Friday, 04 May 2012

Grit & grace

Star of The Lady's exclusive Titanic serialisation, we take a look at Helen Churchill Candee's substantial – and stylish – life

Written by Randy Bryan Bigham

“A modern woman is not what man would have her be. The woman of today is what she shall make of herself.”

Helen Churchill Candee’s feminism needed no soap box to resonate with her party guests. Her beauty, charm and sincerity were enough to put over her message and convince some, perhaps, that she was right. The occasion was a 1913 benefit at the Willard Hotel for the Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Helen had been for a decade one of the capital’s most radiant social leaders. While a staunch Democrat, her teas, suppers and charities attracted dignitaries across the gamut of the political spectrum, including the Republican Commander in Chief, William Howard Taft, and his wife. The President and First Lady didn’t embrace the suffrage cause but they did support Helen and her fundraisers, and they seldom missed an event she hosted.

candee1 382Helen Churchill-Candee

As chairman of the ball for the Children’s Hospital, Helen was responsible for the scarlet-draped boxes, two string bands, the flowers and champagne, and as she stood at the head of the receiving line she had no intention of letting a snide remark about “working women,” uttered within earshot by a pompous general, pass unchallenged. But her retort upset no one, neither the President nor Mrs. Taft, not even the general, and the incident failed to detract from the success of the affair - the Washington Post pronounced it the most brilliant charity in the city’s history, “a whirling, scintillating maze.”

The newspaper might have been describing Helen’s own life. A mass of adventure and triumph, hardship and tragedy, the political hostess’s world defied description. One of the first professional interior decorators, she was an acclaimed author and journalist, and ultimately a world-renowned explorer, her Far Eastern expeditions leading to her groundbreaking study of the ancient Temple of Angkor Wat, the eighth Wonder of the World. Yet throughout the exigency of world travel, and despite her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, Helen remained a romantic to the core and her feminine vanity endured, no matter the odds. She sought freedom and opportunity but not before a quizzical glance in the mirror verified she was well shod for the journey. Like the heroines of her magazine fiction, Helen “tilted her modish hat well over her eyes and drew her sables high about her chin.”

She had no need of fancy millinery and furs in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma where she obtained an expedient divorce from her estranged husband in 1896, but she took her consoling fripperies along anyway. Her fashion sensibility might even have caused the accident she suffered the night the Titanic sank; the narrow-hemmed “hobble skirt” she was wearing probably constricted her stride as she boarded a lifeboat, and she fell and broke her ankle. But style was as much a mainstay in Helen’s life as the important causes she espoused. Her time in the trenches as a Red Cross nurse during World War I was dirty and dangerous but she looked chic in her toil, wearing a uniform tailored for her by the House of Redfern in Paris.

In her leisure life she was no less fashionable. An enthusiastic member of the Riding Club in Washington, the sport was her favorite and her habits were trend-setting. In fact Helen was one of the first women in the East to ride astride, which she famously demonstrated when she and her horse headed the 1913 “Votes for Women” parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, galloping past the White House. Helen was a lifelong equestrienne; her great grandson, Ian Barker, delights in his family’s old home movies in which Helen, well into her sixties, “made her horse do the ‘Hi-Ho Silver routine.’”

When Helen embarked on one of the greatest journeys of her life, to explore the ruins of the lost city of Angkor Wat in 1922, she was joined by her son, Harold, who recalled of the trip that, despite difficulties in traversing the jungles, his mother wore a stylish new sports dress every day with hat and parasol to match. Journalist Dan Waddell has discovered in his research on Helen that, even in her old age, mise en scene was as paramount as the message. At a cocktail party in her last years, a guest was thrilled to meet the famous world traveler and asked to photograph her. She consented and seated herself on a sofa, casually dropping a fox fur at her feet. “Helen’s granddaughter, Mary Barker, picked it up for her,” Waddell said, “only to be met by a very cross look.” With the strategic aid of her stole, Helen had hoped to hide her orthopedic shoes: as Helen once told a client, “The look of a piece is as critical as its history.”

Randy Bryan Bigham is the author of “Life’s Décor,” an illustrated biography of Helen Churchill Candee, featured in the recent reissue of her landmark 1924 travel tome, Angkor the Magnificent. (

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