Helen Churchill Candee - An Introduction

Helen Churchill CandeeHelen Churchill Candee was born in 1858 as Helen Churchill (her mother’s maiden name) Hungerford of New York. Her father was a successful merchant, and Helen grew up in relative comfort both there and in Connecticut where the family moved shortly thereafter. More important than the physical provisions prosperity allowed, she was exposed to ideas and stories, music and art, history and culture, in ways unlikely to have been possible had she lived a generation before, or in almost any other part of the country. 

Helen started her formal education in one of America’s first kindergartens, then attended several girls’ boarding schools of the sort only available to a certain quality of family – and even then mostly only those in New England. Before she was a teenager she spoke and wrote multiple languages, was schooled in grace and etiquette, and probably knew more history and literature than a majority of adult men in the nation at the time. She was particularly inspired, according to one diary entry, by an event at which Charles Dickens read aloud from one of his works. 

How many of you have heard Dickens live? My point exactly. 

She was born into the right sort of family in the right part of the country at a pretty good time to become what she became. While her life was not without suffering or tragedy, neither did she rise from rags and neglect to riches and fame. Upbringing mattered, as did education and opportunity. 

None of which detracts from her choices, hard work, or natural abilities, of course. Sometimes you gotta shake what your mama gave you if you really want it to rain. 

Er… as it were. 

Helen fell in love with successful businessman Edward Candee of Connecticut; they married in 1880 shortly after she turned 22. For 15 years, Edward was able to continue and expand the lifestyle to which Helen had grown accustomed. They traveled and they entertained – and not in that desperate, Gatsby-sort-of-way we read about a generation later. The Candees didn’t use their money to imitate or buy culture; they used their resources to live and support culture. They were all the best things about having money. 

But there was one little problem. Henry turned out to be short-tempered and abusive. Details are thin, and even court records potentially suspect (testimony having been given in order to secure a divorce and all), but apparently he drank excessively and often exploded at Helen and the kids, Edith and Harold. Eventually, Helen decided to leave him. 

The thing was, in addition to the substantial social stigma of divorce in the 19th century, it was a difficult thing to secure legally. Helen hired a private detective to follow Henry on his various business trips, and while recorded accusations lean a bit euphemistic, she went to court in New York convinced she had sufficient proof of his unfaithfulness and/or abusiveness to secure her freedom.

The court did not agree. And now it was in the papers – public records being public and all. 

Here’s where specifics of time and place insert themselves into the equation yet again. Divorce was logistically difficult across most of the civilized northeast, but there were places further west quite proud of their liberal unmarrying laws. The Dakotas had become the traditional vacation spot for those wishing to reboot their personal narratives with minimal time and effort – residency there could be established in a mere six months, and the courts were generous when it came to breaking sacred bonds. Lawyers and boosters in other western states advertised the comfort and convenience of their hotels, their climate, their recreation… and for a time capitalism’s wonders were fully unleashed in service of mommy not loving daddy anymore.

HCC's Guthrie

Oklahoma Territory had them all beat, however. Ninety days – that’s how long you needed to establish residency. Three short months and you were eligible to file. If your soon-to-be ex didn’t show, the court appointed someone to speak on his or her behalf, whether they knew their “client” or not. Generally things were wrapped up in time to grab some lunch before getting back to watching lazy hawks circle in the sky and whatnot. 

Boasting of being a divorce mill in order to build your population wasn’t necessarily anything to be proud of, but then neither was getting a divorce. Helen secured transportation for herself, Edith, and Harold, and off they went to the most hoppingest, happeningest, big-little metropolis of the entire Territory…

Guthrie. 

It’s here that Act One of her public story really begins. Helen wasn’t going to play the wounded woman or become someone’s mercy case. She had a family to support, and looking around, she had a pretty good idea where to begin. 

She was going to tell the world about Oklahoma. For money. Turns out she was quite good at it. 

Candee had a gift for observing people and a writing about them in amusing, poignant, and illuminating ways. She’d already established herself as a mildly successful writer for various periodicals back east – mostly women’s magazines, writing about upscale etiquette, effective management of one’s household, and other traditionally “female” topics, with a smattering of general human interest type pieces. 

She’d also just published her first book – How Women May Earn A Living (1900). This practical but pithy guide for women finding themselves in need of a respectable-but-profitable gig is now considered a landmark in women’s literature. Its combination of factual detail and a sort of “tough love,” softened by that graceful, dignified upbringing referenced earlier, makes it quite readable even today. 

Between 1896 and 1901 Candee wrote six pieces for five different periodicals about Oklahoma Territory and life therein. They’re strong enough to consider individually, but what they demonstrate consistently is her knack for capturing things like crop production reports and detached observations on cultural evolution while always circling back to the human experience that makes all the rest of it matter. 

HCC 1920Candee also published her only novel, An Oklahoma Romance, during her time in Guthrie. It, too, merits separate and extended commentary. For now, it’s enough to recognize that this was the first novel set in Oklahoma – and a grand bit of historical fiction at that. Those in the know suspected many of the characters and events were based on the very real people around Helen in her Oklahoma years, making it even more intriguing. 

Candee would eventually move to Washington, D.C., and her writing would go very different directions. She published six more books, all non-fiction, on topics like historical tapestries or the ancient wonders of Cambodia. Digging through her biography becomes almost surreal as one discovers her helping to remodel the White House, riding a white horse at the head of a women’s rights march in D.C., nursing Ernest Hemingway back to health as part of the Italian Red Cross, and – most famously – surviving the sinking of the Titanic

Give them a pen and a paycheck, and they think they’re real people, boys. They get themselves going and before you know it, you’ve lost all control. 

Helen Churchill Candee passed just short of her 91st birthday in 1949. She’d begun an autobiography which was never finished and never published, but which efforts are currently being made to resurrect. In her time on earth she periodically broke the surface of historical waters in ways both glorious and sublime, while never actually doing anything a reasonably educated and focused person shouldn’t have been able to do. While I missed her by a generation, I am in some ways in love with the idea of her, and I’m OK with that. 

Time to dig into the bits and pieces of her life and work a bit more specifically. Feel free to come along for the ride. 

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Books by HCC:

How Women My Earn A Living (1900)

An Oklahoma Romance (1901)

Decorative Styles and Periods In The Home (1906)

The Tapestry Book (1912)

Jacobean Furniture (1916)

Angkor the Magnificent (1924) – Note: The 2008 republication of this contains the most complete and engaging biography of HCC available to date, written by Randy Bryan Bigham. 

New Journeys In Old Asia (1927)

Weaves and Draperies: Classic and Modern (1930)

HCC Articles About Oklahoma:

“In Oklahoma” (The Illustrated American, April 4, 1896)

“Divorcons” (The Illustrated American, April 11, 1896)

“Social Conditions In Our Newest Territory” (The Forum, June 1898)

“Oklahoma Claims” (Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, October 1898)

“Oklahoma” (The Atlantic Monthly, September 1900)

“A Chance In Oklahoma” (Harper’s Weekly, February 23, 1901)

While her other publications are too numerous to list here, it would be remiss not to mention what may have been her most widely-read and oft-remembered piece, written shortly after she survived the sinking of the Titanic:

“Sealed Orders” (Collier's Weekly, May 4, 1912)

HCC Titanic

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