A Centenarian's Advice to Young Women: Figure Out What You Want
A conversation with Marian Cannon Schlesinger about feminism, privilege, Julia Child, and the Kennedy era.
“Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what,” says Marian Cannon Schlesinger to today’s young women. At 101 years of age, she is still painting, writing, watching Rachel Maddow, and reading two newspapers a day.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, many of the people who can recall the era in detail have passed on. Marian Cannon Schlesinger was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian, speechwriter and special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, living in D.C. and raising four children during his Washington years. Well-traveled, having studied in China prior to their marriage, she returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts after their divorce. She has written and illustrated five children’s books and, in 2012, published the second volume of her memoirs: I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People.
I sat down with her recently to hear about her time in Washington, memories of being raised an “academic child” at Harvard, advice for independent women, and recipes for leading a “full life.”
Amidst all the cheering from individuals such as Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg, many educated women of privilege in America have opted out of careers and public engagement to raise families, touting domesticity as a singular focus, in part because the alternative juggling act is so difficult and the infrastructure in the U.S. to support working parents is so paltry.
A centenarian who participated in a relatively traditional marriage might be the last person one would expect to call these women out. But when I talked to her, Ms. Schlesinger refocused the conversation on responsibility as much as personal happiness: “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,” she said. “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.”
What are you working on and doing with your days at this point?
Reading the newspaper, watching television and working on another book.
You spent your entire childhood among luminaries. Your father was the Francis Lee Higgins Professor of Physiology at Harvard for forty years. Your mother was 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 really and she'd take care of all these sort of crazy relatives who had nervous breakdowns and things like that. These two wonderful aunts 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.
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, 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 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 crisis, and then there was an awful lot of bogus stuff too.
Oh I don’t know…I had an awfully good time.
Have politics changed today?
It was kind of like a small town in the Kennedy days. There were parties every night. We often dined at the White House. It was really mad.
There was a real family feeling—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!
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.
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.
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. 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 privileged 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. I had 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.
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 really feel very 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. […] 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.
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 to 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.
But I will tell you what I used to do with this great friend of mine, Sheila Gilmore who was an original. She was the stepdaughter of the Harvard philosopher Alfred Whitehead and her husband was a professor of history at Harvard. She and I used to go to the original Legal Seafood down in Inman Square. We used to set 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.
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.
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! It's symbolic more than anything
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.