The rocky romance of D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson

Al Burgert and first car on Davis Islands, Tampa, Fla. Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.
Al Burgert and first car on Davis Islands, Tampa, Fla. Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.

Of the dozens of stories perpetuated about Davis Islands developer David P. Davis, few are as salacious as the ones that surround his marriage, divorce, and remarriage to Elizabeth Nelson.  The story began during the heady days of the Florida Land Boom.  Blessed with success, cash and an extraordinary ego, Davis cast his determined stare in a more personal direction. One of the enduring legends regarding Davis at this time centers on what seemed his almost absurd New Year’s Eve declaration that he would marry the next queen of Gasparilla. Davis once again, the legend goes, showed he could accomplish anything he truly desired, marrying twenty-two-year-old Nelson, Queen Gasparilla XVII, on October, 10, 1925—one month shy of his fortieth birthday.

Assuming the story of the boast 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 that he knew Nelson would be elected queen. 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 just 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 will probably never know.

Davis and Nelson married eight months after the Gasparilla coronation ball, on the afternoon of October 10, 1925, 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 Ruth Rorebeck and Raymond Schindler, one of Davis’s business associates. The Nelson-Davis wedding was a surprise to many, not the least of whom included 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 further alluded to her 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 bootleggers who brought elicit alcohol into the state. While no evidence exists showing Davis’s 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’s son George—have related stories of Davis’s poor treatment of Nelson.

Perhaps the cruelest thing he did was trick her into divorce 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 November 4, just shy of 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 was decidedly unhappy with the reconciliation. Davis and Nelson remarried on December 11. Newspapers said that “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 that Davis had hoped for from his brother-in-law. Nevertheless, Davis and Nelson had reunited, but it was clear that their situation had not changed.

Davis and Nelson separated again, this time 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.

Interested in learning more about the fascinating life and death of David Paul Davis, and the history of his developments in Tampa, Miami, and St. Augustine?  A new book, titled History of Davis Islands: David P. Davis and the Story of A Landmark Tampa Neighborhood, by History & Heritage page contributor Rodney Kite-Powell, explores the enigmatic Tampa developer and his iconic development, Davis Islands.  The book is available at the Tampa Bay History Center as well as most area book stores.

This article was originally published by the Tampa Tribune on Aug. 11, 2013.