Dear Marie

Remembering Marie Selby

An ode to the woman who gave us Selby Gardens.

By Ilene Denton November 29, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Marie with her dog Riggles, circa 1920s.

An old sepia photograph of Marie Selby hangs on a wall at the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation. That image tells volumes about the woman for whom the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens—and the Selby Public Library, the YMCA’s Selby Aquatic Center and so many other local institutions—are named.

In the photo, Selby is standing in front of her modest two-story Spanish-style house—the Selby House now at the heart of Selby Gardens—wearing a striped cotton dress and—as in the photo above—playing with her dog. If the unassuming, nature-loving Selby could today gaze upon the gardens she bequeathed to the city, which have become an internationally acclaimed research center as well as a thriving tourist attraction, and are soon to undergo a $67 million expansion, she would probably be as astonished as she would be pleased.

With a fortune earned from his partnership with his father in the Selby Oil and Gas Company, which later merged with Texaco, William and Marie were one of Sarasota’s two wealthiest couples in the early part of the 20th century. The other couple, John and Mable Ringling, collected European art and entertained a parade of celebrities at their exuberant Italianate bayfront mansion, Ca d’Zan. The Selbys, on the other hand, preferred to dress in Western wear and enjoyed pursuits like boating, fishing and gardening. 

The couple, who were childless, lived such a quiet life that, when Bill Selby established his foundation in 1955, the year before he died, with a gift of $3 million and when Marie added an additional $16.5 million at her death in 1971, the amount of their wealth surprised many. From the original $19.5 million, the Selby Foundation has donated $120 million in capital grants to a wide variety of civic causes in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties and has awarded 5,000-plus student scholarships. The foundation’s corpus stands at over $70 million.

At a time when women were encouraged to be domestic, Selby embraced adventure and the outdoors. As a newlywed, she was the first woman to travel across the United States by car, participating with Bill in a transcontinental automobile race from Seattle to New York City. She was a skilled boater, too, winning the Express Cruise Race at the Sarasota Yacht Club in 1928. The Selbys owned several yachts named Bilma, a combination of Bill and Marie. A horse enthusiast, Marie kept Morgans and Tennessee Walkers at a 3,000-acre cattle ranch she and Bill owned near Myakka City. They also owned a fish camp near Lake Okeechobee.

A devout gardener, she was a charter member of Sarasota’s first garden club, the Founder’s Circle. She planned the banyan grove around the Selby House, and at her death, willed her home and the surrounding seven bayfront acres with the express purpose of creating a botanical garden. In the 42 years since, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has earned a worldwide reputation for the study and collection of epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants, especially orchids.

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A rendering of the Selby Gardens master plan, developed by the landscape architecture firm OLIN.

Image: Courtesy OLIN

Selby Gardens has set new membership and attendance records in the past few years, and this fall it unveiled plans for a 10-year, $67 million reinvention of its gardens and physical plant. The plans include building a five-story parking garage covered in live plants and a chic rooftop restaurant; creating a new welcome center; and moving its greenhouses filled with rare and endangered plants farther east, away from their vulnerable spot right on Sarasota Bay. The master site plan, developed in conjunction with the Philadelphia and Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm OLIN (among its projects are the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Bryant Park) will eventually add 50 percent more garden space to the 15-acre peninsula.

Marie and Bill were reinterred at the gardens in 2001, under a triangular fountain in front of the Selby House, and a permanent exhibit that tells her life story is installed in the first floor of the house, which now is home to a café. In 2000, the Florida legislature honored her with a Great Floridian designation for her “significant contributions to the progress and welfare of this state.”

“Marie was down to earth, caring, concerned about others and the future,” says Carol Butera, president of the Selby Foundation. “Their legacy lives on and on.”

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