Party Girl

Confronting advanced breast cancer without a dime to her name, Texas legend Priscilla Davis insists the good times aren't over yet

Inside a one-bedroom Oak Lawn apartment where a cat named Angel saunters among a cluttered field of prescription bottles and small framed pictures, Greg Brown hands me a book. It's a 1984 portrait collection called Texas Women, by photographers Richard Pruitt and David Woo. I flip through the volume quickly, see consciously composed shots of Lady Bird Johnson, Ann Richards, Liz Carpenter, and Jerry Hall, among many others. But I can't seem to find the subject I search for. Greg helps me. She's almost in the center of the book, stretched out on a bed seemingly naked except for a fox fur wrapped strategically around her small, pale body (she was, I am primly assured later, wearing a bathing suit underneath). Head thrown back, spider-lashed eyes closed, and red lips stretched tight to flash perfect white teeth, Priscilla Davis lavishes at the point where movie-star glamour and amateur boudoir photography intersect.

"We still have that fur," says Greg, Davis' 31-year-old live-in companion, as he points down the hall to the bedroom. "It's in there."

Minutes later, after she has received the latest of many phone calls that have interrupted to ask about her well-being, Davis returns to sit beside me on the couch. She looks considerably different, of course, than her Texas Women image. The passing of 16 years has taken its toll for a woman who attended her share of parties in Dallas and across the country, but even more so has the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed in February. The 59-year-old Davis is heavier, and she has lost almost all of her hair to chemotherapy; a platinum blond wig, limp and curtain-like compared to the sprayed mountain of peroxide that's one of her trademarks, sits on her skull. When I complain of the heat, Davis points to herself and says, "Lord, you should walk around with this on your head!"

In the mid-'70s, Priscilla Davis was the quintessential flashy Texas blonde.
In the mid-'70s, Priscilla Davis was the quintessential flashy Texas blonde.
Cullen and Priscilla Davis in the '70s
Courtesy of Priscilla Davis
Cullen and Priscilla Davis in the '70s

The woman who stood like a target at the center of the most famous murder trial in Texas history loves to talk and laugh, even though she's clearly not at her peak--in two days, she will be driven to Parkland Hospital and undergo a mastectomy to remove her right breast, where the cancer began. Indeed, it started within less than a half-inch of where she was shot 24 years ago by the "man in black" ("There's not a lot of room there," she notes, tracing a nail-painted finger down between her ample breasts where they sit beneath a T-shirt), whom she and two other survivors identified as Cullen Davis, her then multimillionaire oil industry husband.

Right now, she hops from topic to topic, mixing personal memories with opinions of famous people she has or hasn't met. Her electric interest in Dallas gossip and current newspaper headlines and in downplaying her own serious condition conflicts with a brooding that she is clearly not accustomed to. Planning too much for the future, much less worrying about it, is as alien to Priscilla Davis as the cramped quarters she now shares with Greg Brown--or so anyone who remembers the much-photographed Priscilla Davis of the '70s would assume. The fabled Davis mansion in Fort Worth was 17,000 square feet, with almost 30 rooms containing locks and security cameras activated from two consoles, an indoor swimming pool, and other amenities for which the adjective "palatial" would not be an exaggeration. Priscilla speaks animatedly but without nostalgia about her most famous digs, the sweeping fortress where she lost a daughter, a boyfriend, and she herself nearly died.

"Why was everyone so impressed with all that space?" she wondered in her high Texas twang. "When I lived there, everybody congregated in one place for a long time. They didn't run from room to room to see the whole house. A home should be like having an arm wrapped around you."

That would seem like a disingenuous bit of homespun philosophy from a woman who, in the early '70s, enjoyed Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News cameras snapping her scantily clad presence at the Colonial golf tournament in the well-heeled company of Cullen's coterie. Could the quintessential flashy, trashy Texas wife and divorcee who sported the gold necklace that spelled "Rich Bitch" until strangers took it too seriously really have always desired just a chair by the hearth?

Actually, you need only spend a few hours with Priscilla Davis to realize maternal and partying instincts, domestic impulses, and a cheerful restlessness coexist beside each other, though not peacefully. The perpetual good-time girl has too often prevailed: Over the last quarter-century since the murder trials and the divorce settlement, Priscilla Davis has watched her personal finances and fortunes dwindle. She had spent so lavishly on herself and others, she was out of money by 1988, according to her eldest child, Dee Davis, daughter of a brief first marriage in Houston and later adopted by Cullen.

But that reveals only one side of Priscilla Davis. In fact, Priscilla, to the best of her abilities, rescued a grandchild born in the midst of chaos (due to Dee's adult struggles with alcohol and heroin and subsequent imprisonment). The woman vilified as a home-wrecker and a gold-digger raised little Priscilla--with the help of her mother and friends--through junior high school, until Dee got her act together and regained full custody of her 13-year-old daughter. It's one more testament to Davis' resiliency.

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