The Marriage of D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson

The Marriage of D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

David P. Davis led a passionate life. He was an adventurer, thrill seeker, gambler
and a fierce entrepreneur. His intensity sparked both his personal and professional life,
helping him reach great heights in the business and real estate world, but also
contributing to his downfall and eventual death.
It is safe to say that he was in love with at least three women during his life: his
first wife, Marjorie Merritt, whose 1922 death in Miami forever changed Davis;
Hollywood starlet Lucille Zehring, who Davis dated off and on from 1923 until his own
death in 1926; and Elizabeth Nelson, the young Tampa socialite who married Davis in
October 1925.
One of the enduring stories regarding Davis’ life centers on what seemed at the
time an absurd assertion, allegedly made by Davis over a glass of champagne on New
Year’s Eve in 1924, that he would marry the next Queen of Gasparilla – who had yet to
even be named. As the legend goes, Davis once again showed he could accomplish
anything he truly desired, marrying twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Nelson, Queen
Gasparilla XVII, on October 10, 1925 (a month shy of his fortieth birthday).
Assuming the story is true, how did Davis manage to fulfill his daring boast? The
naming of the Gasparilla court is a secret, and is decided in advance of the February
Coronation Ball. Davis had a number of connections within the Krewe (some sources list
Davis as a member), and it is quite likely that he knew Nelson would be elected queen.
The real questions are: did he already know her and did they have a secret relationship;
did he have an unrequited desire for her, using his boast to gain her interest and attention;
did he even care who it would be? We will probably never know.
What we do know is that in the afternoon of October 10, 1925, Davis and Nelson
were wed at the “Presbyterian manse” in Clearwater (possibly Peace Memorial
Presbyterian Church on Fort Harrison Avenue and Pierce Street). The only people to
attend the hastily planned wedding were Nelson’s sister, Mrs. C. G. Rorebeck and Ray
Schindler, one of Davis’ business associates.
Tampa’s two daily newspapers, the Daily Times and the Morning Tribune, each
ran stories about the wedding in the following day’s editions. Both papers related the
basic facts, including the status of Nelson 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 Times addressed
the secrecy behind the marriage, stating, “There were occasional rumors of the romance,
but the marriage … came as a complete surprise.” The paper further alluded to her age,
stating that she was “one of the most popular members of the younger set here.”
Elizabeth Nelson was not the only young woman in Davis’ life. According to D.
P.’s brother, Milton, the marriage to Nelson was designed to make Zehring, whom Davis
continued to see since his Miami days, jealous. Davis and Zehring maintained a long
distance, on again – off again relationship, which apparently was in an “off” phase.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the marriage was an unsteady one. Davis and Nelson
divorced and remarried in the span of eight weeks. Rumor and innuendo flew as to the
reasons why the couple’s relationship was particularly stormy.
By this time, Davis had developed a substantial drinking problem, an unintended
consequence of prohibition colliding with the Jazz Age. Like many men of his time,
Davis enjoyed the advantage Florida’s coastline provided bootleggers who brought elicit
alcohol into the state. While no evidence exists showing Davis’ drinking affected him
professionally, contemporaries acknowledge that it brought out his melancholy side and
greatly affected his personal life.
Further compounding any problems Nelson and Davis had was the fact that her
family, her parents in particular, did not like Davis marring their daughter. They were
not very fond of Davis as a person, either. No doubt his relationship with Zehring made
the situation that much more difficult. What is known is that Davis and Zehring did
maintain some kind of contact, culminating with Davis’ ill-fated trans-Atlantic journey.
Despite – or possibly because of – his success in Tampa, Davis grew restless once
again. The same day Davis completed sales on Davis Islands lots, and just five days after
his marriage to Nelson, he announced plans for a new development in northeast Florida
on St. Augustine’s Anastasia Island. Clearly, Davis’ attention to Davis Shores proved
disastrous to his relationship with Nelson. Davis Shores also pushed Davis into financial
ruin, which in turn forced him to sell Davis Islands.
Thus the stage was set for Davis’ ocean voyage to Europe. He was accompanied
by Zehring, his oldest son George, and a number of business associates. Stories conflict
as to whether Nelson was in Paris at the time, and if so, why Davis was going to see her.
One of Nelson’s grandchildren, John Rudolph, relates that his grandmother had both of
Davis’ sons with her in Paris and they were all awaiting his arrival so they could tour the
country. This is in direct conflict with what members of the Davis family have said,
including both of Davis’ sons, as well as some other contemporary accounts.
Davis’ death in October 1926 left Nelson a widow. She was courted by a St.
Petersburg physician named Councill Rudolph, who read about Davis’ death while riding
the train that was bringing him to the south Pinellas city. According to John Rudolph, his
grandfather rode the ferry to Tampa so he could meet and date Nelson, and they were
finally married in 1929.
Rudolph’s grandmother did not speak of her relationship with Davis, though his
grandfather did mention it on occasion. Rudolph also recalls that all Nelson got from her
relationship with Davis were “some dishes, her coats and some stocks that she owned
before they were married.” The memories, it seems, she kept to her self.


