Palm Springs Weekends - Vanity Fair Article 1999
By Bob Colacello
The faded desert jewel of Palm Springs is sparkling once again, as trendsetters from John Travolta to Gucci's Tom Ford rediscover its exuberant modernist aesthetic. Summoning the hedonistic past of a resort that drew a cavalcade of celebrities including Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra and presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, writer Bob Colacello and photographer Jonathan Becker tour its social and architectural delights: houses built by masters such as Albert Frey, John Lautner, A. Quincy Jones, and Richard Neutra and inhabited by luminaries such as Bob and Dolores Hope, Walter and Lee Annenberg, and Kirk and Anne Douglas.
The Palm Springs house of Bob and Dolores Hope sits at the top of Southridge Drive, overlooking the entire Coachella Valley, from the Banning Pass to the north-west, where the freeway from Los Angeles cuts between Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto, each of which rises more than 10,000 feet above the valley’s flat desert floor, all the way to Indio, a thriving agricultural center known for its date crop and its polo grounds, some 30 miles to the southeast. In between Banning and Indio, strung out along Highway 111 like a necklace of emeralds on an ancient, parched chest, are the winter resort towns which have made this sun-drenched corner of Southern California rich and famous: Palm Springs itself, an old cabochon in need of some polishing; the somewhat less lustrous Cathedral City; and the brilliantly green country-club communities of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and La Quinta.
There are only about a dozen houses on Southridge Drive, a private road with a guardhouse at its base, most of them built in the 1960s and 70s, and all of them ultramodern, including those once owned by Steve McQueen, when he was married to Ali MacGraw, and William Holden, when he lived with Stefanie Powers. The Hopes’ house, which they moved into in 1979, is by far the largest and, surprisingly, the most avant-garde: a 25,000-square-foot concrete-steel-and-glass behemoth, with a vast curving roof of copper that matches the mountains behind it. Designed by John Lautner, one of the recognized geniuses of California modernism, and said to have cost more than $2 million, it features that ultimate Palm Springs indoor-outdoor touch: a boulder jutting into the living room. Dolores Hope calls it a “contemporary castle.” Others have compared it to the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the Houston Astrodome, and a giant mushroom. In any case, its commanding view, overwhelming scale, and dramatic architecture make it the headquarters for the undisputed king and queen of Palm Springs.
The Hopes first came to Palm Springs in 1937, to spend a weekend at the old El Mirador Hotel. They bought their first house in 1941, “in the poor section,” as Dolores Hope puts it, and a second in 1946, on El Alameda in the then new area known as the Movie Colony, where their neighbors included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson, and Darryl Zanuck. They still own both of these houses; in fact, part of Bob Hope’s estimated $150 million fortune is based on Coachella Valley real estate. Hope was named honorary mayor of Palm Springs in the 1950s and again in the 80s. In 1965 the Desert Classic golf tournament was renamed the Bob Hope Desert Classic. President Clinton joined former presidents Ford and Bush at the tournament in 1995. Dolores Hope has been chairman of the board of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage since 1968, when she and Bob donated the 80 acres of land, then valued at nearly $1 million, on which it was built. Her elaborate parties—Christmas and Easter celebrations that include a Mass at home; an annual Italian bash for the players in the Classic with her fabled antipasto—have long drawn the cream of the Coachella Valley’s winter residents, including Betty and Gerald Ford, Lee and Walter Annenberg, Anne and Kirk Douglas, and Eunice and John Johnson, the founders of Ebony magazine. Last year Queen Elizabeth II made Bob Hope an honorary knight of the British Empire, and Pope John Paul II gave both Hopes papal knighthoods.
At 96, Bob Hope is the last of the Palm Springs Big Three—Bing Crosby died playing golf in 1977, and Frank Sinatra is buried at the Desert Memorial Park Cemetery in Cathedral City. Although his sight and hearing are failing, he refuses to wear eyeglasses or a hearing aid, but he still knows what’s going on. That is evident the afternoon he is photographed by Jonathan Becker for this article. Looking spiffy in a tweed jacket, a pink shirt with white collar and cuffs, a pink-and-silver tie, gabardine slacks, and tassel loafers, he is brought down from the second floor on the elevator and out to the patio by his around-the-clock male nurse. He is in a wheelchair and asleep.
