Marilyn Priscilla Johnson, who was the first in her immediate family to attend college, helped decipher Japanese codes during World War II and became a U.S. ambassador, died September 19th at the age of 100.
She was so active into her late nineties - including bushwhacking when she was ninety-nine - that she appeared to be immortal, hence her death from liver cancer came as a surprise. Indeed, her longevity sometimes caused confusion.
In July, her godson, Chris Jensen, was at a drugstore picking up a prescription for her. The clerk asked for her birthdate, looked through the files several times and paused. Then, he asked: “So, she’s a one year-old?” Mr. Jensen replied: “Sorry, you’re looking in the wrong century.”
She died at home in Bethlehem, where her family owned the same house for almost 170 years.
Although she had a distinguished career in the State Department’s Foreign Service, she rarely mentioned it and minimized achievements great and small.
She once beat chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer at tennis. Her win came up during a casual conversation and she was asked why she never mentioned it. “You never asked,” she said.
The granddaughter of a stagecoach owner and driver, she was the stereotypical, thrifty Yankee, remembering how her family had struggled. Even at 99, she hung her wash out to dry, figuring items would last longer. She would patch clothes, rather than throw them out and would wait for months for something she wanted to go on sale.
She would loathe to treat herself to anything, but she had a relentless and low-profile generosity. She gave to dozens of organizations including disabled veterans, animal welfare, conservation efforts and consumer advocacy. And that generated requests from dozens of other groups, including one for tiger cubs with birth defects. That was the reason her mailbox was often so jammed that one was likely to mutter, if not curse, when trying to retrieve her correspondence.
She often donated locally, including to The Colonial Theatre. She was among the first donors when efforts were made to revive it. She also funded The ‘M. Persis Johnson Reference and New Hampshire Room’ at the Bethlehem Public Library. It was in memory of her older sister, who guided her life and predeceased her.
Marilyn lived in a 1790s farmhouse that her family purchased in the 1850s. She was proud that it was always titled in the name of a woman. It was chosen because it was a good stopping point for the horse-drawn coaches owned and driven by her great grandfather and grandfather. The route was from the Flume in Franconia Notch to Crawford Notch.
She moved back to Bethlehem in 1987, after retiring from her worldwide assignments with the Foreign Service.
Her activities in town were varied. She was chair of the conservation commission – and, for roughly a decade, did much of its work. And, almost every Saturday night for a decade she volunteered at the concession stand at The Colonial Theatre. Patrons may remember her as the tiny, trim woman who urged them to try brewer’s yeast on their popcorn. Even at 99 she could be found mowing her yard and driving her Kubota tractor.
Marilyn was born in Boston in 1922 to Sarah (nee Allen) Johnson, who came to the United States from Wales as a child. Marilyn said her mother was interested in business. However, in those days the conventional business world was closed to women. But she found a way: buying and fixing up old houses with her father and renting them.
“She was advanced for her time. She was one of the first women to have her hair bobbed…and drove a car,” Marilyn said in an oral history done in 1986 by Ann Miller Morin as part of the “The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project on Women Ambassadors.”
Her father was Curtis Clark Johnson, whose family came to America before the Revolutionary War and helped to found a town in Massachusetts called Colrain. But the family quickly moved to Landaff, Dalton and Bethlehem. Curtis grew up in the house on Lewis Hill Road and at age 11 – as his mother cried - his father stopped him from attending the one-room school and sent him to work as a cook in a lumber camp. Eventually he became an electrician and was the first man in Boston to be licensed to operate a motion picture projector, a prestigious position considering new technology – but he gave the number one union card to a friend.
Marilyn grew up in the suburbs of Boston and was a tomboy. But her parents and sister, Persis, who was 12 years older, stressed the need for her to get a good education. She attended the Woodward School, which offered free tuition to girls living in Quincy.
At 14, Persis got polio and lost the use of her legs and an arm. But she was a guiding force for Marilyn. At Persis’s insistence, Marilyn attended Radcliffe, making her the first in her immediate family to attend college. As Marilyn told it, most of her time was spent playing tennis and riding horses. Her equestrian skills had been previously fine-tuned by a former Russian Cossack, a colonel named Yanoff.
Just before her graduation, she warned the family that the price of her frivolous behavior was that she was not likely to graduate. The family was resigned. However, she graduated with honors.
“I could have killed her,” Persis said in Ms. Miller’s oral history.
Marilyn graduated in 1944, while World War II was still underway. She was recruited by the dean of Radcliffe to join a special group in the Navy’s WAVES. That group – based in Washington, D.C. – became known as “code girls.” Their job – detailed in a 2017 book of that name - was breaking the Japanese code.
After the war, she used the GI Bill to study and went to Europe where she described herself as “a so-called student.” Mostly, she said, she traveled with friends. She learned some French, but said the problem was “all the French wanted to practice their English on us.” Finally, she went back to the states and got a master’s degree in French from Middlebury College.
In 1960, she received a U.S. State Department grant teaching English to French-speaking students in Guinea. It was the first of many assignments in Africa, where her adventures included taking a Land Rover through the Sahara to visit Timbuktu. She also slept under a piano in the music room of the last ship to travel the Nile from its source (at the meeting of the Blue Nile and White Nile) before the construction of the Aswan Dam.
Her 1960 work in Africa led to her being recruited for the Foreign Service. Often she worked as the cultural affairs officer, a congenial job that meant interacting with the locals, learning about them and helping them learn about America.
In addition to Africa, she worked in Pakistan and Moscow. The position in Moscow – from 1976 to 1978 - broke a Foreign Service barrier for single women. The State Department had refused to assign single women to Moscow, working on the theory that they were likely to be easily compromised by KGB lotharios.
In addition to being ridiculous, the problem was that it was impossible for diplomats to advance without having served in Russia. Marilyn objected and because she was so well-respected, the policy was changed. Decades later, Foreign Service women she had never met would say how her breakthrough allowed their careers to advance. In an old, cardboard box she had dozens of group photos of top Foreign Service officials: She was always the only woman.
She enjoyed Moscow and made many friends, one of whom remained in touch until Marilyn’s death, including telling Marilyn how unhappy she was about the invasion of Ukraine.
But there were strains. Their car and their apartment were bugged. When one Russian friend visited, she would put a pillow over the phone. Marilyn and Persis assumed that many of the Russians with whom they had dealings – including a hairdresser - were KGB agents.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter nominated her as ambassador to the African country of Togo, where she served until July 1981.
Persis accompanied Marilyn on many of her assignments. “She does all of the planning and she's a lot more thoughtful. I'm the muscle and she's the brain,” Marilyn told Ms. Morin. Persis gently disputed that description. Persis died in 1996.
Marilyn said she loved her career and the chance to serve her country.
“I enjoyed the life very much and I felt that I had the best possible work because I was in cultural affairs and dealing with the people. I was in the people-to-people diplomacy,” she said in Ms. Morin’s interview.
She is survived by members of the Jensen family as well as Ann Walker Clark, Patricia Clark, John Clark, Steve Clark, Susan Clark Ashton, Mary Lou Dewar and hundreds of friends and admirers. She insisted that there not be any memorial ceremony.
The family deeply appreciates The North Country Home Health & Hospice Agency, one of The North Country’s jewels. The family also notes the invaluable, gracious care provided by a private group: Mo Ingerson, Angela Bernaiche and Theresa Girouard.
In lieu of flowers, contributions could be sent to either the hospice agency or The Colonial Theatre.
Some quotes were borrowed from the amazing 237-page oral history done in 1986 by Ann Miller Morin. It can be found in The Library of Congress and was done as part of the “The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project on Women Ambassadors.”