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The Arts : At 104, Florida Author Still Coming on Strong

October 17, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, godmother of the environmental movement in South Florida, is not planning a national tour to promote her latest book, which is unusual for a best-selling author.

But then, throughout her 104 years, Douglas has rarely done anything the usual way. "I think it's a big mistake to goad yourself into doing a lot of things that aren't really in your nature," she explained in her autobiography.

Nonetheless, in an interview recently in the Coconut Grove cottage where she has lived and worked since 1926, Douglas insisted that she would attend as many local autograph parties as possible, and visit area schools to talk about "Freedom River." The novel, aimed at young readers, was first published in 1953 and has been reissued after being out of print for 21 years.

Set in the 1840s, it describes the adventures of three boys--one black, one Miccosukee Indian and one white--in the days just before Florida joined the Union.

Douglas had hoped to travel to Massachusetts last month for a reunion at her alma mater, Wellesley College. While there, she said, she intended to present a copy of "Freedom River" to the college and leave another for 14-year-old Chelsea Clinton, daughter of another Wellesley alumna, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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Doctors nixed her plans, but she directed her secretary to send to the college the Medal of Freedom that President Clinton draped around her neck in a White House ceremony last November. "What else would I do with it?" she asked. "I have no relatives."

Douglas secured her place in history with "The Everglades: River of Grass," the 1947 classic that called attention to the unique role Florida's wetlands play in the delicate ecosystem of South Florida. Largely because of that work, Everglades National Park was established a year later.

Although blind and frail, Douglas remains acute, strong-willed, occasionally cranky. When asked what she likes about "Freedom River," she snapped: "That's a silly question."

For years Douglas has remarked that living to such an advanced age also seems somewhat silly, but she continues to enjoy life, lending her support to environmental causes, answering her mail and being kept up on local issues by a couple of secretaries who read to her daily. "She is also well aware of her royalty arrangement," said Charity Johnson, owner of Valiant Press, the book's publisher.

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"Freedom River" is not the last book Douglas hopes to see in print in her lifetime. She is looking for a publisher for a 200,000-word manuscript on 19th-Century English writer W.H. Hudson, a project she began in the 1960s.

Sharyn Richardson, a college administrator who has spent years helping Douglas finish the Hudson book, admits that the subject is obscure. "Yet it is fascinating, and I think there is a market for it," Richardson said. "And I can't stand the idea that Marjory wouldn't be here to see her final work in print."

By Douglas' own estimation, that may mean she has only three years to get the Hudson book published. On the occasion of her 100th birthday in 1990, she opined: "I have a feeling I won't live beyond 107. Why? I don't know. It's just one of those numbers."

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