Douglas, Marjory Stoneman (1890–1998)

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Douglas, Marjory Stoneman (1890–1998)

Influential 20th-century American environmental activist and writer whose name has become synonymous with efforts to save the Everglades. Born Marjory Stoneman in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 7, 1890; died, age 108, in her small cottage in Miami, Florida, where she had lived for 72 years, on May 14, 1998; daughter of Frank Bryant Stoneman (a newspaper publisher) and (Florence) Lillian (Trefethen) Stoneman; graduated from Wellesley College, 1912; married Kenneth Douglas, in 1914 (divorced 1919).

Worked as society editor and occasional general assignment editor at the Miami Herald newspaper (1915–1918); volunteered for overseas Red Cross (1918–19); became assistant editor and editorial page columnist at Miami Herald (1919–24); worked as fiction writer and essayist (1924–40); served as director, University of Miami Press (1960); founded Friends of the Everglades (1969); "Marjory Stoneman Douglas Law" passed (1991); received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1993).

Selected publications:

The Everglades: River of Grass (1947, rev. ed., 1987); Road to the Sun (1952); Freedom River (1953); Hurricane (1958); Alligator Crossing (1959); Florida: The Long Frontier (1967); Adventures in a Green World: David Fairchild and Barbour Lathrop (1973); (with John Rothchild) Voice of the River: The Autobiography of Marjory Stone-man Douglas (1987).

The indefatigable Marjory Stoneman Douglas was one of 20th-century America's earliest and most influential environmentalists, devoting much of her considerable life to addressing and publicizing the severe environmental problems of her beloved adopted state of Florida. Known as the "Grandmother of the Glades," Douglas was among the first to recognize the crucial role the Everglades play in both the flow of water throughout central and southern Florida and in balancing the state's delicate ecosystem. Her later efforts to educate residents, state officials, and the wider world about the importance of Everglades conservation resulted in important changes in state environmental laws and water management policies.

She was born Marjory Stoneman on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the only child of Frank Bryant Stoneman and Lillian Trefethen Stoneman . Her father was a self-educated Midwesterner and unsuccessful entrepreneur from a Quaker family. Her mother was a professionally trained musician from the East. When Douglas was three, another failed business prompted the family to move East, where they settled in Providence, Rhode Island. Frank Stoneman's unsuccessful business ventures continued, and the family lived in difficult, relatively impoverished circumstances. The economic hardship took its toll on her mother. Eventually Lillian Stoneman suffered a nervous breakdown (from which she never completely recovered), and she, with six-year-old Marjory in tow, went to live with her mother and unmarried sister at the family home in Taunton, Massachusetts.

The maternal side of Marjory's family was educated and musical, and her grandmother and aunt encouraged her intellectual curiosity; Douglas read voraciously and excelled as a student. Still, her childhood was filled with conflicts and difficulties. Her grandmother and aunt were contrary women and her mother's delicate condition forced Douglas to relinquish her childhood to play the role of nursemaid, a role she seems not to have resented. In fact, she considered her relationship with her mother the closest and most important of her life. Nevertheless, her mother's mental illness, the absence of her father, and the contentious mood of the household took its toll on young Marjory who suffered from night terrors and anxiety, an early warning of the emotional difficulties that would plague her adult years.

In 1908, she matriculated at nearby Wellesley College where the door to the intellectual world opened wide. She remembered her college years with fondness and gratitude. Douglas was an enthusiastic student and later credited three remarkable teachers with influencing her thinking: Emily Greene Balch , the Nobel Prize-winning head of the economics department; Mary Whiton Calkins , the pioneering professor of philosophy and psychology; and Malvina Bennett , the head of the Department of Expression (elocution). While at Wellesley, Douglas also became politicized and was a founding member of the Suffrage Club.

There is only one Marjory Stoneman Douglas, just the way there is only one Everglades.

