Marian Cannon Schlesinger #26

Portrait by Heidi Legg

Portrait by Heidi Legg

'Leaning In' at 101

Painter, Author, Wife and Mother


A conversation with Marian Cannon Schlesinger about feminism, privilege, Julia Child and the Kennedy era.




Interview by Heidi Legg

A condensed version of this story appeared in The Atlantic, and now with over 17K shares on Facebook, we are bringing you the complete interview filled with local lore.

“Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what,” says Marian Canon Schlesinger to today’s women.

Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination and many of the people who can recall the era in detail have passed on. I was fortunate to sit down and speak with Marian Cannon Schlesinger, who at 101 years of age, is still painting, writing, watching Rachel Maddow, and reading two newspapers a day. 

The author of I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People and mother of four was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian, speechwriter and special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, and living in D.C. during his Washington years. She looks back on the Kennedy Presidency and the importance of independent women.

What are you working on and doing with your days at the age of 101?

Reading the newspaper, watching television, and working on another book.

What's your new book about?

It's called Telephone Calls. It's a novel not a memoir, and it’s between two elderly women who live in Cambridge, exchanging gossip and theories and about what they believe in and what they don’t, from politics to gossip. I think it's quite funny, myself.

The telephone was an important thing for us. This idea that people can exchange words with each other without a live conversation, I don’t understand it. I don't have email. I don't have anything. All I have is the telephone.

You write in your memoirs about President Kennedy visiting this house in Cambridge before his inauguration in 1961. Tell me about it.

He was sitting on that couch right here to meet with my husband Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who at the time was helping him gather advisors from Harvard before the inauguration. There was a telephone call for him and, as I describe in the book, he went into this messy room where I had all my belongings – a sort of study.

I remember him vaulting up the stairs two steps at a time to use the phone in my catchall of a “sewing room,” where I had thrown all the general refuse of the family – Shoes, toys, discarded children’s clothes, cancelled checks and no doubt children’s half-eaten, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches – thinking no one would penetrate this mess, much less a future president of the United States… No matter how rueful I felt to be “found out,” I am sure he could not have cared less… At any rate, the telephone was hardly “secure.”

I didn't know what the conversation was about – no doubt high-level government affairs or maybe less exalted affairs of the state.

What was the Kennedy presidency like for you?

Very go-go, if you know what I mean. And of course, it was very exciting, too. There was the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis in Cuba, those were real crises, and then there was an awful lot of bogus stuff too.

Like what?

Oh I don’t know…I had an awfully good time.

Have politics changed today?

I couldn't have possibly written the kind of things I write about in I Remember about Washington today because it was completely different – It was kind of like a small town in the Kennedy days. There were parties every night and we often dined at the White House. It was really mad.

How was it small?

There was a real family feeling about all the people involved in the thing. I think that was somewhat fostered by Bobby Kennedy and Ethel, because they had a great sense of family. You'd go out to their house in Hickory Hill and there'd be all sorts of people gathered at their place. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was there, young law clerks and, oh, all sorts of other people. I can't remember. I'm only 101 years old!

Were politics more cooperative back then?

Oh, it's much more disagreeable today. I think I was perhaps not as aware of political violence or what was involved. I was aware of the civil rights work, but I wasn't as sensitive to it as I became later on. A lot of this good work was going on at the time but I suppose I was preoccupied by the momentum of it all, including raising my four teenagers.

Were you politically active?

I was but when you're right in the middle of it, perhaps it’s hard to see. There were so many things played upon me at the time. I wasn’t involved with the mechanics of getting elected at that point. I wasn't active in politics until afterwards, when I went on a trip with Scotty Lanahan, F. Scott Fitzgerald's daughter, who was a great friend of mine, and two other women. We went out and campaigned for Johnson in 1964. That was terrific fun. I never had such a good time as that.

Who were some of your peers from that time?

