One hundred years ago, Rosemary Gillham's great-grandmother was facing a most disastrous situation. The ocean liner she had boarded in Europe, bound for America, was sinking.
An accomplished world traveler, author, journalist and women's rights advocate, Helen Churchill Candee had hoped this trip would quickly bring her to her son, Harold, who had been seriously injured in an accident. Instead, as the evening of April 14, 1912, passed into the early morning hours of April 15, Candee found herself fighting for her survival, along with the more than 2,000 other passengers and members of the crew of the Titanic.
"I don't know how I would be at two in the morning, with icebergs everywhere," said Gillham, who at 57, is just about the same age as Candee was (she was 53) when she managed to escape the sinking ship and board one of the lifeboats -- and fairly dramatically, too, fracturing her ankle as she jumped into the vessel. She became one of the 700 passengers who were rescued that morning.
She continued to lead a remarkable life, traveling and writing well into her later years. She died in 1949 at the age of 90.
"She certainly lived her life to the fullest," said Gillham, who lives in Hertfordshire, England, which is located about 30 miles north of London.
Gillham expects to make a trip of her own, to Norwalk, for the April 21 opening gala of the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum's exhibition, "Epic Voyage: The Extraordinary Life of Titanic Survivor Helen Churchill Candee," which is curated by Stacey Danielson. The exhibit, which kicks off the museum's 46th season, opens to the public on Wednesday.
The museum also will welcome Stephen Coan, president and chief executive officer of the Sea Research Foundation, which operates Mystic Aquarium. Beginning April 12, the aquarium's Ocean Exploration Center exhibit hall will be home exhibit hall will be home to a centennial Titanic exhibit, "Titanic: 12,450 Feet Below," which was largely inspired by the work of ocean explorer Robert Ballard, who first discovered the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985. Ballard, who is founder and president of the Sea Research Foundation's Institute for Exploration, will be featured in a video shown during the gala.
For Gillham, the trip to Norwalk, and specifically the museum, offers her more than a chance to talk about a famous relative, or to share some of Candee's unpublished works, letters, photographs and other items. It is a chance to come home, considering that her grandmother, the late Edith Mathews (Candee's daughter) lived in the mansion with her husband Harold Chauncey Mathews before eventually moving to Wilton. Gillham, who was born in Boston, has lived in England for the past 50 years. Her late mother, Mary, was Candee's granddaughter.
One of Candee's visits to the mansion, then called Elm Park, included a period of convalescence for her fractured ankle, following the Titanic wreck.
However, the Titanic was just one chapter in the story of Candee's life.
Born in New York City on Oct. 5, 1858, Candee grew up in New York before moving to New Haven and then Norwalk, according to a biographical account "Life's Decor," by Randy Bryan Bigham. (You can find the account in a 2008 reissue of Candee's 1924 travelogue, "Angkor the Magnificent," which details her travels during the 1920s in Cambodia.)
Early on she became a writer as a way to support herself after her marriage to Norwalk businessman Edward Candee dissolved. Her work was published in magazines, such as "Ladies' Home Journal," "Atlantic Monthly" and "National Geographic." Her first book, "How Women May Earn a Living" was published in 1900. In 1904, she and her children moved to Washington, D.C., where she found work as an interior decorator for big-name clients. She published the book "Decorative Styles and Periods" in 1906. While there, she was visible on the social scene, counting among her friends first lady Helen Taft. In the years leading up to her Titanic voyage, Candee also became involved in the women's suffrage movement, a cause she supported throughout her life.
Candee's various pursuits had been well known to those connected to the museum, but it was hoped that as this exhibit came together some private collectors would loan some additional items, said Susan Gilgore, the museum's executive director.
Gilgore said she knew of Gillham, but had been unsuccessful in reaching her. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Gillham had started doing some research, too, in the hope that she might get some of her great-grandmother's unpublished works released during this year of the Titanic centennial.
One of Candee's many published works was a personal account of the disaster that she wrote for "Collier's Weekly." At the time of the Titanic voyage, she was abroad doing research for a book, according to Gillham.
"There is a lot of writing," Gillham said of the legacy her great-grandmother left behind, adding that much of it is in the form of unpublished manuscripts. "I think she was quite a woman and a lot of it has to be in the public domain."
One day, Gilgore said she picked up the telephone and it was Gillham.
"That was a most wonderful day," Gilgore said. "We are so delighted that she is coming and loaning all these wonderful artifacts.
"We had a few photos of (Candee) here at the mansion, when she was vacationing here with her daughter, and when she supposedly came here to the mansion after surviving the Titanic," she added. "We also had some other items, letters and presidential invitations, but, of course, we had nothing like what Rosemary agreed to loan us."
These items also will help museum visitors gain a broader perspective on the history, customs and fashions of the early part of the 20th century in the United States, Gilgore said.
Gillham said she is looking forward to being in the very rooms where her family once lived, going about their daily lives and enjoying their time together.
"I am just delighted to be a part of all this. I think (Candee) would get a kick out of it,' she said. "She'd be tickled. I'm sure she is going to be looking down on all this and have quite a smile."
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, 295 West Ave., Norwalk. Wednesday, April 25, to Sunday, Oct. 14, noon to 4 p.m. Tours: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children (8-18), $3 student tours. Reservations required. 203-838-9799, http://lockwoodmathewsmansion.com. For information or to make reservations for the Saturday's gala, call 203-838-9799, ext. 4, or email email@example.com. Tickets are $200 for rotunda seats and $150 for the adjoining room.
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