Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Environmentalist, activist — and journalist

02/16/2014 8:53 AM

02/16/2014 9:29 AM

Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s name is emblazoned on parks and buildings for her huge contribution to the conservation movement in the United States — most specifically the Everglades.

Her work at the Miami Herald is less known.

Each year, the Museum of the Everglades hosts the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Festival to celebrate her life. About six months ago, organizer Martha Hutcheson asked if the Miami Herald could kick off the five-day gathering with an exploration of Marjory’s life as a Herald reporter. I quickly agreed. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

I had a layman’s knowledge of Marjory’s life. I read Everglades: River of Grass as a student at Palmetto High. I met her when I was a young reporter in the early 1980s. By then, she was the grand dame of Everglades conservation, in her 90s (she died in 1998 at age 108). I knew that her father, Frank Stoneman, in 1903 founded the paper that became the Miami Herald, and that Stoneman was the Herald’s editor until 1937. I also knew Majory was a reporter for the paper.

I discovered that Marjory’s Miami Herald years — 1915 to 1923 with a brief interruption during World War I — formed a pivotal phase in her life. At the Herald, Marjory honed her voice as a writer and first showed her fearlessness as an activist. As a reporter, she wrote with confidence, wit and edge — sometimes even sarcasm. She developed her interest in and passion for conservation, women’s issues and civil rights.

She also battled pressures and anxieties recognizable to many journalists who know the day-after-day grind of the news business, from relentless deadlines and workload to dealing with competing special interests.

These observations emerge after delving deeply into the excellent work of others. University of Florida history professor Jack E. Davis’ biography, An Everglades Providence, is probably the most authoritative work on her life. Her 1987 autobiography with John Rothchild, Voice of the River, provides personal perspective on her life and her Herald years. And Herald research director Monika Leal helped me find numerous examples of Marjory’s stories from the Herald — from society columns to news coverage.

To understand Marjory’s life during her time at the Herald, you need to know the turmoil that preceded it — and there was plenty.

She was born in 1890 in Minneapolis. Frank Stoneman, her father, was in real estate and banking. Her mother, Florence Lillian Trefethen, was a musician. Stoneman had financial setbacks in Minnesota, and in 1893 the family moved to Rhode Island, near Stoneman’s family. He continued to struggle financially, and Lillian didn’t get along with Stoneman’s mother. She also struggled emotionally, the first of several battles with mental illness.

When Marjory was 5, her mother packed their belongings and left Stoneman, taking Marjory with her to her family home in Massachusetts. The Stonemans divorced a year later, and Frank Stoneman headed to Florida.

Marjory and her mother were close, but Marjory often served as caregiver to a woman who struggled with health and emotional issues.

Marjory emerged a bright woman, though self-conscious and socially awkward. In her autobiography, she described an encounter at a high school dance: “A boy named Herndon asked me to dance two dances, and for that I was pretty grateful. He was kind of unattractive, so we made a good couple.’’

Even so, her ability as a researcher and writer began to emerge in college at Wellesley. She became editor of the college annual, and was elected class orator. But she missed her mother, who continued to struggle with physical and mental health issues. She developed breast cancer during Marjory’s senior year, but Marjory wasn’t told until after her graduation ceremony. Weeks later, Lillian died.

A transient phase followed. Marjory moved to Boston to work in a department store, then to St. Louis to live with a college friend. Soon the friend moved to New York; Marjory followed, and got a job teaching department store sales girls in Newark.

There, she met Kenneth Douglas, a reporter for the Newark Evening News. Marjory was 24. Douglas, about 30 years older, courted her relentlessly. They married April 18, 1914, about three months after meeting.

Douglas soon became embroiled in scandal. He had been married twice before under a different name and it remains unclear if a divorce from his second wife was ever final. He was charged with passing bad checks, and jailed.

Frank Stoneman, who had not seen Marjory for 18 years, wired her money, and she boarded a train to Miami.

“I left my marriage and all my past history in New England without a single regret,’’ she said.

She was 25, AWOL from a disastrous marriage, and still grieving the death of her mother. Miami was 19, about 10,000 people, and rough around the edges.

Frank Stoneman believed a single woman such as his daughter should support herself. One day he called home to ask Marjory to fill in for the editor of the society page, who had taken a leave to care for her ailing mother.