“Here’s our baby boy,” announces Dolores Hope, who will turn 90 this month and is still going strong. Her outfit—purple blazer, pink blouse and pants, white pumps—is color-coordinated with her husband’s. “Bob, wake up, honey,” she shouts. “You’re on Candid Camera.”
“Mr. Hope,” the nurse asks, “do you think you can stay awake for the photos?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll try.”
He comes alive for the camera, and when the 10-minute shoot is over, the nurse asks him if he’d prefer to have his afternoon glass of wine upstairs in his room or downstairs with his guests.
“Upstairs,” Hope answers firmly.
Later, sitting inside with her old friends William Frye and James Wharton, Hollywood producers who have retired to the Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert, Dolores Hope reminisces. “I had a party for Bob for his 90th birthday. We did a whole carnival thing—clowns and magicians. We had about 140 people. Forty of them are gone. Dinah Shore. Gloria and Jimmy Stewart. Alice Faye and Phil Harris. George Burns. You know, that’s what happens with this age group—40 gone in six years.”
“The party I remember here,” says Frye, “was your 75th birthday. All those marvelous women—Irene Dunne, Dorothy Lamour, June Haver, Alice Faye—just got up and sang. And I remember what Bob gave you: a rope of diamonds.”
“A string of diamonds,” says Dolores Hope.
“That’s right. And I remember thinking, Every woman has a string of pearls, but only Dolores has a string of diamonds.”
“You know how long that took me to get?”
When a maid emerges from the kitchen with a tray of freshly baked Danish pastries, Dolores Hope asks for a martini and her new CD, which will be out this month. It’s the fifth album of old favorites that she’s recorded since 1993, when she revived the singing career she gave up after marrying Hope 65 years ago. The title: Young at Heart.
‘This is God’s waiting room,” says Frank Bogert, the 89-year-old former mayor of Palm Springs, who rides his horse two hours nearly every day in the Indian Canyons south of town. “The average age,” says novelist Sidney Sheldon, 82, “is deceased.” A recent arrival notes, “All the people I thought had died are alive and kicking in Palm Springs. Time sort of stands still here.”
Actually, the average age of the Coachella Valley’s 275,000 year-round residents is 35. And the city of Palm Springs is in the midst of a major revival. What Art Deco did for Miami Beach in the 1980s, modernism is doing for Palm Springs today—attracting an affluent younger generation infatuated with its style and history, and making a faded resort fashionable once more.
Newcomers also come for the same reasons old-timers never leave: convenience—Palm Springs is a mere two hours by car from Los Angeles—and “the bliss of this climate,” as artist and man-about-town Gant Gaither puts it. “Unlike Palm Beach, which is humid and sticky, it’s cool at night, so the ladies can wear their chinchillas.” Daytime temperatures run between 60 and 90 degrees from October to June, and it rains only 15 to 20 days a year.
But without question architecture is the key to the new Palm Springs. This curious place, where Hollywood stars hid out in hacienda-style hotels (Fatty Arbuckle at the Desert Inn, Greta Garbo at the Ingleside Inn, Charlie Chaplin at the La Quinta Hotel) and Republican presidents retired at exclusive golf clubs (Eisenhower at Eldorado, Ford at Thunderbird), was also a mecca for modernist architects, including the Los Angeles visionaries Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. Starting in the 30s, such resident talents as Albert Frey, William Cody, Stewart Williams, and Donald Wexler designed everything from the Palm Springs City Hall to the high-school auditorium, the airport, shopping centers, hotels, motels, gas stations, and private residences.
“We have the largest concentration of mid-century modern architecture anywhere,” says Marc Sanders, the young real-estate investor who recently bought and restored Frank Sinatra’s first house in Palm Springs, which was designed by Stewart Williams in 1947. “People are finally starting to recognize that and appreciate it.” According to Tony Merchell, a board member of the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Foundation, there are at least 575 modern buildings and additions in the area (not including the 2,400 tract houses and condominiums built by contractors George and Bob Alexander in the 1950s and 60s).
