Marjory Stoneman Douglas will be remembered not only as a pioneer of America’s conservation movement but as a woman who never minced words. In her 1947 bestseller The Everglades: River of Grass, she awakened readers everywhere to the fragile beauty of Florida’s endangered swampland and helped spur the creation of the now 1.5 million-acre Everglades National Park—an ideal refuge for birds, alligators and Florida panthers but not, evidently, for the author herself. “It’s too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable,” Douglas once wrote of the soggy wonderland that she helped to preserve. “…I suppose you could say the Everglades and I have the kind of friendship that doesn’t depend on constant physical contact.”
But, oh, what a friendship. Douglas, who died on May 14 at 108, never gave up her crusade on behalf of Florida wetlands. Even after she went blind, she continued to fight for her ideal of a “vast, magnificent, subtle and unique” Everglades protected from voracious real estate developers and agricultural pollution.
“She changed the whole way of thinking about the Everglades,” says Joette Lorion, president of the Friends of the Everglades, a conservation group that Douglas—famous among her friends for her love of wide-brimmed hats and Manhattan cocktails—founded in 1969. “What people thought was a worthless swamp, she got us to see as a vast flowing river that deserved to be saved.”
In a tribute to Douglas’s longtime advocacy, Vice President Al Gore dedicated a 1.3 million-acre section of the Everglades in Douglas’s name last December while announcing the state and federal purchase of 50,000 acres of surrounding sugarcane fields. In all, the government plans to spend $1.5 billion to rehabilitate the region. “Marjory was one of the true guiding lights,” Gore said in a statement after her death. “I am thankful she lived long enough to see the fruits of her good efforts.”
A less determined spirit would have wilted long before. Born in 1890 in Minneapolis, Douglas was raised by her mother, a violinist, in Taunton, Mass. She graduated from Wellesley in 1912 and married a newspaperman 30 years her senior, but the union didn’t last. After a stint as a relief worker with the American Red Cross in Europe during World War I, Douglas settled in Miami and worked as a reporter and editor for her father, the first editor of what became the Miami Herald. Around 1923, Douglas left the paper to write on her own, later moving into the thatched Tudor-style cottage in Coconut Grove where she would live alone for the rest of her life.
Douglas became seriously concerned with the wilderness only after a book publisher asked her to contribute to a series on American rivers in the early ’40s. She visited the Everglades—a shallow pan of water that begins at vast Lake Okeechobee and ripples through fields of sawgrass for some 100 miles before reaching the Gulf of Mexico—and was duly enchanted. “There are no other Everglades in the world,” she wrote at the beginning of The Everglades.
In later years, Douglas joined successful campaigns to block the construction of an airport that would have disturbed animal habitats and to reverse the diversion of fresh water from the Kissimmee River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Through it all, she never lost her taste for combat. Friends will miss dinners at Douglas’s favorite French restaurant—”You could really scream with laughter with Marjory,” says former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel Reed—and, perhaps most of all, the glint in her eye when battle loomed. As Douglas told PEOPLE in 1991, recalling the heckling that greeted her appearance at a particularly tense debate over the Everglades in the 1970s, “It had to be done, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. And I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
Grace Lim in Miami