Candee was born Helen Churchill Hungerford, the daughter of New York City merchant Henry Hungerford and his wife Mary Churchill. She spent most of her childhood in Connecticut. She married Edward Candee of Norwalk, Connecticut, and had two children by him, Edith and Harold. After her abusive husband abandoned the family, Helen Candee supported herself and children as a writer for popular magazines such as Scribner's and The Ladies' Home Journal. She initially wrote on the subjects most familiar to her-- genteel etiquette and household management-- but soon branched into other topics such as child care, education, and women's rights. For several years she resided in Oklahoma, and her stories about that region helped to catapult her to national prominence as a journalist. Helen Candee divorced her husband in 1896, after a lengthy separation
Candee was a strong feminist, as evidenced by her best-selling first book, How Women May Earn a Living (1900). Her second book, An Oklahoma Romance (1901), was a novel that promoted the possibilities of settlement in Oklahoma Territory.
An established literary figure, Candee moved to Washington, DC, where she became one of the first professional interior decorators. Her clients included then Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Theodore Roosevelt. Candee's book, Decorative Styles and Periods (1906), embodied her principles of design: careful historical research and absolute authenticity. The book was re-released in 1938.
While in Washington, Candee also pursued an active social life, serving on many civic boards, and involving herself in Democratic politics. Yet her friends were a varied lot, from liberal reformer William Jennings Bryan to ultra-conservative First Lady Helen Herron Taft.
Helen Candee was a trustee for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a member of both the Archeological Society and the American Federation of Arts, and was on the board of the Washington chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association.
In her early years as a journalist, Candee wrote fiction for traditional women's interest magazines like Harper's Bazar, Woman's Home Companion, The Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Her later articles, focusing on design, art and culture, appeared in American Homes, International Studio and the American Magazine of Art. She was briefly Paris editor for Arts & Decoration (1920-21), and remained on that publication's editorial advisory staff for several years. Helen Candee also contributed to many of the leading literary and political journals of the day: Atlantic Monthly, The Century, Metropolitan, Scribner's and Forum.
She wrote eight books –– four were on the decorative arts, two were travelogues, one instructional, one fiction. Candee's biggest seller was The Tapestry Book (1912) which went into many editions and was reissued in 1935 in a collectible boxed issue.
In 1925 Helen Candee was among the nine founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers.
Candee was traveling in Europe in the spring of 1912, when she received a telegram from her daughter, Edith, informing her that her son, Harold, had been injured in an automobile accident. Candee hurriedly booked passage home on the new luxury ocean liner, Titanic. On the voyage, she socialized with other prominent travelers, such as President Taft's military aide, Major Archibald Butt, and the painter Francis Davis Millet. Candee survived the great ship's sinking, but fractured her ankle while boarding a lifeboat. Candee subsequently gave a short interview about her experiences to the Washington Herald and published a detailed account of the disaster in Collier's Weekly.
During World War I, Candee was a nurse in Rome and Milan under the auspices of the Italian Red Cross which decorated her for her service. One of her patients in Milan was Ernest Hemingway. After the war, she traveled to Japan, China, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and these adventures became the basis for two of her most acclaimed books, Angkor the Magnificent (1924) and New Journeys in Old Asia (1927). Candee was honored by the French government for the former work and the King of Cambodia for the latter; she was also commanded to give a reading of Angkor to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. As late as 1935-36, when she was almost 80, Helen Candee was still traveling abroad, writing articles for National Geographic Magazine.
She died at age 90 at her summer cottage at York Harbor, Maine.
Helen Churchill Candee was a supporting character in novelist Danielle Steel's No Greater Love, based on the sinking of Titanic.
She was also portrayed in cameo in the Walt Disney 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), about producer James Cameron's expedition to the wreck of Titanic. Her part was played by actress Adriana Valdez. The scene in which Candee's character was featured recreated her supposed visit to the bow of Titanic on the evening before the ship sank. This story, based on a possibly romanticized manuscript of Candee's, is believed to have inspired the love scene between characters Jack and Rose in the earlier motion picture Titanic (1997).
In October 2008 Angkor the Magnificent was re-released in a deluxe edition featuring an introduction by publisher Kent Davis and an expanded biography of Candee by historian Randy Bryan Bigham.