—Helen Muir

Shortly after Douglas' graduation in 1912, her mother died of cancer. Douglas spent the next year in St. Louis before moving to Newark, New Jersey, in 1914, where she took a job in the personnel division of a department store. She soon met Kenneth Douglas, a man 30 years her senior. After a three-month, by her own account, passionless courtship, the two wed. The marriage was a disaster from the start. Kenneth Douglas turned out to be a small-time confidence man who spent time in jail for forgery shortly after the nuptials. After his release, she followed him to New York where they moved from residence to residence. Finally, her family intervened and convinced Marjory to severe the relationship. (The two were legally divorced in 1919.) Although Douglas dated and even entered into a couple of brief, unserious engagements, she never remarried, preferring instead an independent life unencumbered by marital constraints. She later reflected that her short-lived marriage was important for "getting sex and romance out of the way" so that she could carry out her "real life's work": writing and activism.

After leaving her husband in 1915, Douglas headed to south Florida where her father now lived with his second wife. Her arrival in Miami coincided with the beginning of the Florida land boom, the rapid growth of Miami, and the resulting influx of gamblers, gangsters, and entrepreneurs. "The houses were not impressive and the town was not impressive," she wrote, "but the people were impressive. Many of them were adventurers who'd worked in South America or Europe and liked Miami's position on the map, liked the tropic climate and proximity to the sea."

Moving in with her father and stepmother, Douglas began work as the interim society columnist at the Miami Herald, the newspaper her father had founded and now published. She quickly became the full-time society editor and also wrote features and general assignment articles. Through her father and connections at the newspaper, Douglas began taking an interest in local affairs and founded the Business and Professional Women's League. She also met and befriended a number of the influential, including William Jennings Bryan and Mary Baird Bryan . In 1916, in the company of suffragists, Douglas addressed the state legislature, urging ratification of the suffrage amendment which had already passed in some states. This, her first direct experience of Florida state politics, galvanized her activism: "Talking to [the legislators] was like talking to graven images. They never paid any attention to us at all. They weren't even listening."

Douglas' newspaper career was briefly interrupted when in 1918 she voyaged overseas to work on behalf of the Red Cross. After traveling extensively throughout Italy, Greece, Albania, and Bosnia, she returned to Miami in 1919 and resumed work at the newspaper, this time as an assistant editor and columnist. In her column, a voice of protest emerged, as she wrote about the plight of women and the politics and problems of South Florida. In 1922, Douglas turned her words into action and established the Baby Milk Fund, a charity that raised money to buy milk for impoverished children. She was also elected to the Everglades National Park Committee which was dedicated to acquiring public land for a national park. This grass-roots venture would eventually lead to the founding of the Everglades National Park 25 years later.

In 1924, Marjory Stoneman Douglas suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns. She left the Miami Herald, and her career as a journalist ended. While recuperating, she began writing and submitting stories to magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, and a new career as a fiction writer and essayist was born. In 1926, she had a small house built for herself across from her father's home in Coconut Grove whose design reflected her new priorities: it was composed of a sparsely furnished writing studio with a small bedroom attached. For the next 15 years, she devoted herself to magazine writing. Although her early stories were formulaic and derivative, her own distinctive voice eventually emerged as she began to paint a marvelously rich portrait of Florida, its geography, history, and unique inhabitants. Her stories often alerted readers to mounting environmental problems in Florida, like bird poaching and the destruction of the wetlands.

Douglas remained active in local politics and environmental issues throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 1930s, she was hired to write a brochure advocating a proposed tropical botanical garden in Miami. The published pamphlet, "An Argument for the Establishment of a Tropical Botanical Garden in South Florida," made her a sought-after speaker on the garden club circuit. She later served as the first secretary of the board of the Fairchild Garden, the only tropical botanical garden in North America.

