Friday, 09 March 2012

First lady of the Titanic

100 years ago a brave woman, just like you, survived the sinking of the Titanic. Here for the for the first time is Helen Churchill Candee's unforgettable unpublished account, narrated by Titanic actress Geraldine Somerville

Written by Matt Warren

In the early hours of 15 April 1912, a 53-year-old woman named Helen Churchill Candee stepped out into the freezing, starlit night and on to the deck of the grandest ocean liner ever built. She was wearing a long fur coat and had in her hand a miniature of her mother and a silver hip flask bearing the Churchill family motto: ‘Faithful but Unfortunate’.

She may not have known it at the time, but this remarkable woman was already a player in a tragic story that remains as vivid, as compelling and as moving today as it was 100 years ago, a story that will later this month return to our screens in Julian Fellowes’s much-anticipated four-part drama for ITV. For at 11.40pm (ship’s time) the previous day, the RMS Titanic, which was considered ‘unsinkable’, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. And within hours, she had been swallowed by sea – along with 1,517 of her 2,223 passengers. Only 706 survived.

Helen was among the fortunate few, helped into Lifeboat Six by her First Class companion, Edward Kent. She didn’t have pockets in her coat, so had entrusted Kent with her hip flask. Tragically, however, Kent never made it to safety and died in the icy water along with so many others. The hip flask and miniature, however, did find their way back to Helen. They were later found on Kent’s body, and returned to their owner after the authorities traced her family through the motto engraved on the flask. Helen Churchill Candee

It is a remarkable story, but then Helen, who had boarded the Titanic to race to America, where her son Harry had been involved in an accident, was a remarkable woman. She may forever be best known as a ‘Titanic survivor’, but she was also a respected journalist, author, home-interiors guru and campaigner for women’s rights. At a time when it just wasn’t the done thing, she was also a divorcee – her husband had been abusive to her and their two children, Edith and Harry – and had to make her way in a world in which women were still second-class citizens.

But Helen had the wit, the wisdom and the sense of adventure – she was, in her own words, a ‘rover’ – to succeed. Soon, she was writing for Harper’s Bazaar and National Geographic, and authored the bestselling book How Women May Earn A Living, considered a landmark feminist text. She also became a society decorator, and in 1907 was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to help buy ‘a set of Louis XVI chairs for the First Lady’.

After surviving the Titanic, Helen continued her writing career, penning her bestselling tome, The Tapestry Book, in 1912, before joining the Royal Italian Red Cross during the First World War, serving as a nurse during the horrific 1917 Battle of Caporetto, which claimed a staggering 300,000 casualties. In Milan, she even nursed an injured Ernest Hemingway back to health. She also continued to travel: to China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Japan – and became a respected lecturer on the region. When she died aged 90, in 1949, she had established herself as a 20th-century Everywoman.

Which is why it is such an extraordinary honour for The Lady now to publish for the first time in print one of her accounts of the Titanic sinking. Brought to us by Helen’s great granddaughter, Rosemary Gillham – who still owns the original manuscript – Down To The Sea In Ships (the title taken from Psalm 107) was written by Helen as a record for her family. It offers a rare, remarkably vivid and so far largely unseen, record of that terrible night – and, to mark the centenary, will now be serialised in The Lady over four weeks.

‘I found the manuscript in my attic, in a red Chinese trunk that once belonged to Helen,’ Rosemary said. ‘I grew up knowing she had been on the Titanic, but I had never seen this account before and it has never been published. I was gripped and fascinated from the start, and the 100th anniversary felt like the right time to publish it in The Lady.’

To listen to part one click below

To listen to part two click below

To listen to part three click below

To listen to part four click below

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