Marian Cannon Schlesinger Remembers

Marian Cannon Schlesinger in 2011
By Pat Harrison

At age 99, Marian Cannon Schlesinger '34 recently published the second volume of her memoirs, I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People (Tidepool Press, 2012). The first volume, Snatched from Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir (Little, Brown & Company), came out in 1979, when she was 66. In addition to these books, she has written and illustrated five children's books, painted countless landscapes and portraits, and raised four children.

Schlesinger attributes her longevity—though not her achievements—partly to exercise. "I played tennis a couple of times a week until I was 85," she says. "In Washington, a lot of the tennis players were Republicans—it was the only time I met any Republicans."

She's referring to the years she spent in the capital with her husband, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. '38, LLD '01 (1917–2007), a history professor who twice won the Pulitzer Prize: for history in 1946, for The Age of Jackson; and for biography in 1966, for A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. The eldest son of the couple for whom the Schlesinger Library is named, he worked as a speechwriter for and special assistant to President Kennedy.

Marian Schlesinger devotes a chapter in I Remember to the JFK years in Washington. "There was a roller-coaster atmosphere in those years," she writes. "One felt that the administration reveled in crisis, and there were plenty of crises, some genuine and some invented for their own sake. 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."

Schlesinger had met her husband back in Cambridge, where both their fathers served on the Harvard faculty. Her father, Walter B. Cannon AB 1896, MD 1900, was the George Higginson Professor of Physiology at Harvard Medical School and coined the term "fight or flight" to describe an animal's response to threat. Her husband's father was a distinguished historian of the United States. Her mother, Cornelia James Cannon AB 1899, was a best-selling novelist who raised five children and helped to found Planned Parenthood. (In 1998, Marian Schlesinger gave the Cannon Family Papers to the Schlesinger Library, and in 2010, she gave her own papers.)

Before she married, in 1940, Schlesinger spent a year in China living with her sister Wilma Cannon Fairbank '30 and brother-in-law, John King Fairbank '29, LLD '70, who later became an esteemed China scholar. Schlesinger's description of her arrival in Shanghai in the fall of 1934 is typically delightful: "John and Wilma came aboard, whisked me through customs, and carried me off through the teeming streets to their 'apartment.' They believed in cheap living, and their rooms in a scabrous old building on the corner of Shanghai's Broadway and 42nd Street had all the appearance of an opium den." The three young people had numerous adventures as they traveled around China and pursued their vocations: John studied Chinese; Wilma, an art historian, worked on restorations; and Marian drew and painted landscapes.

Schlesinger's China sojourn was followed by a year in New York working at the Institute of Pacific Relations, travel to Guatemala, and meeting her future husband in her parents' living room. After 23 years of married life in Cambridge, during which Arthur served on the Harvard history faculty, and 7 years in Washington, the Schlesingers divorced in 1970. Arthur moved to New York, and Marian moved back to Cambridge, to the grand Victorian that she and Arthur had purchased in 1947. "What to do with the rest of my life?" she writes. "It seemed to loom ahead for decades, empty and desolate. I had been an artist all my life, but even painting and drawing did not seem to revive my flagging spirits."

Slowly she found her footing, rejoining clubs and renewing friendships, and beginning a series of drawings of the textile mills in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Her illustrious neighbors livened up the neighborhood: John Kenneth Galbraith AM '50, LLD '88, the Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard, and his wife, Catherine (Kitty) Atwater Galbraith AM '36, who lived beyond the brick wall out back, and Julia Child and her husband, Paul, who lived a few blocks down Irving Street.

Today, Schlesinger still lives in the Irving Street house, with her son Andrew '70, also a writer, whose latest book is Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience (Ivan R. Dee, 2005). John Kenneth Galbraith said of this book, "Many have given their views on Harvard; few, if any, have surpassed this splendid account."

When the weather permits, Marian paints in her studio in the enclosed porch at the back of the house. This winter, she watched Downton Abbey on television ("It's fun") and also the Republican debates ("awful"), but spent most of her time reading. She ticks off several books she's read recently: A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman (Random House, 2011); Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth, by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010), which prompted her to reread The Good Earth; and Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life, by Joan D. Hedrick (Oxford University Press, 1995), which made her go back and reread Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Not unlike Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey—playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham with her long perspective and appealing plainspokenness—Schlesinger gives a goodnatured bark when asked to name the high point of her life. "Oh, come on," she replies. "Some people might answer that question, but I certainly won't."

Her memoir, however, gives an array of possible answers. 

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