Through her activism and the power of her pen, she was increasingly recognized inside and outside the state as the voice of Florida. In 1942, a New York publisher accordingly commissioned Douglas to write a book on the Everglades, a project that consumed her considerable energies for the next five years. In 1947, The Everglades: River of Grass was published to coincide with the establishment of the Everglades National Park. Both a popular and critical success, the book forever changed the way people viewed the Everglades. It challenged the notion of the Everglades as a marshy wasteland by more accurately describing it as a river. "That was my contribution to our knowledge of Florida," she later remarked. "Before then everyone thought it was just swamps, but it's not; it is running water moving several miles an hour." In the book, she lyrically described the geography of the area, the resident birds and animals, and the almost imperceptible ebbs and flows of "the river of grass." Douglas also exposed the disastrous effects of the sugar industry, modern farming, and human encroachment on the Everglades' delicate ecosystem, and she sounded an early warning that unless current policies changed, particularly those of draining wetlands and channeling the water, the Everglades, and Florida in general, would be ruined.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was now past middle age, yet her productivity did not slow. Over the next ten years, she published several fiction and nonfiction books, including three novels, Road to the Sun (1951) about the Miami real estate boom, Freedom River (1953) about three boys growing up near the Everglades, and Alligator Crossing (1959), about alligator poaching. Apart from the nonfiction Hurricane (1958), however, none matched the success of her 1947 classic. Douglas also spent the year of 1960 as the first director of the new University of Miami Press and, during this period, corresponded regularly with fellow Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings .

In 1967, Douglas applied for and received a small traveling grant from the Wellesley Alumni Association to sail to Buenos Aires and England to research a biography of W.H. Hudson, a 19th-century British writer. She spent the next year traveling, researching and writing. Though her physical health had always been excellent, her eyesight was by then rapidly deteriorating until finally she could barely see to read or write. The project was temporarily shelved in 1968, and Douglas abandoned her writing career to turn instead to full-time environmental activism. Although she had written her influential book on the Everglades more than 20 years earlier and had occasionally lobbied on its behalf, it was now that her real efforts to protect the Everglades began.

In 1969, at age 79, she founded the Friends of the Everglades, also known as "Marjory's Army," a non-profit organization that served as a clearinghouse for information on the Everglades, educated the public, initiated organized protests, and posed legal challenges to existing anti-environmental laws. Douglas spent the next two decades lecturing on behalf of Everglades conservation, lobbying state legislatures, issuing educational materials, campaigning against developers and hunters, defending the panthers and other wildlife threatened by human encroachment, and tirelessly crusading against the state's wetlands development policies. Under her stewardship, Friends of the Everglades waged and won battles to restore the Kissimmee River, to clean up Lake Okeechobee, and return the sheet flow of water to the Everglades marshes. Though Douglas wholeheartedly committed herself to conservation, her work was never tarnished with sentimentalism:

To be a friend of the Everglades is not necessarily to spend time wandering around out there. It's too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable. … I can't say I've spent many years and months communing with the Everglades, though I've driven across it from time to time. I know it's out there and I know it's important. I suppose you could say the Everglades and I have the kind of friendship that doesn't depend on constant physical contact.

She continued actively working on behalf of the Everglades through the 1980s and was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees. In 1987, at age 97, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her autobiography. The next year Ms. magazine named her one of its six Women of the Year for her "continuing battle for a safe, more beautiful environment. Her 60-year fight to save the Everglades is a testament to the tenacious energy older women offer today's world." In 1991, the Florida state legislature passed an "Everglades Protection Act" also known as the "Marjory Stoneman Douglas Law," though Douglas later requested her name be removed from the bill following the legislature's addition of certain amendments. In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented the 103-year-old Douglas with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Following the presentation, the city of Miami declared November 30 as "Marjory Stoneman Douglas Day," for her role as "a powerful crusader for women's rights, racial tolerance, and conservation of our natural resources."

Douglas issued an 11th-hour wakeup call to the state of Florida and the country, yet much irreversible damage had already been done to the Everglades and Florida's water supply. The Everglades remains an ecological disaster, crisscrossed by an enormous network of dikes, canals and pumps, and levees designed to provide drinking water to the coastal towns and cities. The water supply is contaminated by pesticides from agricultural run-off. Yet because of Marjory Stoneman Douglas' tireless efforts, new generations have taken up the crusade to protect Florida's largest and most important wetland.

source and suggested reading:

Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. The Everglades: River of Grass. NY: Rinehart, 1947.

——. Hurricane. NY: Rinehart, 1958.

——, and John Rothchild. Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 1987.

Hays, Holly M. "Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Conservationist of the Century," in Florida Living. August 1992, pp. 52–55.

McCarthy, Kevin, ed. Nine Florida Stories by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Press, 1990.

The Miami Herald. December 1, 1993.

The New York Times. December 17, 1981, July 25, 1982.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer and editor, Decatur, Georgia

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