Obituary: Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 24 May 1998 23:02

IN THE history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas, journalist and writer, woman's activist before her time, but first and foremost the indefatigable champion of Florida's fragile and irreplaceable Everglades.

Marjory Stoneman was brought up in Massachusetts, the daughter of Frank Stoneman, an attorney who would later move to Miami, first as a judge and then as founder of the Miami Herald. Her mother Lillian was a concert pianist, but her greatest inspiration was her grandmother, a marvellous and tireless story-teller who convinced her of her calling as a writer.

After taking a degree in English at Wellesley College, that career began in 1914 when her father set up the Herald. Marjory worked as a reporter and then society editor on the paper, and then served in Europe in the American Red Cross in the later stages of the First World War. At this time she contracted a brief, unhappy marriage that ended in 1917.

At war's end she returned to the paper, becoming assistant editor, writing a daily literary column "The Galley". But in 1923 she left the Miami Herald for good to become a freelance writer. She wrote short stories with much distinction, followed in 1951 by her first novel Road to the Sun, set in the Florida of 1845, the year the state joined the Union, and later by a history of Florida and a biography of the environmentalist W.H. Hudson.

But her true cause would be the saving of the Everglades - that vast tract of sub-tropical and tropical wetlands across southern Florida, commonly assumed to be a swamp, but in fact a vast, slow river up to 50 miles wide, ranging in depth between a few inches and a few feet and teeming with some of the richest and the rarest wildlife on the planet.

Her paean to it was The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, the year that President Truman declared 1.5 million acres of the area a protected national park. The book is a wonderful mixture of guide, history and scientific treatise which became a bestseller, based on four years of research and countless trips of exploration across the wilderness of marsh and sawgrass, To this day it is regarded as the most authoritative work on the subject. The acclaim at the time was instant: the New York Herald Tribune called it "a fabulous book of a fabulous Florida" .

It was written in longhand, in the study she had built in 1928 across the street from where her father lived in the Miami district of Coconut Grove. Later she extended it into a cottage, and lived there until the day she died.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was small in stature but boundless in energy. Her eccentric ways did nothing to detract from her celebrity. She eschewed such trappings of modern life as the telephone and the car. Her white gloves and floppy hat made her instantly recognisable.

But even her valiant efforts could not stop the slow degradation of the Everglades, threatened by the damming and diversion of the rivers which fed it, by pollution and urban sprawl, and by the "reclamation" of huge tracts of wetland for citrus orchards and sugar cane.

No ecosystem, least of all one as complex and delicate as the Everglades, could withstand the explosive growth of 20th-century Florida. When the Stoneman family arrived, Miami was a frontier city of 5,000 inhabitants, and most of Florida a humid, disease-ridden emptiness. Today the state is the fourth most populous in the US.

Today the Everglades, with its riot of flora and fauna including alligators, the Florida panther of which perhaps 30 remain, the extraordinary plant-eating sea mammal the manatee, as well as 400 species of birds and 1000 species of flowering plants, still awe the visitor. The park's mangrove forests are the largest in the western hemisphere.

But despite being a World Heritage Site, the wetlands are shrinking by the day. Four million acres survive, but that is only a quarter of what there once was. The population of wading birds - including herons, egrets and the rare wood stork - has dropped by 93 per cent since the 1930s.

No one was quicker to understand the danger than Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and none did more to highlight it. In 1969 she created the Friends of the Everglades organisation, to continue her fight. In 1993, at the age of 103, she received the Medal of Freedom, America's highest honour, from President Clinton.

More important, bipartisan support is growing in Congress for a thoroughgoing federal programme to restore the region. She died with her life's work incomplete, but closer perhaps to success than at any time in half a century.

Marjory Stoneman, environmentalist and author: born Minneapolis 7 April 1890; married 1914 Kenneth Douglas (marriage dissolved 1917); died Miami 14 May 1998.

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