It seems somehow ironic that the iconic Selby name today is renown in Sarasota history, yet historically Bill and Marie Selby were virtually unknown during their 60-plus years in the city.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, an 11-acre tract of lush landscaping on Sarasota Bay just south of Downtown, is probably the most visible of the pair’s presence in the community.
The gardens celebrates its anniversary July 7, the date in 1975 when it opened to the public.
A more important contribution to the region, though, comes through the William and Marie Selby Foundation, a multi-million endowment Bill established in 1955. Interest from the investment goes to grants to programs that enhance education, the arts, youth and children, libraries, health services, and programs in support of the aged.
Bill and Marie Selby moved first visited Sarasota in 1909, a year after their wedding. The rugged village on Sarasota Bay appealed to the couple, who came back winter after winter — at one point living on a houseboat at the foot of Main Street — and eventually building a home on seven acres of bayfront property.
Marie was the daughter of an oil drilling equipment inventor and an accomplished pianist. Bill was a partner in the family business, Selby Oil and Gas Co., which later merged to form Texaco Oil Co.
The pair were outdoorspeople, based on Marie’s geological excursions with her father and Bill’s search for oil and natural gas. Their hands-on approach to the great ourdoors and mechanical bent led them to mimic the first cross-country automobile race.
The pair beat the official race time by six days, in so doing awarding Marie the honor of being the first woman to cross the United States by car.
In Sarasota, “the Selbys kept a low public profile,” according to the Sarasota Historical Society. “Bill Selby's business interests took him out of town. Marie's horticultural interests focused on their home.
“After establishing a ranch on 3,000 acres southeast of Myakka City, Bill oversaw a herd of Angus cattle and Marie rode the horses she kept there.”
Marie was a founding member of the Sarasota Garden Club, and the pair both joined the Sarasota Yacht Club. That was pretty much their social circle.
“Living here was a personal choice dictated by their love of nature and the outdoors in an affinity the couple shared from the beginning of their lives together,” Kay Kipling wrote in Sarasota Magazine regarding the Selbys.
“In 1921, the Selbys built a Spanish-style, two-story house among the laurel and banyan trees on several acres of land bordering Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou,” Kipling continued. In 1941, they also bought a 3,000-acre ranch in Desoto County, where cattle were raised and Marie's love of horseback riding was indulged. Acquaintances recall that the unpretentious Marie was more often seen in her riding gear than in any fancy party dresses.
“Roses were Marie's favorite flower — a surprise, perhaps, to those who think of her namesake gardens more in terms of orchids — and a large rose garden figured prominently in her landscaping design for the Selby property.”
The lack of ostentation is evident at the Selby property. The Selby’s home was planned as a gatehouse, but as Sarasota Magazine explained, “Marie always postponed building anything grander; the large Southern Colonial house on the Selby Gardens property was not built by the Selbys, but by their neighbor Calvin Payne, and was acquired by the gardens in 1973.”
Bill died in December 1956. Marie kept to her gardens, her horses, and herself until her death in 1971. Her legacy is her gardens, today a sprawling 11-acre tract that houses a plant collection numbering more than 20,000 greenhouse plants, plus countless more outdoors.
According to the gardens, there are “eight greenhouses include the stunning Tropical Conservatory where unusual flora can be seen year round. The Botany Department provides headquarters for the Bromeliad, Gesneriad, and Orchid Research Centers, and the Selby Gardens' Herbarium and Molecular Laboratory.” More than 180,000 visitors tour the grounds annually.
Marie was generous in her contributions to the community above and beyond gardens and foundation. As Kipling wrote, “Accounts abound of how Marie would, when she felt sympathy for a cause the foundation did not respond to, give of her own private resources. ‘Let me take care of that one,’ she would say in her quiet way. On a public scale, she was one of only a few individuals to give money to the construction of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.”
Selby Gardens, Selby Library, the Selby Foundation, Selby Gallery, Selby Five Points Park — think how the face of Sarasota would look without the presence of a quiet ephemeral couple from years past with a tremendous impact today.