‘I have people waiting for houses to go on the market. They’re waiting for people to die,” says real-estate agent and former model Nelda Linsk. “There’s a Neutra house in Rancho Mirage that these people are just champing at the bit for. We had a slow, slow market. It went downhill in 1989. And just this year it’s come back in a big way. I mean, it’s incredible now, the renewed interest in Palm Springs.”
Douglas Smith, the proprietor of the Korakia Pensione—a restored 1920s villa where everyone from Donatella Versace to Chris O’Donnell to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has stayed—agrees. “It was like a ghost town when I came in 1990. Every other shop was vacant. And the shop that was occupied was a T-shirt shop. Now I’m finding that up to three guests a month are buying houses out here.” The most recent Korakia regular to turn into a Palm Springs homeowner is theater and film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who just closed on a $250,000 house in an Alexander subdivision called Vista Las Palmas.
What Art Deco did for Miami Beach in the 1980s, modernism is doing for Palm Springs today.
Artist Ed Ruscha likes to sequester himself in a rugged cabin of his own design in the high desert 20 miles north of town. Gucci’s Tom Ford spends his Palm Springs weekends at the L’Horizon Garden Hotel, which was designed in 1954 by William Cody, and originally owned by Jack Wrather and his actress wife, Bonita Granville, the producer of Lassie. Tatiana Von Furstenberg and Carolina Herrera Jr. drive out from Los Angeles to stay at Two Bunch Palms, the laid-back spa in nearby Desert Hot Springs. There are also more than 20 exclusively gay guesthouses in the Warm Sands district, most of them “clothing-optional” and all of them booming. The decidedly more upscale Merv Griffin’s Resort Hotel & Givenchy Spa—which was the Gene Autry Hotel until it was transformed by Washington, D.C., hotelier Rose Narva in 1995—attracts such luminaries as Nancy Reagan and John Travolta. This past April, Los Angeles magazine proclaimed Palm Springs “so hot it’s cool again.” This September, Rizzoli is publishing Adele Cygelman’s comprehensive coffee-table book, Palm Springs Modern.
Many credit GQ creative director Jim Moore with kicking off the comeback in 1993, when he bought a steel-framed, early-60s Donald Wexler house for under $100,000 in the run-down north end of town. That same year, Brent Harris, a Newport Beach financial executive, and his wife, Beth, an architectural historian, bought from singer Barry Manilow for $1.2 million what is probably the greatest modernist masterpiece in Palm Springs—the Kaufmann House in the posh Las Palmas area. It was built in 1946 by Richard Neutra for Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department-store magnate who had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in 1936. The Harrises proceeded to spend the next five years and a rumored $4.5 million restoring it to its original, pristine beauty.
“It’s not ‘martini modern.’ It doesn’t have that swank quality. It’s more Zen-like,” Beth Harris explains. “Neutra had a theory called bionaturalism. He felt that a house should make you feel physically comfortable and serene.” The Harrises went as far as to have a machine reconstructed in order to duplicate the original sheet-metal molding. They also had the Los Angeles firm of Marmol and Radziner build an architecturally compatible pool house on an adjacent lot. That’s where they have their dinner parties. As Brent Harris says, “It’s a building we erected to view this building.”
