Unexpected riches—that's what you'll find if you open I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People, an unassuming memoir that takes up where Marian Cannon Schlesinger left off in her earlier volume, Snatched From Oblivion. There she recreated the world she grew up in: Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early years of the 20th century. Here she memorably resumes her story, beginning with an unfettered string of poignant, last-call impressions of China and Guatemala just before World War II changed everything.
Schlesinger, who will be 100 years old in September, writes about the Peking of a different time, recreating in amazing detail the world of 1935. ("The air rang with the sounds of bicycle bells and the calls of street hawkers, water bearers, coal sellers, and sweetmeats men. . . . One morning I stepped out the front door and ran headlong into a large Siberian camel from the Western Hills, laden with baskets of coal for the stoves.") For sheer beauty and striking observations, these chapters are the most riveting of the book.
Not long after her unforgettable Chinese adventure, she finds herself in Guatemala where the coffee beans and the people are equally fascinating as Schlesinger presents them, with long rewarding anecdotes that make them come alive. Readers may wonder how she can remember so many details after all these years, but one thing is certain: If she retrieved them from old letters or articles of the time, they are worth the excavation.
Still, these stories become a mere appetizer to the main course that follows, the account of her years in Washington in the 1960s. As a landscape artist and portrait painter, she has a life of her own, but her marriage to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., active in the highest political circles of the city, eventually leads her into a larger orbit of national events and people, including the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
A sharp eye for foolishness balances Schlesinger’s tolerant understanding of human foibles, even of the rich and powerful. The sections that touch on the Kennedys, including a whole chapter on "The Kennedy Experience," are candid and just tart enough to be more rewarding than disturbing. (Of Jackie, she writes, "I sensed in her a sardonic tongue and a sharp eye that didn't miss much." And the kidding among the Kennedys and their cohort "was not only a form of communication, but also a way of keeping people off balance and at arm's length. In other words, keeping things under control. As for conversation, it did not exist.")
The appeal of these memoirs is surprisingly immediate, though the events they record are long past. Schlesinger is an acute and likable tour guide to a fascinating time that is so far gone it's almost a different world.