The Lady Vanishes

Saying goodbye to Priscilla Davis, the non-socialite

The afternoon service at Sparkman Hillcrest Funeral Home started off subdued and solemn, appropriate for anyone recently deceased--except the woman being buried this day. The folks at this public gathering on February 22 to mourn the premature passing of Priscilla Davis were pretty much what one would expect: women with spider mascara and cotton-candy hair; macho men with boots and big silver belt buckles; a couple of drag queens (out of makeup); Oak Lawn's gay male club habitués, with moussed-brittle hair and exotic eyewear; dark-suited lawyers, journalists, and executives with prominent names on their business cards. It's just that I didn't expect them to be so, well, toned-down and yet so dressed-up at the same time. Sadness had drained the color out of the diverse types who populated the life of Davis, who died February 19 at age 59. She succumbed to complications from breast cancer while comatose in her apartment with daughter Dee Davis at her bedside.

Actually, if you just dimmed the lights, loosened up the men's ties, and wheeled a wet bar into that chapel, you'd have the right elements for a typical weeknight at the Hideaway Club or After Dark, two of the Oak Lawn clubs Davis had made her domain along with Greg Brown, her live-in partner of six years. (He took turns with her daughter caring for Davis in the final weeks, days, and hours of her life, but was omitted as a survivor from The Dallas Morning News' front-page obituary).

Some mourners agreed that Davis would have preferred a different tone at her funeral. "Gaw, why is everyone bein' so serious?" you could hear her ask. Still, there were piano-bar tunes--her friend Marilee Bryan could barely get through "Moon River" as the sobs strangled her notes, although she returned for a lovely rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." ("One for the queens," came that ghostly dry twang again, followed by the explosive, head-thrown-back laugh).

Priscilla Davis could never be sure what thoughts lay behind the stares of strangers.
Photo courtesy of Dee Davis
Priscilla Davis could never be sure what thoughts lay behind the stares of strangers.

I was a relatively brief, last-minute intrusion in the life of Davis, whose cancer had already progressed to its final stages last summer when I began interviews with her for a Dallas Observer feature ("Party Girl," September 7). Over the years, she had developed a love-hate relationship with the nonstop attention surrounding her near-fatal 1976 gunshot wound, the murder of her 12-year-old daughter Andrea and of her boyfriend Stan Farr by "The Man in Black" at husband Cullen Davis' Fort Worth mansion. Toward the end of her life, as the cancer treatments grew more punishing at Parkland Hospital (Davis was uninsured and penniless), it was clear that "hate" was beginning to win out. There were only so many times she could discuss Andrea's killing or dredge up her plainspoken hatred of Cullen Davis, whom she, two other eyewitnesses, family, and friends always maintained was the black-clad gunman. Amid the following months-long media frenzy that transformed platinum-tressed, neckline-plunging Davis into "the biggest slut in the state," as Morning News columnist Marlyn Schwarz said with bitter irony, Cullen Davis was acquitted of Andrea's killing as well as separate murder-for-hire charges. The acquittals came despite an FBI tape that captured him delivering money to a phony hit man. (One of the people he allegedly wanted capped was Priscilla.)

But I pressed her to revisit the past, and finally, after several meetings, we had a three-hour chat on her Oak Lawn couch. Feeling less than her best, Davis still couldn't keep herself from laughing when something struck her as funny (and it often did). She'd pause periodically between sips of a dirty vodka martini and reapply her pale pink lipstick.

Few people would argue that Priscilla Davis rejected the spotlight--she relished male attention especially, be it straight or gay--but close friends insist she never enjoyed the public stares from strangers that followed her right up to her untimely death. She could never be sure what thoughts--sympathy, or "Slut!"--lay behind them. The relentless courtroom trashing of her by Cullen Davis' defense attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes had so permanently affected her, she refused to take pain medication for the cancer that ravaged her body. "Pill-popper" was another sobriquet she'd been stuck with after Haynes trumpeted her Percodan dependency in the '70s.

Jack Strickland, the Fort Worth attorney who prosecuted Cullen Davis on the murder-for-hire charges and later briefly dated Priscilla, spoke at her funeral service to rescue an event that would have had the woman rolling her eyes and saying, "Oh, puh-leeze." His eulogy, he warned, would offend anyone who expected a "syrupy and sentimental" tribute to her.

She was a model of "neither punctuality nor organization" (her motto was something like, as long as she came before the event was over, "I'm not late"; and when she entered a closet, Strickland said, "clothes flew off the handles of their own volition"). She had "big hair, big boobs," and "was generous to a fault," he noted.

Strickland included one of his favorite quotes by Davis about herself; when asked why she never remarried, she replied, "I'm like the Statue of Liberty. Everyone wants to say he's been there, but nobody wants to pay for the upkeep." He referred to the Morning News' front-page obituary that had labeled her a "socialite" as being "a bit of breathless recent news coverage." To the contrary, Strickland insisted, Davis despised pretentiousness and would never have called herself such a thing (which was part of the reason Fort Worth's high society was so eager to turn its back on her when the trials began). "The words 'Priscilla' and 'socialite' go together about as well as 'Cullen' and 'innocent,'" Strickland said.

Someone finally acknowledged the dark, angry thoughts that had been polluting the chapel. Relief came in a vigorous round of laughter and applause. It could hardly have gone unspoken, but when finally expressed, hinted at perhaps the surpassing tragedy that surrounds the life and death of Priscilla Davis: Her name will forever be linked with the name of the man she insisted had murdered her daughter.

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