In 1994, Brad Dunning, the influential Los Angeles designer who is currently working on Tom Ford’s Neutra house in Bel Air, found a “generic modern” three-bedroom ranch in the Deepwell area for about $150,000. Others soon followed, including New York film director Doug Keeve and Los Angeles artist Jim Isermann, who bought Wexler houses across the street from Jim Moore’s, and metalware manufacturers Jim Gaudineer and Tony Padilla, who are restoring Albert Frey’s 1946 Loewy House—next to the Kaufmann House—which was built for Raymond Loewy, the man who designed the Coca-Cola bottle. Three years ago, Ron Burkle, the billionaire supermarket tycoon and major Clinton fund-raiser, who owns 11 houses in Southern California, acquired John Lautner’s 1968 Elrod House—just down the hill from the Hopes—which had been on the market for $1.8 million. This concrete-and-glass circular fantasy was commissioned by the late Arthur Elrod—the Palm Springs decorator of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, fond of blindingly bright color schemes—and appeared in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Last year Seattle-based artist Dale Chihuly and his wife, Leslie Jackson, paid $350,000 for the house architect Stewart Williams designed for himself in 1954. Among its notable features is a 20-foot-long “tilt-up wall,” made by pouring concrete onto the desert floor, letting it harden, and then lifting it up, complete with whatever rocks and sand have stuck to it in the process.
“What attracted me to Palm Springs was the combination of modern design and the desert,” Brad Dunning says. “There is something very modern about the landscape itself. It’s clean and barren. Modernity really worked out here because of this harsh sunlight and these harsh shadows. “You could also have floor-to-ceiling glass, because you don’t have cold weather. It really was a great marriage of geography and design. And also, these were mainly second homes, so they could be more experimental, more flamboyant. So many houses out here have these tiny kitchens, and then they’ll have a big wet bar. That tells you what the priorities were. I was thinking, Why did this all dry up? What did people come out here to do? They came out here to drink, lie in the sun, and fuck each other crazy. It was all about hedonism, and that became so unpopular. But if you look at a lot of the old pictures, people are just sloshed out of their brains—Sinatra and Dean Martin and all those guys. And they’re baking in the sun.”
“Palm Springs is the most boring place on the face of the earth,” says Gordon Locksley, a private art dealer from Minneapolis who lives in Las Palmas in a 1957 house designed by Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones which he and his business partner, George Shea, have left as is with its original Arthur Elrod décor: plush white rugs, black glass bar, his-and-her poker and mah-jongg tables. “There is nothingto do except to live comfortably and to seek your own pleasure. Just imagine this: You’re in a modernist house, it has complete privacy, it has a wonderful pool. You wake up at two in the morning. You’re quite warm. The luxury is to get up, open the slider, walk into the garden, and dive into the pool, completely naked. Now, you tell me, is that a Hollywood dream or is it not?”
Or, as Korakia’s Douglas Smith puts it, “There’s this sort of weirdness and wackiness about Palm Springs that makes it all work.”
Marilyn Monroe was discovered here. Elvis and Priscilla Presley honeymooned here. General Patton rehearsed World War II battles in the desert here. Patty Hearst, people say, recuperated from her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army at her uncle George Randolph Hearst’s house here. Cesar Romero allegedly had an affair with Tyrone Power here. Jack Benny and “Amos and Andy” broadcast their radio shows from here. John and Maureen Dean, of Watergate fame, owned a condominium here. Darryl Strawberry detoxed at the Betty Ford Center here. Truman Capote fell in love with an air-conditioner repairman here. Liberace died here. Darryl Zanuck won a house from Joseph Schenck in a poker game here. Jolie Gabor, the mother of Magda, Zsa Zsa, and Eva, played bridge until she was over 100 here. West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer golfed with Dwight D. Eisenhower here. Busby Berkeley is buried here. Tammy Faye Bakker lives here. The U.S. Navy tests weapons at the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range here. Carol Channing is coping with her sensational divorce here. Ronald Reagan celebrated every New Year’s Eve of his presidency here. Norman Mailer’s 1955 novel, The Deer Park, was set here. He disguised Palm Springs as Desert D’Or.
In 1776, when the first Spanish explorer came upon a band of Cahuilla Indians living around the mineral springs in the palm oasis at the foot of Mount San Jacinto, he called them and the place Agua Caliente, “hot water.” In 1884, the first white settler, Judge John Guthrie McCallum, a San Francisco lawyer who chose the area in hopes that its dry, hot climate would cure his son’s tuberculosis, renamed the place Palm Valley. Three years later, the small Palm Springs Hotel opened, and that name stuck. Until 1915, when Nellie Coffman, the daughter of a Santa Monica hotel owner, turned a small sanatorium into the Desert Inn, Palm Springs was almost exclusively visited by sufferers of tuberculosis, asthma, arthritis, and allergies.