Scotty was a great friend of mine. Mary Pinchot Meyer was not an intimate, but I liked her very much. Another awfully interesting person was June Bingham, author and playwright, whose husband was a representative from New York (1965-1983 representing The Bronx). She was a great friend of mine because we used to kind of make fun of the whole thing in Washington. We thought so much of it was sort of bogus, you know?

And I would play tennis with Ethel [Kennedy] out at Hickory Hill. It was great fun. She was madly in the last throes of pregnancy and that was the only time you could beat her. She was very tenacious. We used to play tennis all over the place. Alfred Friendly was the managing editor of The Washington Post. Their house in Georgetown had one of the few private tennis courts, and it was such fun. We used to go there and play tennis and if you weren't playing tennis, you'd play bridge, and you'd sip iced tea under their trees and that's where you caught up on an awful lot of gossip.

Why did the Kennedys have such an impact on American culture?

They were rich. They were prosperous. They were fashionable. They were fun. They had good senses of humor. They had great family feeling. I think all those things.

You spent your entire childhood among luminaries. Your father was the Francis Lee Higgins Professor of Physiology at Harvard for forty years. You’re mother a celebrated novelist and helped found Planned Parenthood,. Were you impressed by all of this?

I think that's why June Bingham and I used to have such fun over the whole thing in Washington. We didn't take it very seriously because we had seen something of the world before we arrived.

We had a lot of fun as a family and we always had lots of people coming in and out of the house. My mother ran an “open” house and she'd take care of all these sort of crazy relatives who had nervous breakdowns and things like that. I also had these two wonderful aunts who lived with us. So, I had three mothers in a way.

My mother was very active in politics. She was out in the world and my two aunts were professional women and, for that period, it was rare. One of them was a founder of medical social services at Massachusetts General Hospital and the other, who had beautiful taste, owned a children's store in Harvard Square from which generations of children were clothed.

Did the tone of your childhood home on Divinity Way influence you?

Oh, tremendously. No question about it. I was exposed to all sorts of people. We were brought up to accept all sorts of things. My father would invite his foreign graduate students over for Sunday lunch along with the children of relatives who came to Harvard or Radcliffe and they'd come around for these lunches. My four siblings and knew that everything would run to a terrible stop at these lunches, and we’d be left to entertain them. We used to take them all to the Harvard Natural History Museum and show them the glass flowers. That was a big expedition. I had three sisters and my brother and we had rather a large family, and we girls were all very good friends, too.

Sounds like Little Women?

Well, not as beautiful as all that.

How did you end up in China to study art after college?

My sister was married to John Fairbank and they were living in China at the time. My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim. After Radcliffe, I took the trip by myself across the United States and got a boat in San Francisco headed for China.

How did that influence you?

A gentleman came every day and taught me how to use a Chinese brush and the whole technique of the way Chinese painting is done. There is something about the use of a Chinese brush, which is just an exquisite instrument, and it taught me so much about how to draw. A lot of people don't draw. They just paint. I draw and paint but I feel that drawing is basic to my kind of art and I feel as though my time in China refined my work.

What advice do you have on how to be a free spirited woman?

Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what.

Also, my mother had said, 'It doesn't really matter if your house is that dirty. Go ahead and do your thing. Don't pay too much attention to housekeeping.' Of course, she did have a nice maid who came in every day, but we didn't have any live-in servants. My mother did most of the cooking. Sometimes it was not so good, but it was adequate.

In those days, women who had higher education, especially back in my childhood were rather rare. The fact that they've gone out and gotten this education has differentiated them from other people in a way.

But there are strong women everywhere whether they have higher education or not! There have always been strong women.

This idea that feminism was created in the last twenty years is ridiculous, When you think of all the women that went across the continent in covered wagons. Really, it's ridiculous. It's a lot of baloney, really. If they'd read a little history, they'd find out that women have been powerful characters all through the history of the United States.

You must recognize, though, that some women still can't find their voice?

