Party Girl

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

"When you're a woman and you're a blonde," Priscilla remarks, "you work extra hard so people won't think you're an idiot." People thought much worse of Priscilla Davis at the height of her notoriety. Now, the intimates who gather close around her as she confronts a malignancy that's begun to spread throughout her body insist that the naysayers never really cared to know her. As one longtime friend declares, "We should've all been a little nicer to Priscilla."

The details of August 2, 1976, have been repeated so often in print and on television, many Texans of a certain generation feel like they were there just past midnight at the Fort Worth mansion on Mockingbird Lane. That's when Priscilla and her then-boyfriend Stan Farr, a former TCU basketball star, arrived home at the elaborate white compound on the hill that Cullen Davis had been court-ordered to stay away from until the divorce was settled. A man wearing a woman's black wig at a crooked angle and garbage bags wrapped over his hands waited for Priscilla and Farr inside; there had been no forced entry. He'd already followed Priscilla's 12-year-old daughter, Andrea--a child from her previous marriage to car dealer Jack Wilborn--into the basement, where he fired a gun at point-blank range through her chest; the aorta burst and she bled to death curled up on the floor. In the kitchen, Priscilla was shot in almost the same part of her body (legend has it that one of her silicone breast implants deflected the bullet, but in truth it sailed through her tiny frame and out her back). Farr struggled briefly with the gunman, was overcome by surprise despite his towering 6-foot-7-inch body, and died after two shots. Injured and paralyzed for life was Bubba Gavrel as he returned at about the same time with his girlfriend, Beverly Bass, who was Dee Davis' best friend; a former high school sprinter, she fled the grounds with the killer in pursuit and escaped unharmed. Priscilla, too, ran from the property, clutching her bloody bosom as she stumbled around screaming outside the neighbor's house. When the authorities reached the three survivors separately, all announced immediately that the gunman was Cullen Davis. The killer was wigged, not masked; the victims had been close enough to touch him.

The complex and tortured trials that followed--more than a decade of criminal and civil litigation against Cullen Davis--were examined ad nauseam on Texas night-time news broadcasts and in four books released over a 16-year period. Richard "Racehorse" Haynes, who'd already established his name in Houston successfully defending Dr. John Hill from murder charges against the poisoning death of his wife, twice came to the high-priced rescue of Cullen Davis--the first against the state's claims that he'd murdered Andrea Wilborn, and the second less than a year after that acquittal in a murder-solicitation trial in which the FBI had videotaped and audiotaped Davis trying to pay for the killings of several people, including Priscilla and the judge who'd delayed their divorce even as he increased her monthly alimony payments.

Charlie Pride croons for the Davises and assorted high-rollers.
Mark Graham
Charlie Pride croons for the Davises and assorted high-rollers.
Priscilla's daughter Andrea, above, bled to death in the basement of the Fort Worth mansion.
Priscilla's daughter Andrea, above, bled to death in the basement of the Fort Worth mansion.

It was at Andrea's murder trial, however, that Priscilla Davis' notoriety spread outside the circles of Fort Worth high society into the state and, to a lesser extent, the national consciousness. Amazingly, the details surrounding Wilborn's killing were almost incidental in the Amarillo courtroom. "Racehorse" took Priscilla's boozy, pill-popping, big-spending habits, both during and after her marriage to Cullen, and beat her mercilessly with them as she sat on the stand. On camera, Cullen Davis was soft-spoken and looked like a banker; Priscilla had a mane of white-platinum countrypolitan hair, was heavily lashed and lipsticked, and somehow looked even more flamboyant (and fraudulent) when she tried to tone down from the usual mini-skirts, hip-huggers, and plunging necklines for the trial. She withered in the hard glare of the media lights as Haynes trumpeted her frequent Percodan use (at first for an injured ankle, then later for pain from the gunshot wound); the Christmas photo of her and a male companion who wore only a stocking to cover his genitals; vague intimations (if you've read the transcripts, you couldn't even call them allegations) that she'd engaged in ménage à trois; and illegal drugs among friends who'd moved into the Fort Worth mansion after her separation from Cullen. She was considered the prosecution's star witness, but as she arrived and left the courthouse, catcalls, hisses, and hateful glares from strangers became increasingly common.

Jack Strickland, the chief prosecutor on Cullen Davis' murder-for-hire case in Fort Worth, would date Priscilla for a couple of years after the trials and has remained in contact with her ever since. He admits his own first impression of Priscilla was not flattering, but more from a strategic point of view. "She just wasn't a good witness," he confesses. "Some people who are witnesses have a story to tell, and they want to tell it so badly that they have trouble answering the questions you asked them. They come out with something else they think is urgent, maybe a diatribe. That drives lawyers crazy."

On the other hand, "Priscilla's version of the events remained rock solid, and they always matched the physical evidence. The defense never made inroads into defeating that story."

Nonetheless, after Richard Haynes' scorched-character method, and by floating the suggestion that Andrea might have been murdered by one of Priscilla's consorts in a drug-related act, three identical eyewitness testimonies were erased. Maryln Schwartz, the Dallas Morning News columnist who as a young reporter covered the trial, says, "She was done in. They turned her into the biggest slut in the state. Her child was murdered, she almost died, but 'Racehorse' Haynes did a brilliant job of keeping those facts out of the courtroom."

In every interview since--including this one and an on-camera chat for a recent June episode of Arts & Entertainment's American Justice devoted to the murders at the Davis mansion--Priscilla speaks unflinchingly of Cullen Davis as the murderer of Andrea Wilborn and Stan Farr. A $16.5 million wrongful death civil suit by her and Jack Wilborn ended with a deadlocked jury in 1987. Later that year, Cullen's lawyers--asserting that it was not an admission of guilt--settled with her for $5 million. But as they admitted somewhat gleefully at the time, his simultaneous bankruptcy bid almost guaranteed she'd never see a penny of it. And she hasn't. "My lawyers and I just didn't understand bankruptcy law," she says now. "They pressured me to hurry up and sign something, so I did."

There is a sense in revisiting Priscilla's past through conversations with her that she has never concentrated much on the details that might've made her subsequent landing softer. For the divorce, her lawyers negotiated only a flat $3.4 million cash settlement from which they subtracted fees; she had to buy back from Cullen piece-by-piece stuff she'd brought into the marriage, because the lawyers didn't itemize them. The Fort Worth home she moved into immediately after the mansion was extensively damaged by fire, caused by a cigarette butt she had left wrapped in a wet tissue. She was not insured, and received no compensation for the lost property. Back in 1984, during an estate sale at her almost all-white home in North Dallas' exclusive Bent Tree neighborhood (the press dubbed it "Priscilla's Garage Sale"), she lost control of the event; spilled beer soaked the carpet, and a portion of the statues and paintings and furs, she discovered later, were sold at the lowest bid as part of what she considers a scam. Included was a $15,000 marble commode; she recently discovered it graces the restroom of a Dallas antique shop.

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