Coffman was determined to make the tiny hamlet “attractive to attractive people.” By the mid-20s she had transformed her original cluster of tent houses into a first-class hotel with 100 rooms and bungalows, 35 acres of gardens, and Palm Springs’ first swimming pool. In 1925, Judge McCallum’s daughter, Pearl McManus, opened the Oasis Hotel one block south of the Desert Inn on the main street, Palm Canyon Drive. Designed by Lloyd Wright, the eldest son of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was Palm Springs’ first modernist building, with a round room on the top floor which is still called the Loretta Young Room, because the then teenage starlet was a regular guest. A year later, the La Quinta Hotel was built 22 miles away, a white adobe hideaway set amid the date-palm groves west of Indio. On New Year’s Eve 1928, Prescott T. Stevens, a cattleman from Colorado, inaugurated the luxurious El Mirador Hotel on Indian Avenue north of town, featuring a fleet of bellboys, a doorman in a general’s uniform, and a garage equipped with eight rooms for the chauffeurs of the moguls and movie stars who flocked to the hotel on winter weekends: Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, Paulette Goddard, Claudette Colbert, John Wayne, Gary Cooper. “They all stayed at El Mirador,” musician Bobby Milano recalls. “Eddie Cantor started the bicycle thing. You’d see Rudy Vallee riding up and down Palm Canyon. It became a fad.”
One day in 1932, as the story goes, actors Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy were bounced off El Mirador’s only tennis court because Marlene Dietrich wanted to play. Two years later they took their revenge and opened the Racquet Club, with two courts, on 200 acres of land a few blocks north of El Mirador. It became so popular with the Hollywood crowd that in short order it grew to include 12 courts, a swimming pool, locker rooms, a canteen, bungalows, and the Bamboo Bar, where four places at one end were permanently reserved with brass nameplates for Clark Gable, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Farrell. Gable married Carole Lombard at the Racquet Club, and Powell’s wife, Mousie, staged fashion shows around the pool. Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were regulars. “The Racquet Club was really the beginning of Palm Springs,” says Kirk Douglas. “The first time someone took me there, I was just a kid, fresh from Broadway. I looked around and—my God!—there was Errol Flynn. Wow! Humphrey Bogart. My jaw dropped. James Cagney. Spencer Tracy with Katharine Hepburn. All these big movie stars, and I felt so out of it.”
The 1930s was the decade when Palm Springs really started to swing. The first private golf course, nine holes and adjacent to the Desert Inn, had been built by Tom O’Donnell, a Long Beach oilman. Samuel Untermyer, a New York attorney whose clients included Rockefellers and Hearsts, was the first nationally known millionaire to build a house in the town, and his first houseguest, in 1933, was Albert Einstein. Clara Bow and Harold Lloyd were among the first movie stars to build their own houses. The first nightclub, the Chi Chi, opened on North Palm Canyon Drive in 1938. It was soon followed by the Ranch Club, nicknamed the Mink and Manure Club, where the movie stars and socialites who stayed at El Mirador and the Desert Inn mingled at barbecues and dances with the cowboys who worked at the fashionable new dude ranches outside of town: Deepwell, Smoke Tree, and the B-Bar-H. Meanwhile, in Cathedral City, three illegal but glamorous gambling clubs—the Dunes, the 139, and the Cove—were all the rage.
In 1938, Palm Springs was incorporated as a city, with a population of 5,336. That same year, the first shopping center in Southern California, La Plaza, opened on South Palm Canyon Drive one block south of the Desert Inn. It was commissioned by Julia Carnell, a frequent Desert Inn guest, who imported architect Harry Williams—the father of Stewart Williams—from Dayton, Ohio, where he had designed several factories for her husband’s National Cash Register Company. Stewart Williams, now 90, says, “It was Mediterranean-style, but it was made of reinforced-concrete block, and it really set the standard for Palm Springs, which was just a little village that had grown like Topsy along the highway. The first architect here was John Porter Clark. Albert Frey came out and joined him. My dad came back in 1941, and my brother and I came in 1946. We opened a small office and called it Williams, Williams & Williams. And they had Clark & Frey. We were the only two firms in Palm Springs.”