Big and Little Grassy Islands

Before They Were >The Islands=
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

There have been islands in Hillsborough Bay for almost as long as the bay
has existed. The original delta islands were formed as sediment and other material
flowed out of the Hillsborough River and into the bay’s estuary system. Plants
eventually took root and more material accumulated on the growing islands, more
so on the southerly island than on the one closer to the river’s mouth. Small sand
bars extended out from the two islands, demonstrating the shallow nature of
Hillsborough Bay. It was these two islands, and the surrounding tidal area, that
developer David P. Davis used as the nucleus for his.
The islands first appeared, nameless, on early sixteenth century Spanish
maps depicting Hillsborough and Tampa Bays (then known as Bahia de Espirito
Santo, or Bay of the Holy Spirit). The islands were included as part of the Fort
Brooke military reservation created in the 1820s, and it is probably during the fort
years that the larger of the two islands picked up its first name, Depot Key.
Various other names, all describing a particular feature of the islands, appeared
through the years, including Rabbit Island, Big and Little Islands, Grassy Islands
and, eventually, Big Grassy and Little Grassy Islands.
The first recorded sale of either of the bay islands came on April 18, 1860,
when William Whitaker purchased the southern tip of Depot Key (Big Grassy
Island), a total of six and one third acres, for one dollar per acre. Little Grassy
Island and the remainder of Depot Key were purchased in 1881 by a number of
different interests. William C. Brown purchased all of Little Grassy Island,
totaling sixteen and one third acres, for the same price per acre as Whitaker paid
twenty-one years before. Brown and William B. Henderson teamed up to purchase
a large portion (sixty-nine and three quarter acres) of Big Grassy Island from the
state for ninety cents per acre. The town of Tampa purchased the remainder of the
island, consisting of twenty-eight and one half acres, at the same price. Brown and
Henderson, in turn, obtained a ninety-nine year lease for the city=s portion of Big
Grassy Island for twenty dollars a year.
During one of the first channel dredging projects of the 1880s, cypress tree
stumps were discovered in eight feet of water a few yards south of Big Grassy
Island. This discovery illustrated that the whole bay was a freshwater cypress
swamp during the last Ice Age. Another channel dredging project, begun in the
early 1900s, bisected Little Grassy Island, creating Seddon Island on the east side
of the channel and a remnant of Little Grassy Island on the west side. Little Grassy
Island usually disappeared under a strong high tide, but Big Grassy Island
generally remained dry. Both islands, however, were completely covered by water
during the 1921 Hurricane.
Tampa’s City Council, on June 8, 1920, offered a referendum to voters
asking whether they would support the purchase of Little Grassy Island for use as a
city park. In an incredibly tight vote, the referendum passed 694 – 692. Though
non-binding, the city agreed with the majority and purchased Little Grassy Island
from William Brown’s widow, Mary E. Brown, on May 9, 1921, for $25,000.
Many histories of Tampa and Davis Islands relate stories of Boy Scout
Troops going out to the bay islands for camp outs. Tampa children made
unsupervised forays to the islands, as well, including a young D. P. Davis.
According to his brother, Milton, the boys ventured out onto the scrub-covered
mud flats in the late 1890s, catching crabs and frying fish instead of attending
school. As an adult, Davis found another use for the bay islands. To his chagrin,
he found that it was no easy task obtaining ownership of the islands, as well as the
rights to the bay bottom that he would need to make his idea of Davis Islands a
reality. Those efforts will be the subject of a future Davis Islands News article.


80th Anniversary of Land Sales for Davis Islands

Davis Islands Reaches Historic Milestone
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center
October 2004 marks the eightieth anniversary of land sales for lots on Davis
Islands. Developer David P. Davis had worked his whole life to get to that point, and
over one and half million dollars in sales proved that the wait was worthwhile. He did
not work alone, nor did he just hang out a sign on the morning of October 4, 1924 stating,
“lots for sale.” Davis organized men and materials, planned entertainment and baited the
local newspapers. Months in the making, the advertising operation for Davis Islands was
like no other.

