Helen Churchill Candee: A Woman of the World in Oklahoma Territory

 

David Althouse

Special thanks to Mr. Stanley Lehrer for his assistance with this story.

When Helen Churchill Candee stepped from the train at the Guthrie Depot in early autumn of 1895, she no doubt cast an appraising eye on the rambunctious, rough-and-tumble burg of the Oklahoma Territory. The refined product of a privileged upbringing, the finest education, and accustomed to navigating in the high-society circles of New York City, Candee now found herself in a frontier city barely six years old, a settlement chock-full of false-front buildings, fortune seekers, adventurers and pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstrap cowboys and farmers.

 

Upon her initial appraisal that first day, it’s doubtful that Candee passed negative judgment on the lively scene that was Guthrie because, in a sense, she fit right in. A city born of the great Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, Guthrie was more than happy to welcome one more person making a fresh start. To be sure, Candee was on her own adventurous quest, a journey to erase shattered dreams and begin life anew.

 

Candee was in Oklahoma Territory seeking a divorce from Edward Candee, her husband of 15 years, a prominent businessman and society figure back east.

 

During their 15-year marriage, the Candees vacationed in the Adirondacks, traveled the world on luxury cruises, and entertained elite friends and business associates. While the outward appearance of the marriage may have reflected harmonious bliss, marital strife arose only a few years after their 1880 wedding. In 1895, while still living in New York City, Helen Churchill Candee filed for a divorce based on her husband’s “immoral acts” after having him trailed by detectives in New York City and Denver.

 

New York courts denied the divorce request, choosing to give no credence to the evidence of paid detectives. Not a woman to be easily thwarted, Candee quickly came up with a new plan.

 

It was no secret to those who read newspapers that divorces could be easily obtained in the Oklahoma Territory after a mere 90-day residency. For Candee, it was time to head west.

 

On January 11, 1896, over ninety days from the day she stepped from the train at the Guthrie Depot, Candee appeared in the District Court of Logan County, Oklahoma Territory, to file for divorce. This time, instead of focusing on her husband’s unfaithfulness, she turned attention to Mr. Candee’s abusive behavior, portraying him as an extremely jealous and hot-tempered alcoholic. Judge Frank Dale awarded Candee her divorce, along with custody of the couple’s two children.

 

Despite the bitter divorce from her first and only husband, the now former wife would carry the Candee name for the remainder of her life.

 

Having taken the first step toward putting a shattered dream firmly in the past, Candee now embarks on a different kind of romance, a sort of love affair with the Oklahoma Territory and the people who settled it. Candee makes Guthrie home for almost two years after obtaining the divorce, residing in the home of F.B. Lillie, Oklahoma Territory’s first pharmacist. Her fondness for the nation’s latest territory is expressed in the many stories she authored for magazines back east.

 

In such publications as Atlantic Monthly, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, The Illustrated American, Woman’s Home Companion and Harper’s Weekly, Candee writes favorably of the colorful people of the Oklahoma Territory, describing the social conditions in which they lived as well as the struggles they faced to successfully settle the region with very few outside investors. Her articles served to lift the reputation of the Oklahoma Territory and sell the national public on the idea of Oklahoma statehood.

 

Candee was a champion on behalf of Oklahomans and would cut to the quick in their defense.

 

“Oklahoma, land of prosperity, sunshine and brotherly love, has a thorn in its side,” Candee wrote for Atlantic Monthly in 1899. “That cause of pain and irritation is the failure of her sister states – and especially those in the East – to recognize the truth concerning her. They prefer tales of outlawry and border ruffianism to accounts of successful agriculture, and are inclined to shut their ears to all stories save those that thrill the imagination.”

 

Having established her writing credentials with magazine stories about her temporary home out west, Candee then wrote what was probably the first novel about the Oklahoma Territory, a story of love, legal battles and land grabs. An Oklahoma Romance, a steamy love story for the period, brings together two lovers during the hell-for-leather days of the great Land Run.

 

The New York Times wrote that the book was “a bit of contemporaneous history, painted with form and color, and has unusual value and interest.”

 

Other positive reviews appeared in such publications as Pearson’s Magazine: “It is a love story bringing the hero and heroine together under the exciting circumstances of the great ‘Run’ for desirable plots in the new Territory, and gives a striking picture of the destruction wrought by a cyclone. The atmosphere of the book – its local color – is surprisingly well given. Those in search of novelty may be sure to find it in this Western romance.”

 

After her two-year adventure in the Oklahoma Territory, Candee returns to the East, probably to be nearer her friends, family and business associates.

 

September of 1904 finds Candee and her two children living in the nation’s capital where she writes books and magazine articles, and roams in the highest diplomatic and social circles. Of her status in Washington, D.C., The Washington Times writes, “A member of the city’s most exclusive smart set, Mrs. Churchill Candee has attained a reputation as a brilliant hostess. At her home some of the world’s most prominent persons have visited.”

