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!"
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.
"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.
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.
"The divorce settlement was the first time Priscilla had a lot of money she controlled herself," says a friend who speaks under condition of anonymity. "She's extremely unselfish. She paid for everything; she'd take trips to Los Angeles with friends and pay for everyone's airline tickets. [Back in the early '80s] she was going 90 miles an hour and feeling no pain."
A few years of hiring 'round-the-clock off-duty police surveillance ended with the Fort Worth fire. Priscilla moved to Bent Tree in Dallas in 1981 to live closer to a boyfriend who worked at Cutter Bill's. "That was when everyone had money," she remembers, her eyes agog. There was a revolving menagerie of folks, some genuine friends and others temporary hangers-on, who floated around Priscilla as she predictably took care of the restaurant bill, dropped $75,000 for a second car, gave cash loans without bother if they were to be repaid, and financed a pal's cosmetic surgery after breast cancer, among other expenditures. There was, Dee Davis says, always someone who needed help with their alimony payments or a court fine, or someone who wanted her to invest in a piece of art or a startup business that was rotten from the get-go. "She was naïve to people's motivations," she says.
Jack Strickland acknowledges she had received bad legal advice during her divorce and civil suits, but says, "She is even more a victim of her own generosity. I watched her bestow gifts and assist people all the time when she had the financial wherewithal to do it."
Meanwhile, she and a couple of female friends were what her daughter Dee called "unstoppable" clubgoers, habitués at the Rio Room and Mistral, and to a lesser extent, the Starck Club, an institution Priscilla quickly grew to hate. "Everybody was doing drugs in the bathroom right out in the open," she snorts, her nose wrinkled, "and I was like, 'Get outta here so I can use the bathroom!'"
Here's a point that Priscilla feels is one of the biggest misconceptions about her--that her partying days included major drug use. Her dependency on Percodan, which began innocently after a skiing mishap but turned nasty during treatment for the shooting, was part of court record, but as the unnamed friend notes wryly, "That was the '70s. Doctors were prescribing speed to lose weight and Valium for headaches." She readily admits she has tried illegal substances, but never ventured beyond experimentation: "I'd rather have a cocktail," she says of her preferred poison. Intimates with whom I spoke for this story bolster her assertion. Now that she's been diagnosed with breast cancer, a friend who has AIDS encouraged her to smoke marijuana to alleviate pain, but she refused. "I don't like the way it smells and I don't like the way it tastes," she says. "People can do whatever they enjoy, but I ask them not to smoke it in my place."
Dee Davis knows why Priscilla reacts rather strongly against illicit substances--her approximately nine years in and out of state and federal prison for related crimes have "put a bad taste in my mother's mouth where street drugs are concerned." After Priscilla's draining bank accounts had forced her into smaller and more temporary dwellings--she sold the Bent Tree house, then moved to a rented home nearby, then relocated with her mother to the high-rise Warrington apartments in the Turtle Creek area, and later a duplex--Dee wound up pregnant. Since her daughter's life was being ravaged by addiction at the time, Priscilla felt she had no other choice. "Bottom line," she says. "I became a mother again."
Little Priscilla, now 16 years old and considerably taller than her grandmother, was born underweight in Gatesville, the state women's facility, where Dee was incarcerated on a heroin-related rap. The child's father, a black man who'd been a drugging companion of Dee's, left the scene almost immediately (according to Dee, he died about eight years ago).
"When I saw [my granddaughter in Gatesville], she looked like a little drowned rat," Priscilla remembers. "And I thought, 'Nobody's going to adopt her.' She's the sweetest little thing. I think God gave her to me because he took Andrea away."
Dee Davis was arrested for the first time for writing hot checks while living with her mother and grandmother in the Bent Tree house. She was released on probation and moved back there shortly after her daughter's birth. When little Priscilla was 14 months old, compulsory blood tests revealed Dee had been involved with heroin again. She'd already signed over legal custody of the baby to Priscilla Davis, and so back she went.
"I got a federal conviction for two years in 1986," Dee remembers. "I'm an addict, and everything took a back seat to the dope. I was incarcerated except for short intervals until Priscilla was 8 years old."