Davis launched his sales campaign in the summer of 1924. He continuously
touted Davis Islands in half and full page newspaper advertisements in Tampa=s morning
and evening papers. He also placed large ads in other newspapers across the state, in
guidebooks and in tourist magazines targeted toward that growing market. The term
>mass media= had just entered the national lexicon in 1923, and Davis understood its
power. He bought time on Tampa=s flagship radio station, WDAE, and insured his ads
found their way into all manner of Tampa tourism and promotional publications. He also
sponsored, in 1926, publication of Kenneth Roberts=s Florida, a history of the state.
Everything Davis did in the summer of 1924 led up to his ultimate goal B the
opening of land sales on Davis Islands. Davis spent lavishly on elaborate brochures, a
fleet of buses and vast improvements to his sales office, located on the corner of Franklin
and Madison Streets in downtown Tampa. With the final design of the islands complete,
maps were created showing lot locations. Davis divided the development into eight
sections, six of which carried a name describing a particular feature or its proximity to
nearby landmarks. The Hyde Park Section, at the northern end of the islands nearest to
Hyde Park, the Bay Circle Section, just southwest of the Hyde Park Section, named for
its waterfront lots and circular street pattern, the South Park Section, at the southern end
of Marjorie Park, the Hotel Section, so named for the Davis Arms Hotel, which was
never built, the Yacht Club Section, named for the Yacht Club which, too, was not built,
and the Country Club Section, including five of the nine holes of the Davis Islands Golf
Course and its clubhouse. The southern end of the islands, though platted, did not carry
section names. Land sales, Davis decided, would go one section at a time. The fateful
first day was finally at hand.

The first sale of lots, the Hyde Park Section, came on October 4, 1924. The
results of that first day’s land sales are well documented — all available lots, a total of
300, sold within three hours at an average cost of $5,610 per lot. Few of those lots were
above sea level, let alone graded and ready for construction. Some speculators waited in
line for forty hours for the opportunity to buy into the yet unbuilt islands. Total sales for
that day reached an overwhelming $1,683,000. More interesting was the staggering
resale of those same lots, some reportedly made inside the Franklin Street sales office
between the first owners and eager prospects still waiting in line.
Davis encouraged everyone to view his emerging paradise. Like many other real
estate developers of the time, Davis owned a fleet of buses on which prospective buyers
could tour Davis Islands. The buses, specially painted with the D. P. Davis Properties
logo, brought people from as far away as Sarasota, Orlando and even Miami. Prospective
buyers received colorful brochures, booklets and photographs showing how all of their
dreams could come true, just by buying property on Davis Islands. Venetian style canals,
luxurious homes, boating and waterfront grandeur all were depicted on lithographed
pages within leather-bound booklets.

A carnival-like atmosphere surround all Davis Islands land sales, including boat
races around the Islands and along Bayshore Boulevard, airplane exhibitions with stunt
flyers, sports celebrities such as Olympic swimmer Helen Wainwright, who swam around
Davis Islands, plus tennis tournaments and golf lessons from tour professionals Bobby
Cruickshank and Johnny Farrell.
The fervor created by the first land sale carried into the next, when lots in the Bay
Circle Section went on the market on October 13, 1924. This scenario repeated itself
each time lots came on the open market. As with his developments in Miami, Davis
made sure to mention that many lots were purchased by Ahome folks@ who knew a good
investment when they saw it. Realizing the need to not flood that lucrative market, Davis
spaced out the sales from days to weeks apart, allowing the property values to increase
each time.
Resales between individual buyers contributed to the frenzy of Florida=s land
boom, and the action surrounding Davis Islands proved no exception. Davis understood
the importance of resales, both in how they maintained interest in his property and how
they enhanced his own bottom line. He could raise the price on his own lots and, in
theory, could also participate in the resale market himself. After October 15, 1925,
resales were the only method of acquiring land on Davis Islands. These resales remained
steady for another few months. Davis’ good fortune soon reversed, and in the spring of
1926 he collected only a small portion of the property payments owed him. Despondent,
Davis sold his islands investment to Stone & Webster, a Boston-based engineering
company. He received $250,000 in stock from the new company and booked passage
aboard the Majestic. He died under mysterious circumstances at sea on October 12,
1926, just two short years after the first sale of Davis Islands land.


