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
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.