Dodie Captiva, 96; free spirit modeled her life after Emerson

Thrice married and the mother of four, Dodie Captiva nevertheless maintained a lifelong independence.
Thrice married and the mother of four, Dodie Captiva nevertheless maintained a lifelong independence.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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The still photograph of stability that represents home for many held no allure for Dodie Captiva, whose life was a spooling newsreel of adventures that took her from New York City to Cape Cod, Mississippi, Maine, Boston, around the world, and back again.

Married three times, she also was an early lover of the writer John Cheever in New York’s Greenwich Village. As a VISTA volunteer, she was a teacher and social worker in Oklahoma in her 50s and then traveled to the Philippines with the Peace Corps in her 60s.

“My mother was nomadic in her relationships and her jobs,’’ said her daughter, Noa Hall of Cambridge. “That’s just the way her life was, and she was very open to any experience that came up.’’

A devotee of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Concord transcendentalist, Ms. Captiva camped and cleared brush on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor into her early 80s, sustained by the satisfactions of sun and physical labor. Then a year ago, she fell, broke a knee, and was unable to regain much independence.

Sight and hearing failing, unable to read books she had once devoured one after another, she decided earlier this month to stop eating and taking fluids. Ms. Captiva died Friday in Emerson Village nursing home in Watertown. She was 96 and had previously lived in Cambridge, Brookline, the Back Bay, and on Cape Cod.

“Dodie was a bridge to this great bohemian world, long gone,’’ said her son-in-law Ike Williams, who is married to Hall. “She was always very antiwar, very secular. She had no interest in religion, only Emerson; he was her god.’’

Unconcerned with money and material goods, Ms. Captiva made enough to get by through teaching and office jobs. She worked diligently, but gave as much or more of her time and spirit to toiling on Gallops Island, volunteering at the Boston Athenaeum, and participating in medical studies.

“She loved lending herself to good causes,’’ her daughter said, “and medical research was high on the list.’’

At 68, Ms. Captiva volunteered for a clinical trial in 1983 that tested how various drugs were metabolized by the body. In exchange, she received $40 a day, transportation, meals, and quiet hours with her books.

“It’s a wonderful way to make money,’’ she told the Globe that year. “I take a book and lie down. . . . Everyone should be so lucky to get paid to read all day.’’

Ms. Captiva “read more of my library than I’ve read,’’ said Williams, a literary agent and lawyer. She never strayed from nonfiction, though, despite her romance with Cheever, who is considered one of America’s best short story writers.

At 19, she possessed the kind of beauty that made her a sought-after model for artists in New York when she started her relationship with Cheever, who “didn’t communicate by eye,’’ she told Blake Bailey for his 2009 biography “Cheever: A Life.’’

“He looked at you straightforwardly enough, but his eyes were opaque,’’ she told Bailey in June 2005. “You got the impression he was thinking about his writing.’’

Born Dodie Merwin, she was the younger of two daughters and lived for a while in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., north of New York City. She moved to the upper peninsula of Michigan when her parents split and entered a Catholic boarding school in New Jersey when she was 5.

“She became very self-reliant and independent and sort of a maverick and really had not much to do with her family after that,’’ her daughter said.

“My mother was always a good girl, was always doing what was expected of her,’’ she said. “That repression went underground and became rebellion later on in a quiet way. I think her childhood made it difficult for her to maintain a family life with her husbands and children.’’

An able student and voracious reader, Ms. Captiva was 16 when she graduated in 1931 from the Academy of the Holy Angels in Fort Lee, N.J. Having exhausted the high school’s course offerings, she took junior college classes her last year.

Moving to Greenwich Village, she took graduate courses in progressive education nearby at Bank Street College.

While visiting Cape Cod she met John Hughes Hall. They married, had three children, and lived on the Cape until she left him for Francis Captiva, Hall said.

The Captivas moved to the coast of Mississippi so he could work in aquatic animal research. They married, had a daughter, and for a time all Ms. Captiva’s children lived there, but she eventually found family life too confining, Hall said. Ms. Captiva eased out of that marriage by spending a couple of summers at a progressive summer camp for children in Maine.

D’Arcy Marsh of Arlington was 17 and a counselor at the camp near Tenants Harbor when he met Ms. Captiva, who was in her early 40s.

“She really was a free spirit,’’ he said. “She was full of adventure, and we would just go off and explore places. She captured my imagination somehow.’’

In the 1960s, Ms. Captiva briefly was married to Gordon Gwynne, whom she had known when she was young. All three marriages ended in divorce, and Ms. Captiva legally used her second husband’s surname because that was the one she had the longest.

“She was not built for mothering,’’ Williams said. “When she left the husband, she left the children and the toothbrush. She left everything. It wasn’t that she didn’t love them; she’d just been abandoned herself.’’

Ms. Captiva, her daughter said, seemed to connect more easily with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes when Ms. Captiva camped on Gallops Island, she would share breakfast on the beach with a grandson who was a park ranger.

“She still had phenomenal energy and could outwalk everybody,’’ her daughter said. “She always had a sort of light spirit.’’

A service will be announced for Ms. Captiva, who in addition to her daughter Noa leaves a son, Darius Hall of Decatur, Ala.; two other daughters, Katrina Hall of Hancock, N.H., and Johanna Captiva of St. Louis; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Some people Ms. Captiva met in her travels, such as Marsh, became friends for life, even if a decade or more passed between encounters.

“It was probably a lot easier to be her friend than her family,’’ Marsh said. “In the last three or four years, I went to see her because I thought she needed company, but it turned out I was enjoying it as much as she was. I think the wonder of it was that I never had any sense of someone who was older than me.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at