Priscilla insists she dropped out of the nightlife (except for the occasional dinner party, or a jaunt to the Hideaway Club) for the remainder of the '80s to raise little Priscilla, with the help of her mother and, for a few years, a boyfriend whom the child came to call "Daddy Ralph." By 1990, when the girl attained school age and her grandmother fretted that she couldn't afford a private education, they moved to the one-bedroom Oak Lawn apartment where Priscilla now resides. The size of the place reflected her meager funds, but the location--within the Highland Park public school system--spoke of her familiarity with privilege, something she hoped little Priscilla would now benefit from, if only indirectly. The girl attended Bradfield Elementary and McCulloch Intermediate. If she encountered problems among her almost all-Anglo and affluent peers--her father was black, her mother was an incarcerated addict, her grandmother was Priscilla Davis--then Davis seems oblivious to them, except for a couple of instances.
"Another little girl who played with my granddaughter told her she had to stop because little Priscilla was black," Davis says. "And another time, she came home and said, 'Mommy, am I black?' And I said, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' I mean, good Lord, if you trace anybody's family tree back far enough, we're all from mixed races."
Priscilla Davis' mother, Audie, who had helped her raise the child even as she remained at the Warrington, died in 1992 at the age of 83. Then, Dee Davis left prison for the last time in 1994. She threw herself passionately into 12-step recovery programs during her last sentence, and emerged having been clean for three years. During the next four years, she earned a license as an addiction counselor and was granted visitation rights, then joint custody. Little Priscilla now lives with her in Fort Worth. The child has not, however, found it so easy to escape the Cullen Davis controversy, which started eight years before she was born.
"Those asshole teachers in Fort Worth couldn't leave it alone," Dee Davis fumes. "Little Priscilla was in Texas history class, and they started debating the murders. 'Did Cullen do it, or didn't he?' She just sat there silently until the end of the class. Then she went up to the teacher and said, 'That's my grandmother.' The teacher was shocked. She didn't know."
Just as Dee Davis was in transition to prove that little Priscilla could live with her safely and to the court's satisfaction, the elder Priscilla met a man at a party who was 28 years her junior. It was 1995, and bubble-lipped, acerbic Greg Brown, whose hair then was just beginning to thin, quickly became what two other associates called "a soulmate." He identified himself as a gay man, and continues to do so if asked. This is not unusual for the Priscilla Davis who found herself delving deeper into the Oak Lawn club scene--many, if not most, of her closest friends are gay men.
"When we walk into the gay clubs, she gets twirled around like a top," says Brown. "'Oh, have you met so-and-so?' She doesn't have an affinity for them; they have an affinity for her. She's the local Barbra Streisand."
Priscilla's theory is: "I think a lot of minorities appreciate someone who was judged not for what they'd done, but for who they were. They feel comfortable with me because I've had stuff happen to me."
Greg moved into Priscilla's Oak Lawn apartment in June 1995, and it was late that year, he says, when the two became "an exclusive couple." They are friends and lovers. Brown has offered to marry Priscilla, if only to try and get her breast cancer treatments covered on his insurance at work. But she has resisted; in three years she'll turn 62, and because she was married more than 10 years to Cullen Davis, will be eligible to draw from his social security.
That will certainly contribute to what has been, throughout the '90s, a small and unpredictable income. Friends have found or created a series of full- and part-time jobs for Priscilla--she did fragrance modeling (spraying perfume on paper samples) at Neiman Marcus, worked as a hostess at a gentleman's club, The Lodge, and helped a pair of male friends, a gay couple, at their wholesale flower business. One of them, Cary Fisher, says, "In a way, I'm glad I didn't know Priscilla when she had all that money. She's humble now, very 'been there, done that.' I had a car accident one time, and just flipped out about it. She was like, 'Cary, it's a car. You can have it fixed.' She helps me look at things that way."
Still, scant material means are not noble when you face a life-threatening illness. Priscilla began to experience pain in her right nipple around August of last year. The doctors detected a lump, but she was not immediately alarmed; she'd had benign cysts removed before, and figured it might be leakage from her silicone implants. They were first inserted in 1968 and replaced in 1979 (physicians recommend they be switched out every 10 years), but by 1990, she couldn't pay for new ones. She also didn't have the funds or the insurance to pay for the diagnostic measures on this recent diagnosis. She wound her way through the Parkland Hospital system, and at the start of this year was diagnosed with "stage four" cancer--doctors discovered it had spread to her spine, her leg, and her liver. When they delivered the news, Greg recalls, he said, "Rats!" Then Priscilla said, "More rats!"
