around the same time, she published her first book, How Women May Earn a Living, which to this day remains a foundational work of feminist literature.
In 1904, Candee and her two children moved to Washington, D.C., which set the stage for Candee’s life as a traveler. She started with small trips— summering in York Harbor, Maine and visiting her son in Virginia. Facilitated by a successful career as a home decorator, Candee quickly made prominent social connections, including politicians, foreign dignitaries, prominent artists, and President and Mrs. Taft. This network, coupled with her ability to speak several languages, prompted Candee to travel further afield; soon she was spending entire seasons abroad, journeying all over western Europe and the Mediterranean.
“What need can there be of recounting the heroic deeds performed by those men who remained on the Titanic? To dwell upon them only sickens the heart with the realization of how they perished.”
-from an article by Helen Churchill Candee in the Washington Herald, published April 19, 1912.
Candee’s commitment to travel and to writing brought her to Spain, France, and Italy in early 1912, where she was researching a new book. In April, she received word that her son, Harold, had been seriously injured in an auto accident. The first boat back to America was the RMS Titanic, which was making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. She bought a ticket.
After Titanic struck the iceberg, Candee was bundled into a life vest and directed into lifeboat No. 6. In the process of leaping from the ship into the smaller boat, she fell and fractured her ankle. Nevertheless, for several hours she helped to row the lifeboat beyond the vortexes created by the sinking ship.
Candee published only one piece of writing about the accident, but her reputation as a survivor followed her for the rest of her political and social career, and there’s some speculation that her story may have inspired James Cameron’s blockbuster film.
The trauma of Titanic’s sinking didn’t put a stop to Candee’s travels. As World War I intensified, she left the US to join the Royal Italian Red Cross, serving on the front lines of the Battle of Caporetto and in hospitals in Rome and Milan. In Milan, she nursed an American ambulance driver, who was riddled by machine-gun fire, back to health— he was fellow writer Ernest Hemingway.
After the armistice, Candee took a page out of Hemingway’s playbook and lived in Paris for several years while working for a New York design magazine. In 1920, in her early sixties, Candee returned to the US.
She soon felt her editorial position to be too restrictive, however, and returned to the life of an itinerant reporter. Candee roved across Japan, China, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and composed her sixth (and probably most well-known) book, Angkor the Magnificent, in the process. The book earned her not only critical acclaim but also the decorations of the King of Cambodia and Britain’s King George and Queen Mary.
After her journeys through Asia, Helen’s travel bug lay dormant for several years, during which she published still more books and suffered the early death of her son. By 1934, that old restlessness returned, and so, at the age of 76, Candee set out once again for Europe.
Women’s Rights Activist
In the midst of her travels, Candee dedicated herself to women’s rights. As soon as she’d established herself in Washington, D.C., in 1904, Candee began to utilize her social channels for political action. She rose to prominence as an activist, particularly for her public support of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1913, she was selected to lead 10,000 marchers down Pennsylvania Avenue to the steps of Capitol Hill, in what was one of the largest demonstrations for women’s suffrage. The picture below, which depicts Candee leading the charge for women’s rights, is a fitting testament to the character of one of National Geographic’s most dynamic contributors.