I think there are a lot of women who are frustrated. They just don't know what they want to do and they need to go out and use their education and talent. I'm very fortunate because not only do I paint, but I also write. So, I could have plenty to do.

I was thinking about a friend of mine who, before she married, was quite active in Massachusetts politics. And then she married a man who was very well off and she was well-supported and had two children and then, once the children were all grown up, here she was well supported and not even doing anything with it.

In some circles today, some say it’s an epidemic…

Well taken care of women who are well educated, highly intelligent, well-read – a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it –

I don't know. I feel sorry for them.

What would you say to these women?

I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.

Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be but I wanted to be a lot of other things too. I wanted to write. I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to have a lot of beaus. I think I've been very lucky. But I think that I've made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.

I was thinking the other day about never giving up. I remember when my husband and I separated and I stayed on in Washington for about a year before I moved back to Cambridge on my own and I felt rather sad. But then I sort of gathered myself together, moved back to Cambridge and got organized.

How did you get organized?

I renewed a lot of friendships. Fortunately, I joined two extremely interesting clubs: one was a Cambridge phenomenon, of which you perhaps are aware, called Mothers’ Clubs, where wives of Harvard professors come together to hear a lecture over brown bag lunch. You meet all sorts of people and I fortunately made a lot of friends very easily through these organizations. Having lived in this community, I had people who went way back. I am a real Cantabridgian.

What was it like to be neighbors with Julia Child?

She was terribly busy. I'd have people over for the afternoons and she'd come but I'll never forget the time I had her to lunch before she went back to California. I must say I made a very good meal and she said, 'oh, Marian, this is the most delicious thing I've ever tasted.'

What did you make?

Gnocchi. We made gnocchi, green salad and fruit for desert. Pretty good and the gnocchi, it was delicious too.

Where do you get your news?

I read two newspapers a day. I also read The Nation and The New Yorker, which has become such a bore. Every once in a while there's a wonderful murder in Vanity Fair which I love, especially a society murder, if you know what I mean?

I like to watch Rachel Maddow, if I can stay awake that late. I like her so much, and Chris Matthews and Mister Ed, who I love on MSNBC.

Favorite places to dine out in Cambridge?

God, I can't remember. No one went out to dinner in the '50s. I love oysters and we used to go to my nephew, Christopher Schlesinger’s, East Coast Grill.

But I will tell you what I used to do. This great friend of mine, Sheila Gilmore, was an original. An English woman, she was the stepdaughter of the Harvard philosopher Alfred Whitehead and her husband was a professor of history at Harvard. She was a terrific character and she and I used to go to this fish place, the original Legal Seafood, in the days when the only outlet was down in Inman Square. We used to sit up at the counter and I'd have a dozen oysters and a martini. I've forgotten what she had but I always remember this. It was my idea of the perfect meal.

Where did you buy your groceries?

Mrs. Savenor, and that was perpetual entertainment. Mrs. Savenor was this character. She ran the neighborhood at a point. And when Julia Child bought from them, boy, did they ever blow that up, all right. They were no fools. They knew exactly what the score was.

Any thoughts on the Red Sox? 

I think they're terrific but I can't stay awake and watch them. I find the Patriots are rather an irritating group – so full of themselves. I prefer the Red Sox to the Patriots.

Would you offer us some wisdom about politics these days?

I don't consider myself that wise, but I tell them to hang in there.

Do you have any habits or secrets to living to be 101?

I drink a cup of coffee every morning. My nice son brings me a cup of coffee and he's done that now for some years, which I think is terribly nice of him.

Her son Andrew chimes in. “You have a drink every night.”

A pretty watered down drink! (she says with a hearty laugh) It's symbolic more than anything.

What public opinion would you like to change?

Well, I just wish everybody were Democrats.

What advice do you have on how to live a full life?

Just keep going.

Have lots of people in the house and lots of different kinds of people - young, old, black, white, people from all over the world. People have always energized me.

Your hope for the next president?

Good old Hillary would be okay.