 

Candee became something of a Renaissance woman and early-day feminist, writing books on history, world travel, interior decorating and women’s issues. A list of her published books more than demonstrates her extensive knowledge of a wide variety of subjects: How Women May Earn a Living; Decorative Styles and Periods in the Home; The Tapestry Book; Jacobean Furniture and English Styles in Oak and Walnut; Angkor the Magnificent: The Wonder of Ancient Cambodia; New Journeys in Old Asia: Indo-China, Siam, Bali; and Weaves and Draperies: Classic and Modern.

 

With the publication of How Women May Earn a Living, a landmark in feminist literature, Candee became an instant best-seller, offering women of the era common sense advice on making a living in a world not altogether friendly to their aspirations.

 

January of 1912 found Candee on an extended stay in Europe to complete research for a book on tapestries. In April, she received word that her son, Harold, had been seriously injured in an airplane crash. Candee determined to book passage on the first boat to America. The first vessel out was an Olympic-class passenger liner owned by the White Star Line, the largest passenger steamboat in the world, the world’s largest movable object, a beautiful city on the seas – the Titanic.

 

Candee attracted her fair share of attention from men, and such was the case while aboard the Titanic, says Stan Lehrer, founder of USA Today and owner of the world’s largest collection of Titanic artifacts and memorabilia.

 

“Candee would reserve two chairs to place out on deck, one for herself and one for anyone interesting who might happen along for conversation,” Lehrer said. “If she did not want you around, she would say the adjacent chair was reserved for a friend she expected to be out on deck. During the voyage she drew the attention of single and married men alike. She possessed a magnetic personality.”

 

Lehrer said that Candee’s time aboard the Titanic was often spent with an intimate group of men whose common passion was Helen Churchill Candee. “She had a coterie of very prominent men,” Lehrer said. “This group included Buffalo, N.Y. architect Edward A. Kent, English sculptor Hugh Woolner, and Colonel Archibald Gracie.”

 

During the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic continues its maiden voyage across the frigid waters of the Atlantic. The moonless night sky drapes its darkness over the Titanic and the perfectly still water that surrounds the moving city of lights for an eternity on every side.

 

Up above in the crow’s nest stand lookouts on the watch for icebergs, hoping to spot them early enough to redirect the ship’s course.

 

One such iceberg had formed approximately three years before near Greenland, and had been floating south along the Labrador Current directly into the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes.

 

Suddenly, a lookout in the crow’s nest identifies the iceberg up ahead, and word is sent to navigate the vessel around and away. The obstacle was not spotted soon enough, and the floating city of lights collides with the monstrous ice mountain.

 

Hugh Woolner arrives at Candee’s cabin shortly afterward, fits her into a lifejacket, and escorts her on deck. On the way, she encounters Edward Kent on the Titanic’s grand staircase. Candee becomes emotional upon meeting Kent and asks if he will take her flask, engraved with the Churchill crest, and a miniature pendant bedecked with a cameo of her mother painted by the famous American artist, Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, whose works appear to this day in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Candee’s remarks to Kent insinuate a premonition of impending doom on her part. Kent replies to Candee that there is more than ample time for her to board a lifeboat, that she will certainly survive, and there is no need for her to part with her precious keepsakes. Candee insists, saying “Take these from me; you know, we women have no pockets.” Kent relents, pledging to safeguard her treasures.

Candee makes her way from the Titanic into Lifeboat Number 6, joining Margaret Brown, later known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Candee was among the approximately 705 people rescued only hours later by the passenger steamship Carpathia. She later wrote that she awoke on the Carpathia to some ministering hand pouring a glass of whiskey down her throat.

 

The body of Edward Kent was retrieved a week later, soaking in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. He was as good as his word, for in his jacket pockets were found Candee’s flask and miniature pendant.

Some time later, Candee receives a letter from Kent’s sister, Charolette, stating the items are safely in her family’s possession, and that she looked forward to getting them back into the hands of their rightful owner. Candee is overcome with emotion.

Candee’s poetic account of the Titanic tragedy appears only a few weeks later in Collier’s Weekly. “She conjures up the tragedy in a tapestry of words,” Lehrer said. “She encapsulates the tragedy as poet.”

Readers are spellbound by her flowery chronicle of the Titanic’s final voyage. “Those who love them call them gone,” Candee wrote, “but they live with virility immortal. The courage of 1500 souls who quietly gave their lives for others floods an entire world and makes us humbly eager to give tribute by living nobler lives. And as long as man lives the uplifting tale will be told, showing the divinity which is man’s and his kinship to God.”

Candee died on August 23, 1949 at age 90, at her summer cottage at York Harbor, Maine.

Candee reportedly served as James Cameron’s inspiration for the character “Rose” in his blockbuster love story set amidst the Titanic’s historic maiden voyage. To be sure, Candee’s epic life story of triumph and tragedy speaks today of a woman ahead of her time, of a determined and courageous adventurer on the twisting and unpredictable roads of life, a survivor and early-day friend of Oklahoma.

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