80th Anniversary of the Death of David Paul Davis…

The (Presumed) Death of David Paul Davis
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

October 2006 marks the 80th anniversary of David P. Davis’ death. The
passage of time has done little to clear up the details regarding that fateful night aboard the steamship Majestic. What follows is an examination of the few facts that are known about the incident.

In October 1926, D. P. Davis booked passage aboard the luxury liner
Majestic for a trip to Europe. His life, both professional and personal, had taken some severe hits over the past few months. He had to sell his interest in Davis Islands, Davis Shores, in St. Augustine, was proceeding very slowly, and his marriage to the former Elizabeth Nelson was falling apart. Nelson had fled to France, as the story goes, and Davis was headed her way. He would not live to see the end of the trans-Atlantic voyage.

Stories of Davis’s death always include some element of mystery. The only
undisputed facts are that he went overboard and drowned while en route to Europe aboard the large ocean liner on October 12, 1926 and that his girlfriend, Lucille Zehring, accompanied him on the voyage. What is in question is how he ended up in the water: by accidentally falling out of a stateroom window, being pushed out or jumping out to end his own life. A multitude of stories fill the void.

Victory National Life Insurance Company, founded by Sumter Lowry, (a
member of Tampa’s City Commission in 1924) sold Davis a $300,000 policy a few months before his death. Davis held policies with other insurance companies and, since his body was not recovered, some felt that Davis faked his own death.

Lowry, “anxious to make a reputation for paying claims promptly,” hired an
investigator, who determined that Davis had accidentally fallen overboard.
Lowry’s findings regarding Davis’ death did not assuage all doubts on the
subject. Many felt that Davis leapt overboard to end his life. Chief among this theory’s proponents was the captain of the Majestic. Another who thought Davis killed himself was Jerome McLeod, who had joined D. P. Davis Properties in 1925 as assistant publicity director after a stint at the Tampa Daily Times. “He got drunk,” McLeod told a later interviewer, and “when he got drunk he got maudlin.”

A third story comes from a steward who stood outside Davis’ room and overheard an argument between Davis and Zehring. The Majestic’s employee claimed Davis said, “I can go on living or end it. I can make money or spend it. It all depends on you.” The statement was punctuated by a loud splash. This runs somewhat counter to the testimony given Lowry, in which the steward had to be told of Davis’ fall by Zehring.

Davis’ brother Milton had a different story. While acknowledging D. P.
Davis had a drinking problem, he believed his death was an accident. Milton
traveled to New York City to speak with Zehring about his brother’s final
moments. Milton, who claimed David probably intended to divorce Elizabeth and marry his girlfriend, restated Zehring’s recollection: “Lucille said there had been a party and D. P. was sitting in an open porthole, one of those big ones. It was storming outside, and he blew out the window. She said she started to scream and grab his leg, but it was blown out of her hands. That’s what happened.”

There are a variety of problems and inconsistencies with each of these
stories. Some say that Davis and Zehring were alone while others say there was a party. The Majestic was the largest ship in the world, a sister to the Titanic, and undoubtedly had “large portholes,” and Davis was a small man, but could he really sit in one and then be “blown overboard”? Could the steward standing outside of the closed stateroom door hear a loud splash that occurred outside the ship and dozens of yards below the open window?

The idea that Davis booked passage with a large party, including Davis Properties employees and possibly his oldest son,George, places doubt that the intent of the voyage was to divorce his wife.

Davis’ drinking problem unquestionably contributed to his untimely death,
but to what degree? Some point to the possible fight with Zehring, others to his overall financial collapse, as reasons why he would commit suicide. Alcohol inevitably compounded those problems. Others, like Davis’ brother, felt that his alcoholism merely put him in the position of hurting himself, intentionally or otherwise. D. P. Davis’ eldest son, George, was aboard the Majestic, and he, too, feels that suicide is as likely as any other scenario.

Murder, too, is a possibility. Some stories relate that Davis had up to
$50,000 in cash with him. Others discount this, claiming that he hardly ever carried large amounts of money on him. Motive and opportunity do not seem to be on the side of murder, but no one could lead his life without making enemies, especially after losing so much money in such a brief period of time.

Yet another theory intimates that Davis faked his death. While discredited
by Lowry’s investigation and Milton’s assurances to the contrary, it remains a possibility, though remote given that his son was on the ship, too.

How, or even if, he fell overboard is still a mystery. Until new evidence is found, any theory regarding Davis’ death is just that, theory.