Historical records matching Marian Schlesinger
About Marian Schlesinger
Marian Cannon Schlesinger, a droll and high-spirited protofeminist artist, writer and eyewitness to history in the Kennedy White House as the first wife of the president’s resident intellectual, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., died on Saturday at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 105.
Her death was confirmed by her son Stephen.
A lifelong Cantabrigian who had lived in the same clapboard house on Irving Street, a few blocks from Harvard Yard, since 1947, who once cooked gnocchi for her neighbor Julia Child, and who played tennis regularly until she was 85, Mrs. Schlesinger hailed from an accomplished family. Her father was a Harvard professor, her mother a novelist and an early advocate for Planned Parenthood.
Marian was 8 when the 19th Amendment enfranchised women, and she canvassed with her mother for a female mayoral candidate.
“I was very pleased to do it,” she told The Atlantic magazine in 2016, recalling the moment as her awakening as a feminist — though as a married woman she insisted on using the honorific Mrs.
On a three-month grand tour of Europe by car when she was 17, she and family members, including her mother and three sisters, paid a visit in Paris to Alice B. Toklas, who had been a classmate of her mother’s at Radcliffe before becoming known as the American expatriate partner of Gertrude Stein.
Marian Cannon also went to Radcliffe, graduating in 1934, and as a graduation gift her parents sent her, alone, across the country and on to China by ship — 10,000 miles altogether — when she was barely 22.
“Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be, but I wanted to be a lot of other things too,” she told The Atlantic in 2013. “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,” she continued. “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.”
Newton Minow, then the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration. She credited her independence in part to her mother, whose advice to her children was, as Mrs. Schlesinger put it: “It doesn’t really matter if your house is that dirty. Go ahead and do your thing.” (“Of course,” she added, her mother “did have a nice maid who came in every day.”)
She met Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in her parents’ living room when he was a college junior. They married in 1940. The son of a Harvard professor, he became one, too, as well as a widely read historian.
It wasn’t long before she was also introduced to a young Massachusetts congressman, John F. Kennedy, who was contemplating a Senate race. He impressed her, despite a bias against Irish Catholics that, she said, she had inherited from her mother. Her mother would say, “The Irish make the political villains too attractive for defeat.”
“I guess I partook of the atmosphere of the times,” Mrs. Schlesinger wrote in her memoir “I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People” (2011), published when she was 99. “It was an unthinking and deplorable prejudice. So when this attractive, well-bred, sophisticated young man came in, I was completely unprepared. I think it was at that moment that whatever prejudice was left in me melted away.”
She wrote of Kennedy: “He had for me the somewhat dubious air of a young man who had wandered into a nest of pure-minded intellectuals, who, as far as he was concerned, spouted nonsense and foolish chitchat. The next time I met him the intellectuals were falling all over him.”
Her husband among them.
When Mr. Schlesinger endorsed Kennedy in 1960 for the Democratic presidential nomination, she not only stuck with her idol and Kennedy rival, Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, but also said so publicly — prompting Kennedy’s brother Robert to complain to Mr. Schlesinger, “Can’t you control your own wife — or are you like me?”
In his 1965 book about the Kennedy administration, “A Thousand Days,” Mr. Schlesinger, who had been the president’s special assistant, “imparted to the now-emerging legend of Camelot a historian’s imprimatur,” Richard Aldous, a Bard College historian and Mr. Schlesinger’s biographer, wrote this month in Boston Review.
Mrs. Schlesinger was considerably more equivocal about the Kennedys. In a 1980 oral history for the Kennedy Library in Boston, she described them as a self-centered crew who treated people who worked for them as “courtiers” and whose legacy included “lives that were wrecked.”
“There was a roller-coaster atmosphere in those years,” she recalled in “I Remember.”
“One felt that the administration reveled in crisis, and there were plenty of crises, some genuine and some invented for their own sake,” she wrote. “I had a curious feeling that great decisions were made in an almost frivolous way, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which from my remote perch seemed to have been run by a bunch of hubris-mad teenagers, mostly Yale boys, who dominated the Central Intelligence Agency and who looked upon the Cuban enterprise and the catastrophe rather like a Harvard-Yale game they would win next time.”
Marian Cannon was born on Sept. 13, 1912, in Franklin, N.H., where her parents had a vacation home, and grew up in Cambridge. Her father, Walter Bradford Cannon, a prominent Harvard Medical School physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight” to describe the nervous system’s response to a threat. Her mother, Cornelia James Cannon, was a successful novelist and feminist who expressed concern that unrestricted immigration would dilute America’s old stock.
Before she married, in 1940, Marian spent a year in China living with her sister Wilma Cannon Fairbank and Wilma’s husband, John King Fairbank, who became an eminent historian of China at Harvard.
She and Mr. Schlesinger divorced in 1970; he remarried the next year and died in 2007. She did not remarry.
In addition to her son Stephen, also an author, Mrs. Schlesinger is survived by another son, Andrew, an author and documentarian; a daughter, Christina Schlesinger, an artist; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Katherine Kinderman, a writer and producer, died in 2004.
After the divorce, Mrs. Schlesinger left Washington to return to Cambridge, where she painted, wrote and illustrated five children’s books and published another reminiscence, “Snatched From Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir” (1979). (Mr. Schlesinger moved to New York City.)
As a centenarian raised in an opinionated family of four daughters and a son, Mrs. Schlesinger considered feminism nothing novel. “When you think of all the women that went across the continent in covered wagons,” she said.
“I’m really not a feminist,” she remarked. “I’ve taken women for granted for so long.”