In her autobiography, Majory wrote: “I was delighted to be working on the Herald. It was as if everything else I had been doing since college had been all wrong and suddenly I found what I was meant to do — even if it was as simple as writing society blurbs in a small city newspaper.’’

Douglas’s first piece was published Oct. 25, 1915. She interviewed the lone woman who traveled with the inaugural Dixie Highway motorcade, from Chicago to Miami (in 13 days).

Douglas soon took on the job for good, and got a desk in the office, at the corner of Miami Avenue near the bridge across the Miami River. In 1916, Stoneman took a one-month vacation and he gave Marjory control of the editorial page. Marjory’s capacity for invention emerged. When letters to the editor ran short, she sometimes used obvious and humorous aliases and made up her own, she recalled.

After her father returned, she was back at maintaining the society page. A bit bored, she admitted: “There I was, writing about parties, wedding and notable winter visitors to the leading hotel in an insignificant city.’’

On slow days, she would forgo a “stern adherence to hard fact.’’ Once, she conjured up a tea dance hosted by “Mrs. J. Augustus Snuanpuh,” included guests such as “Mrs. JK De Yellowplush” and described “a dainty refreshment course of baked beans and bread pudding was served on the back porch, decorated with brooms and mops, while in the center of the table was placed a large bouquet of Dutch Cleaner.''

During these years, she developed her environmental focus, directed in many ways by her father. Since founding the paper, Frank Stoneman strongly opposed efforts to dredge the Everglades.

Marjory got to know the movers and shakers in town, including the wife of William Jennings Bryan, “a devoted suffragette,’’ who recruited Marjory to travel to Tallahassee to advocate for the right of women to vote. “All of us spoke to the joint committee, wearing our best hats....Talking to them was like talking to graven images. They never paid attention to us at all.’’

Soon, Marjory’s social circle included other journalists — from the staff of The Herald as well as the two competing newspapers in town. She met a reporter at the Metropolis, and they became involved, but in the summer of 1916, with World War I in Europe, he signed up for service and went to France. “I took it hard,’’ she said in Voice of the River. “I’d a broken marriage and before that my husband was in the penitentiary, and here I was faced with another period of longing and waiting.’’

Not long after, Marjory was assigned to cover a story on the first woman to enlist in the Navy from the state of Florida. The woman didn’t show up at the recruiting station. But Marjory did.

“I called my father at the paper and said: ‘Look, I got the story on the first woman to enlist. It turned out to be me.’’’

She spent a year in the Navy at the reserve headquarters in downtown Miami, and hated it. She joined the American Red Cross and went to France in 1918.

When she returned to the United States in 1920, Miami was booming.

Marjory was hired as assistant editor, worked on the editorial page and wrote a column called “The Galley,’’ where she wrote about everything from gardening and landscaping to the plight of women, living conditions for blacks in Coconut Grove and forced labor of vagrants.

“Once in a while, my column would make a difference to somebody,” she noted in her autobiography. She published a poem about a boy named Martin Tabert, who was beaten to death in a labor camp. Soon after, the Legislature abolished beatings in camps.

She wrote about politics: “Now’s the time for a good Ouiji board to come to the aid of the parties” she wrote before the 1920 presidential election.

After Warren Harding’s election that November, she covered his first visit to Florida, and with an edge: “St. Augustine, Jan 22 — At 10 o’clock today, President-elect Warren G. Harding stepped from his private car here to begin his first real vacation since his election. Neither the eager crowds nor the throng of newspaperman could take his mind from his paramount interest, his game of golf.’’

She also began writing about the Everglades, and advocated the creation of the national park.

All the while, demands grew.

“The Herald was becoming a bigger and more important paper. I spent three years as assistant editor, plus writing my column every day. There was more pressure in this than I realized.’’

She occasionally clashed with her father, and there was friction with the publisher of the Herald, Frank Shutts.

“Toward the end of 1923, I’d begun to get tired. Every day I had to do stories, I had to do the column....This led to my first real nervous breakdown....Maybe I inherited some flaw that my mother had. Or maybe the trauma early in my life, all the bitterness, had to have some longterm effect.’’

Marjory resigned and pursued a freelance career writing for magazines, and then short stories and books. In 1947 — 24 years after leaving the Herald — she published River of Grass.

But she always looked back fondly at her early years at the Herald. As she wrote in a 1967 Tropic Magazine story:

“The paper was the perfect vantage point from which to view my new world.. it gave me time to learn.”

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