"Priscilla is one of these people who believes in not asking too much," Brown explains. "It's like, if she doesn't know about it, it's not happening."
Dee Davis borrowed an oncology textbook from a friend attending medical school and, sitting with her mother in the physician's Parkland office, began to fire off informed questions. Priscilla balked.
"I was like, 'If you're going to talk about me like this, let me leave the room first,'" Priscilla says. " I have always asked them to tell me only as much as I needed to know."
Jack Strickland says, "In terms of her current crisis, it's bad for her and worse for us, but it's not the worst. She was in that courtroom watching smug Cullen and Cullen's smug lawyers after she'd lost a daughter the way she had. She knew what happened."
When Priscilla was first admitted into Parkland, during the interview to place her with a primary physician, the doctor began to ask a series of questions about her family background based on information she'd supplied in the paperwork. How, this friendly but oblivious man in his fifties wanted to know, did her daughter Andrea die?
Priscilla and Greg looked at each other. Did he remember the Cullen Davis murders back in the '70s? he was asked. Of course, he replied. There was another pause, as the connection once again was not made. That's Priscilla Davis, Greg said, pointing to his partner. They said the doctor's eyes almost fell out of his head. Later on in the interview, he just had to ask: How did someone of her wealth wind up sitting in Parkland right now?
"Priscilla said, 'Stuff happens,'" Greg recalls. "And the doctor said, 'I guess stuff does happen.' But I know her. What she really wanted to say was, 'Shit happens.'"
A large mural hangs in the living room of Priscilla Davis' Oak Lawn apartment. It's frayed around the edges and faded from the sun, because it once was displayed in a window without curtains. The '83 photo was taken to be showcased in some chi-chi restaurant whose name Priscilla has forgotten. It features prominent Dallasites like Julia Sweeney and Kendall Bailey against a stark white background, champagne glasses held aloft in celebration. Priscilla is right there clutching her own champagne flute, head turned to toss a look over her shoulder, mouth open in that movie-star smile. I notice, though, that one of the revelers in the picture has blue marker scribbled all over her face.
"I had a couple of cocktails one night and did that," Priscilla says sheepishly. "That woman told Greg, 'Priscilla will never have any peace until she forgives Cullen.'"
A friend she speaks to only occasionally heard that she'd contracted breast cancer, and asked if there was going to be an estate sale. Priscilla smiles a little bitterly as she relates this.
"I was, like, well, there's not really much left to sell," she says, her arm gesturing around the tiny apartment. "He's always wanted that mural. But I'm like, gaw, the funeral hasn't happened yet."
You can see why someone who knows Priscilla would prize this 17 year-old image of her. It is eerily emblematic of her life, her charm, her strengths, and her weaknesses. There she is on the wall, life-sized, cocktail in hand, laughing and refusing to look squarely at what's ahead.
On the subject of drinking, Dee Davis says she used to pester her mother about her consumption. Dee is, after all, a drug and alcohol counselor, and moreover, a sober alcoholic, and therefore spends a lot of time silently assessing the habits of those around her. She eventually came to the conclusion that it was really none of her business, and that Priscilla would do what she wanted to, anyway. Dee gave her mother a martini glass for her most recent birthday.
Priscilla, on the other hand, insists that she may not slurp as much alcohol as people think. In the country clubs of Dallas and Fort Worth, everyone knew what "Priscilla's drink" was--vodka with a splash of water. But she was famous for leaving her cocktails unfinished. If the ice melted too quickly, she'd send it back and order another one. She still does. The philosophy behind this is simple: "They'll always make more."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Margaret Hunt Hill's Heirs Are Still Fighting About Money, Making Judge Sad
- Downtown Dallas Inc. Says There Aren't Enough Cops Downtown, Asks For More
- I'll Eat Crow for Calling West Dallas "Nowhere," but that Bridge Is Still Stupid