If you had to pick out the wealthiest couple in Sarasota in the 1920s, you’d probably point to John and Mable Ringling, who were busy building their art collection and their grand Italianate palazzo, Cà d’Zan. But just down the Trail a few miles, on a five-acre bayfront peninsula lined with roses, another wealthy husband and wife were quietly making a vital mark on Sarasota—a mark that, like that of the Ringlings, continues to this day.
Bill and Marie Selby—he earned his riches in his family’s Selby Oil & Gas Company, which later merged with Texaco—were adventurers who loved the great outdoors. The first woman to cross the United States by automobile, Marie enjoyed hunting, boating and fishing as much as her husband. She often rode horseback on the 3,000-acre ranch they owned near Myakka River State Park. She favored cotton housecoats; he liked to ride his fenderless bicycle to Badger’s drugstore on Main Street, a big hat on his head and an ever-present unlit cigar between his teeth.
Most importantly, Marie loved to garden, and she surrounded their lovely, unpretentious Mediterranean-style home on Palm Avenue with blooming plants. That property now, of course, forms the nucleus of the world-renowned Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
The Selbys believed in using their wealth to benefit others. Their original investment of $19.5 million in the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation has multiplied over and over, enabling it to grant more than $83 million to charitable causes in which the Selbys believed—the environment, education and science chief among them. It’s now one of the largest private foundations in Florida.
It’s a fitting legacy for this devoted couple, who understood that a simple life can be the richest, and that giving is the greatest joy of all.