From the perspective of living more than 100 years, Marian Cannon Schlesinger was adamant in interviews during the past few years that exceptional women have been ever present and always influential.
“There have always been strong women. This idea that feminism was created in the last 20 years is ridiculous,” she told The Atlantic magazine in 2013, noting that from the pioneer era when families crossed the continent in wagons to today, “women have been powerful characters all through the history of the United States.”
An artist and writer, Mrs. Schlesinger penned two memoirs chronicling her own history of living in Cambridge, and she had a front-row seat as the nation’s history unfolded during the Kennedy administration — sometimes in her own household — when she was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a special adviser to the president.
On Friday, a month after turning 105, Mrs. Schlesinger went to bed in the Cambridge house that had been her home for 70 years and died in her sleep in a room filled with books she loved and paintings she had created.
A few days earlier, her daughter Christina — who also is an artist — was sitting beside her bed. Though Mrs. Schlesinger’s health was fragile, her creative spirit couldn’t be stilled. “I was holding her hand, and she kept lifting my hand up and down, up and down,” said Christina, who lives in New York City. “I just had this feeling that she was painting, that she was making these soft strokes in the air.”
In the mid-1930s, after graduating from Radcliffe College, Mrs. Schlesinger lived in China for a year, a foundational time for her art. “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,” she told The Atlantic. “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.”
That sojourn inspired her first children’s book, and subsequent travels in Guatemala prompted another. Her memoirs, meanwhile, focused largely on her family and Cambridge, where she lived nearly her entire life in two houses not far apart. “Snatched from Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir” appeared in 1979; “I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People” was published in 2011, the year she turned 99.
Politics became a significant part of her life during her 30-year marriage to Schlesinger, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House,” published in 1965. Schlesinger, whom she divorced in 1970, died in 2007.
In her own memoirs, Mrs. Schlesinger captured the confluence of the ordinary and the extraordinary in the Kennedy era, such as when a motorcade pulled up to her Cambridge home in January 1961 and police blocked off the area. The president was stopping by to discuss potential appointees with her husband.
Neighbors gathered “until the street outside, usually so deserted, was full of children on bicycles and mothers with their babies in carriages, bundled against the cold. Even the usually blase graduate students stopped on their well-trodden paths to gape, and interlopers came together in knots,” she wrote.
“The only dissenting voice,” she added, “appeared to be an elderly neighbor, a staunch Republican, who complained when she had to alight from her chauffeur-driven car and walk a half a block to her house.”
The fourth of five children, Marian Cannon was born in 1912 in Franklin, N.H., where her family had a vacation home. Her mother, the former Cornelia James Cannon, was a best-selling author who graduated from Radcliffe in 1899, a few years after the college was chartered, and was active with Planned Parenthood in its formative years. Her father, Walter Bradford Cannon, chaired the department of physiology at Harvard Medical School.
“My mother was an interesting mix of New England blue-stocking and Middle-Western doer, with an irrepressible satiric tongue and an intellect sharp and true, imaginative and unorthodox,” Mrs. Schlesinger wrote in “Snatched from Oblivion.”
She and her siblings, meanwhile, were all high achievers. One sister was a Radcliffe trustee, another an adoption reform activist, the third an expert on Chinese art, and their brother was a physician who developed life-saving burn treatments after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire.
Mrs. Schlesinger grew up on Divinity Avenue, outside Harvard Square, and graduated from Cambridge High and Latin in 1929. Following the lead of her mother and sisters, she attended Radcliffe, which “was considered something of a poor relation by the other women’s colleges,” she recalled in “I Remember.”
“The chic girls went to Vassar, the intellectuals to Bryn Mawr, and the comfortably placed bourgeois types to Wellesley and Smith. At least that is the way it seemed to us,” she continued. “We may have been Cinderellas, but we knew something our haughty stepsisters did not. We were getting the best education in the country and, besides, we were not banished to the sticks to rusticate.”
After graduating in 1934, she joined a sister and brother-in-law in China. “My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim,” Mrs. Schlesinger told The Atlantic. “After Radcliffe, I took the trip by myself across the United States, got a boat in San Francisco, headed for China.”
She married Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1940, and lived for several years in the 1960s in Washington, D.C., where she held a solo art show that opened just 15 days before Kennedy was assassinated. Already a mother of four, she hosted senators and diplomats, Kennedys and Cabinet secretaries as they admired her paintings.
After her divorce, she returned to Cambridge. Over the years, her neighbors had included Julia Child. “I’ll never forget the time I had her to lunch before she went back to California,” Mrs. Schlesinger told The Atlantic. “I must say I made a very good meal and she said, ‘Oh, Marian, this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.’ ”
Along with her children’s books and memoirs, Mrs. Schlesinger wrote for publications including the Globe, to which she contributed book reviews and international reporting. She was in Greece in 1968 when her friend Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. “The Greeks identify the terrible tragedies of the Kennedy family with the Greek myths,” she wrote for the Globe, adding: “The beautiful and tragic Jackie, whom the Greeks have always adored, is about to enter on another mythic chapter.”
Mrs. Schlesinger’s daughter Katharine Kinderman, a writer and producer, died in 2004. A service will be announced for Mrs. Schlesinger, who in addition to her daughter, Christina, leaves two sons, Stephen of New York City and Andrew of Cambridge; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
During two interviews with The Atlantic, in 2013 and last year, Mrs. Schlesinger encouraged women to keep pursuing all their aspirations.
“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. “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.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.