It’s always tempting to draw parallels between the lives of two of Sarasota’s early “power couples”—John and Mable Ringling and William and Marie Selby, of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ fame. Although the foursome were contemporaries in the city in the 1910s and 1920s, their lifestyles were very different, with the Ringlings’ showier, flamboyant social life contrasting against the Selbys’ low-key, homespun patterns.
But they did hold some things in common: Marie and Mable both loved gardens, with each designing a rose garden on their respective properties along Sarasota Bay. And boating was a common interest as well; the Ringlings always had a yacht and the Selbys were active early members of the Sarasota Yacht Club, with a succession of boats named Bilma—a combination of the names Bill and Marie.
Marie, born in 1885 in West Virginia and growing up in Marietta, Ohio, along the Ohio River, always felt an affinity for the outdoors. Her father regularly took his family on camping and fishing expeditions, a passion Bill Selby, who with his father ran the Selby Oil and Gas Company, shared. In Sarasota, where the couple owned a ranch in Myakka City as well as their bayfront property where the gardens stand today, the two frequently rode their horses around town, dressing “down” in such a way passersby would never have guessed at their wealth.
Marie was also an accomplished pianist who studied music in Illinois prior to her marriage in 1908. (An often-told story about the Selbys is that not long after their marriage, they followed the route of the first cross-country automobile race in their specially adapted touring car—surely a 3,000-mile test of any couple’s compatibility—making Marie one of the first women to cross the country by car, if not indeed the first.)
At home in Sarasota, where Bill had first discovered the natural beauty and abundant fishing as a bachelor, Marie and Bill settled into their relatively modest Spanish-style home on their seven acres and Marie spent time establishing her beloved garden. (She was a charter member of the Sarasota Garden Club’s Founders Circle.) With no children of their own, the Selbys had taken an interest in helping young people, and in 1955 established the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, a year before Bill died. That foundation has provided more than 3,500 scholarships and more than $83 million for hundreds of nonprofit agencies.
Marie lived quietly at her home after Bill’s death until her own passing in 1971, supporting both the fledgling New College and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall with financial gifts. But her major legacy was the provision in her will for her gardens to be left to the community as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” Open since 1975, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has indeed provided that enjoyment, with more than 200,000 visitors yearly and a collection of thousands of plants, indoors and out. No wonder Marie was named a “Great Floridian” by the Florida Legislature in 2000, for her “significant contributions to the history and culture of the state.”