Before immigrating to America, the Swiss-born Albert Frey had assisted Le Corbusier on his 1929 Villa Savoye, outside Paris. More than any other architect, Frey is identified with Palm Springs modernism. He arrived in 1934 and died in November 1998 at age 95 in his Frey House II, an aluminum-glass-and-cinder-block box built around a boulder and perched on the side of Mount San Jacinto. Frey’s first project was a real-estate sales office on North Palm Canyon Drive, and its impact was significant, because it was one of the first buildings people saw as they drove into town. In 1937, Richard Neutra, the Austrian-born disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright who had settled in Los Angeles in 1925, built his first house in Palm Springs, for Grace Lewis Miller, the wealthy widow of a St. Louis surgeon, and it also had a great influence on the future of local architecture.
Frey built eight more projects, including the San Jacinto Hotel and the Cathedral City Elementary School, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought an abrupt stop to construction in the desert resort. During the war, the U.S. Army converted the El Mirador into the Torney General Hospital, which treated more than 19,000 servicemen in four years, and constructed a large airfield east of the city, which would become the Palm Springs International Airport. “Before the war we grew very slowly,” says Frank Bogert. “But there were an awful lot of people who came down to visit soldiers in the hospital. And they discovered Palm Springs. So after the war there was a surge of new people.”
“I was working on a Sunday,” Stewart Williams recalls, “and Frank Sinatra just walked in the door. He had a little white sailor hat on, and he had an ice-cream cone in his hand. He said, ‘I want to build a house. My only requirement is I want to be in by Christmas.’ This was May, so that was quite a requirement. We had a contractor who put three shifts a day in and worked 24 hours around the clock, and got it done.”
It was 1947, and Sinatra, then 31, had visited Palm Springs for the first time the year before with his wife, Nancy, and their children, Nancy junior and Frank junior. He fell in love with the place immediately, and for the next 50 years considered it his real home. The low-slung, redwood-clad four-bedroom house Stewart Williams built for him on Alejo Road was so far out in the desert to the east of the Movie Colony that Sinatra illuminated a pair of palms in the front yard at night so that his friends could spot it from a distance. The house is called Twin Palms, and its other most famous feature is the piano-shaped pool. “It’s just a rectangle with a curve on it,” says Williams. “I didn’t think of a piano.”
The postwar boom was on. Charlie Farrell was elected mayor in 1948, and soon after began co-starring with Gale Storm in the popular TV series My Little Margie. Farrell had Frey design several new bungalows, and the stars and starlets poured in—Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, Marilyn Monroe, Donna Reed, Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney. El Mirador reopened in 1952, and the Chi Chi expanded, offering such headliners as Sophie Tucker, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Lena Horne. New hotels multiplied: the Riviera had the town’s first convention center; the Spa Hotel was erected over the original hot springs in the center of town, on land leased for 99 years from the Agua Caliente Indians.
Producer William Frye, who started coming to Palm Springs in 1947, recalls what it was like in those days: “I stayed at Deepwell Ranch. It was tremendous—hundreds of acres. That’s where I met Loretta Young. All the stars loved it down there—Roz Russell, Howard Hughes, Robert Taylor with Barbara Stanwyck when they were married. They had horses. No golf. And little cottages—you didn’t own them, you just rented them. And you all ate in a family room. Not fancy—you went through the kitchen to get your food. After breakfast, we usually went on rides, way up into the canyons. They’d bring up a chuck wagon. We’d sit by the falls— that’s where they shot Lost Horizon—and have a wonderful lunch. We wouldn’t get back until four in the afternoon. Then we’d go for a swim in the pool. It was not luxury, but it was comfort. You know, wonderful old beamed rooms with fireplaces. We’d have dinner and then sit around the piano. Hoagy Carmichael would sing. And we’d go to bed early. Saturday and Sunday nights, we went to the Racquet Club. That was the place.”
