Author, journalist, feminist, conservationist, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient–Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A. Reid’s portrait of Marjory Stoneman Douglas has been reviewed and acquired by the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. After over 20 years of never have been seen by the public, the portrait reveals an honest glimpse of this inspirational icon during her twilight years.
In the fall of 1991 my friend and German tutor, Linda Roger, asked if I would being willing to photograph Marjory Stoneman Douglas for artist Menden Hall (1960 – 2004) to use to paint her portrait. Although at the time I knew little of Douglas and the role she played on Florida’s history, I was excited about collaborating with an artist and for the first time having one of my photographs rendered into a painting.
A week or so later Menden, Linda, and I found ourselves nearly lost as we meandered through the thickly tree-lined streets of Coconut Grove on route to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas House, presently a city of Miami historical site located at 3744 Stewart Avenue. As we pulled off the road and onto the gravel driveway, I remember being surprised by the slightly dilapidated look of the house as it emerged from behind the foliage. It was one of those deeply overcast, humid, Florida autumn days, lacking both a breeze and any inkling that rain was eminent. We got out of the car and approach the house. Waiting to greet us at the entrance to the house was a delightfully hospitable woman employed as Mrs. Douglas’s caregiver. She showed us inside through a set of worn double doors and into a dark living room space. The combination of overcast skies and surrounding vegetation starved the interior of the house of natural light, forcing a lone lamp next to a sofa to strain itself barely making a dent in the darkness. Beneath the lamp, in an upright recliner next to an end table sat a reverently stoic Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Even in that early period as a photographer I have always had a much greater preference for natural light as oppose to using flash. Given the lack of interior light and the soft illumination resulting from the overcast exterior, the decision to move Mrs. Douglas outside to front patio was an easy one.
The move was slow and silent. Although I never asked, it was apparent that Mrs. Douglas was nearly, if not totally blind in both eyes. The last time I had been in the presence of a person that old was during the summer of 1975 when my great-grandmother, Maggie Jackson Cheeks (1885 – 1976), traveled all the way from Swiftown, Mississippi, to visit my grandmother, Mayola Cheeks Haymore (1923 – 2000). With her eyes appearing permanently closed, she too was blind. As a child and later as an adult I could not understand how a person with such a peaceful demeanor could evoke within me such discomfort. Here was a woman who was not sick from disease, who had not suffered from trauma or injuries, yet something devastating had happened to her. I was too young to understand that what had happened to Maggie Cheeks was life and the experience of growing up black in the deep south during region’s most oppressive era. And just as with Marjory, the consequences for living her life, embracing it, absorbing it, was venerable old age with all its packaging.
With the steady help of her caregiver, Mrs. Douglas sat down in a chair that had been placed for her on the patio at the rear of the house. It was immediately obvious she had done this sort of thing before; without instruction she posed crossing her legs and turning her head towards the direction of the camera. Only two shots were taken outside: the full-body image above that Menden Hall and I would eventually use and another I took of her from just the waist up. Later I took a few more images of her inside under the lamp without her glasses and signature hat.
Menden had far greater familiarity with Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her accomplishments than I. The only reason I was even vaguely familiar with her because I at the time I worked in a bookstore and was aware of the popularity of her book “The River of Grass”. While Menden and Linda chatted outside with the caregiver about the house its history and its unique interior and exterior architecture, I snapped pictures of Mrs. Douglas from various angles while she sat patiently in her easy chair. In a daring effort to start up conversation I asked, “Did your interest in the studying the environment begin as a hobby or pastime?” She abruptly replied, “Safeguarding the environment was never a hobby; it was my work.” Despite the rather taciturn disposition she had shown since our arrive, it was apparent to me that Mrs. Douglas was still mentally sharp and still quite competent when speaking her mind.
I gave Menden a small 4 x 5 print that I had processed at a local photo lab. Not set up to process 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 format, the lab cropped the image to fit their standard 4 x 5 print size. From this black and white photograph Menden began painting his portrait of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, which he completed in 1993. The portrait was later acquired by the Friends of the Everglades and eventually by the National Portrait Gallery.
Delate, Mary-Therese. “The Marjory Stoneman Douglas House.” Historical Preservation Miami. City of Miami, 19 Sept 1995. Web. 5 Oct 2013. <http://www.historicpreservationmiami.com/pdfs/ms douglas hse.pdf>.