Of the many stories told about Davis Islands developer David P. Davis, few are as salacious as those that surround his marriage, divorce and remarriage to Elizabeth Nelson.
One of the most enduring Davis legends centers on his New Year's Eve declaration that he would marry the next queen of Gasparilla. And yet, once again, he showed he could accomplish anything he truly desired, marrying 22-year-old Nelson, Queen Gasparilla XVII, on Oct, 10, 1925 — one month shy of his 40th birthday.
Assuming the story is true, how did Davis manage to fulfill his daring prediction? The naming of the court of Gasparilla is a secret, but it is decided in advance of the February coronation ball. Davis had a number of connections within Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (some sources list Davis as a member), and it is quite likely he knew Nelson would be elected queen. It wasn't such a stretch; during this era in Gasparilla's history, the queen was usually the previous year's first maid, and Nelson was first maid in 1924.
The true mystery centers on their relationship during the time before his New Year's Eve boast and their wedding day. It is unknown whether or not they had a secret relationship or if he had an unrequited desire for her, using his boast to gain her interest and attention. It is also possible, but much less likely, that he did not care who the next queen would be. We probably will never know.
Davis and Nelson married eight months after the 1925 Gasparilla coronation ball, on the afternoon of Oct. 10, at the “Presbyterian manse” in Clearwater (possibly Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church at Fort Harrison Avenue and Pierce Street). The only people to attend the hastily planned wedding were Nelson's sister Ruth Rorebeck and Raymond Schindler, one of Davis's business associates. The Nelson-Davis wedding was a surprise to many, not least the Nelson and Davis families.
Tampa's two daily newspapers, the Morning Tribune and Daily Times, each ran stories about the wedding in the following day's editions. Both papers related the basic facts, including Nelson's status as the reigning queen of Gasparilla. The Tribune's headline, “D.P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson, Prominent Tampans, Are Married in Clearwater; Surprise Families,” topped that day's feature stories. The writer mentioned that “members of the immediate families were not informed that the wedding would take place during the afternoon until a short time before Mr. Davis and Miss Nelson left Tampa for Clearwater.”
The Daily Times article also addressed the secrecy behind the marriage, stating, “There were occasional rumors of the romance, but the marriage … came as a complete surprise.” The paper alluded to Nelson's age, stating that she was “one of the most popular members of the younger set here.”
The honeymoon apparently was short-lived. Davis and Nelson divorced and remarried in the span of eight weeks. To say that Nelson's family, particularly her parents, did not like Davis would be an understatement. Rumor and innuendo flew as to the real reasons why the couple's relationship was particularly stormy.
By this time, Davis had developed a substantial drinking problem, becoming a prominent symbol of Prohibition colliding with the Jazz Age. Like many men of his time, including Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher, Davis enjoyed the advantage Florida's coastline provided the bootleggers bringing elicit alcohol into the state. Although no evidence exists showing that Davis' drinking affected his work, contemporaries acknowledge that it brought out his melancholy side and greatly affected his personal life. Many of Nelson's relatives — including her brother, grandson (from her second marriage) and great-nieces and nephews, plus Davis' son George — have related stories of Davis' poor treatment of Nelson.
Perhaps the cruelest thing he did was trick her by slipping their divorce papers among a stack of other paperwork she needed to sign for D.P. Davis Properties. Though Nelson signed the document without realizing it, she followed through with the divorce proceedings, which occurred before Judge J.B. Browne of the Monroe County Circuit Court. Judge Browne granted the divorce on the grounds of “habitual intemperance.”
The decree was granted on Nov. 4, less than three weeks after the marriage and less than one week after they returned from their honeymoon. The Nelson family was likely happy with the divorce and decidedly unhappy when Davis and Nelson reconciled and remarried on Dec. 11. Newspapers said “reports that friends and relatives of the bride had rejoiced over the reconciliation were denied by E.K. Nelson Jr., brother of the bride”— hardly the welcome return Davis had hoped for from his brother-in-law.
Davis and Nelson had reunited, but it was clear that their situation had not changed.
They separated again in mid-1926. She went to London, then on to Paris, in September of that year, and he booked passage on a luxury liner to France in October.
He never made it, thus creating yet another Davis legend.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (813) 228-0097.