As time went on, more and more stars built houses of their own, in the Movie Colony, around the Racquet Club, and in Las Palmas, which, because its walled properties were nestled in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto on the west side of Palm Canyon Drive, offered the most privacy. On one street alone there, Via Lola, homeowners included Jack and Ann Warner, Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, Kirk and Anne Douglas, and Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller. Dean Martin, Lew and Edie Wasserman, songwriter Sammy Cahn, and gossip columnist Rona Barrett all lived within three blocks, and novelist Harold Robbins lived around the corner. Mary Martin was on Camino Norte, Claudette Colbert was on Camino Mirasol, and Jack and Mary Benny were on Vista Chino. Liberace’s house on Belardo Road had a candelabra over the front door.
The Smoke Tree Ranch was one of the first residential enclaves in Palm Springs to be set up as a private club. Extremely understated and exclusive—some say restricted—it attracted mainly “old families from Washington, Oregon, and California, plus a lot of Chicago people,” according to one local observer. The only Hollywood name there was Walt Disney. All houses have to be built and landscaped in a western, desert style to maintain the ranch-like atmosphere. Addresses are designated by numbers painted on whitewashed rocks which lie flat on the ground. No working press is allowed at the Smoke Tree Inn, and outsiders must have their first-time reservation made by a resident, or colonist, as they are called. “Houses never go on the market,” Nelda Linsk says. “They’re handed down.” When the communal ranch house was destroyed in a fire in 1991, it was reconstructed exactly as it was when it was built in the 1930s. At dinner, colonists still get their food in the kitchen and eat at communal tables. Former White House chief of protocol Joseph Verner Reed, who frequents Palm Springs, says, “Smoke Tree is the Hobe Sound of the West.”
The opening of the Thunderbird Country Club in 1951 and the Tamarisk Country Club a year later set the course of development in the Coachella Valley for the rest of the century. They became the models for the more than 50 gated, private clubs with houses built around golf courses which now blanket Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and La Quinta. By the 1980s, Down Valley, as these newer cities are collectively known, had eclipsed old Palm Springs in population, wealth, and glamour.
Frank Bogert recalls the founding of the first two country clubs: “I built Thunderbird as a dude ranch right after the war, and then we turned it into a golf club. What happened was I went traveling all over the country to promote my dude ranch, and every place I’d go people would say, ‘I love Palm Springs, but you don’t have an 18-hole golf course.’ I came back determined to build one. I got ahold of Johnny Dawson, who was the No. 1 amateur in the United States, and we bought 80 acres adjoining my 750 acres. We had 20 people put up $5,000 each. I got a loan from Franklin Life for $300,000. Then I got a good friend of mine to put in $400,000 worth of pipes, and he said, ‘You can pay me whenever you can.’ We were the first golf course to put houses around the fairways. I was having a hard time selling the lots, but when Hope and Crosby bought, everybody came. Desi and Lucy built a house. Leonard Firestone built a house. And Phil Harris was also one of the first houses there.
“What happened with Tamarisk is, I had about 19 Jewish people who wanted to get in Thunderbird. And I had invited them all and had them all set to get in. And then we had a meeting. One of the guys who’d put up $5,000, and who was Jewish, got up and said everything that anybody could say bad about the Jewish people. So with that, the rest said, ‘Well, hell, if a Jew doesn’t want them in here, let’s not have any.’ I had to write letters to all these people who were real good friends of mine—most of them—saying, ‘You have failed to pass the membership committee.’ And that group went over and built Tamarisk. Their first president was a non-Jewish guy, but the rest of them were all Jewish. They got the best greenskeeper in the country. They built the best clubhouse. And Ben Hogan was their pro for a while. They had the best club by far in town. Sinatra bought five lots and put in a house.”
Both Thunderbird and Tamarisk had architect William Cody design sleek, modern clubhouses, and Richard Neutra was commissioned by Minneapolis art collectors Samuel and Luella Maslon to build a large house on their Tamarisk lot. Luella Maslon, now 93, is still living in the house, which is one of the modernist gems of the area, remarkable for such details as a built-in soda fountain in the kitchen and luggage closets for houseguests. Other well-known Tamarisk residents have included Red Skelton, producer Hal Wallis, and billionaire Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara. But the dominant figure was always Frank Sinatra, who bought a two-bedroom house on the 17th fairway in 1957, shortly after his divorce from his second wife, Ava Gardner.
With Dean Martin and Sammy Cahn already ensconced in Las Palmas, Palm Springs’ Rat Pack period began. Sinatra’s cronies Sammy Davis Jr., comedian Pat Henry, and restaurateur Jilly Rizzo bought three houses in a row, around the corner from his. “Pat Henry’s house was in the middle,” recalls singer Keely Smith, who started coming to Palm Springs with Louis Prima in the 50s. “And one time when he went away it was robbed. He’d always say, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have told two one-eyed guys to keep an eye on the house.’”
“We’d all come down on September 28, when Ruby’s Dunes opened for the season,” says Anne Douglas. “It was the meeting place. They had homemade matzo-ball soup. Frank loved it there. For some reason, he wouldn’t go to the Racquet Club. Basically, he wanted to have everybody over to his house every night. Somebody always called and said, ‘You want to eat? Frank’s cooking spaghetti tonight.’ You just went for the meal. The projection room was added later on—then it became the meal and a movie.”
Over the years, Sinatra turned his two-and-a-half-acre property into a walled compound, with nine guest bedrooms, two pools, a tennis court, and a helipad. The last was installed in the expectation that Sinatra’s new best friend, President John F. Kennedy, would use the compound as his West Coast White House. Instead, at the insistence of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who was concerned about Sinatra’s Mafia connections, the president stayed at Bing Crosby’s house in Thunderbird.
Sinatra was so incensed that he became a Republican, and even went as far as to put up Spiro Agnew after he resigned from the vice-presidency in disgrace. There was never a shortage of houseguests. Everyone from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco came to stay at the compound. After 1976, when Sinatra married his fourth wife, Barbara, the ex-wife of Zeppo Marx, who also had a house in Tamarisk, he became even more social. Rose Narva says she will never forget her first invitation to the Sinatras’, for Easter lunch in 1991. “Seated around the table were Gregory and Veronique Peck, Roger and Louisa Moore, R. J. Wagner, Jill St. John, and Altovise Davis. There was an empty seat next to me, and then this man sat down, put his hand out to me, and said, ‘Clint. Clint Eastwood.’ I said, ‘I know. I know.’”
Many were shocked when the Sinatra compound was put on the market in 1995, three years before his death. It was bought by Canadian businessman Jim Pattison for $4.9 million and is reportedly on the market again. “There was always excitement when Frank was in town,” says Connie Stevens, who owns a house in Palm Desert and starred in the 1963 movie Palm Springs Weekend. “There was an electric charge. You could feel him. And I truly believe that when someone is really strong, and they really loved a place, after they’ve gone, they hover.”
Norman Mailer’s 1955 novel, The Deer Park, was set here. He disguised Palm Springs as Desert D’Or.
Barbara Sinatra now rents a house in Thunderbird Heights, overlooking the Thunderbird Country Club. Every February she chairs the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament to raise money for the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, which she and Frank founded in 1986 to treat abused children and which is located next to the Betty Ford Center on the Eisenhower Medical Center campus in Rancho Mirage. This year, looking glamorous in a black pantsuit and white shirt set off with a big diamond cross, she listened as the president of the children’s center, William Osterman, welcomed guests to a midday tour. “We’ve got Mr. S. up there handling the situation for us,” he said, and the crowd applauded. “He’s up there, and Barbara’s down here.”
‘My father got in a helicopter with Bob McCulloch, and they flew all around these canyons here to pick the most beautiful spot to locate this club. And they had everything to select from in those days—they could have bought any of this land. So that’s how Eldorado was started.” Carol Price, the wife of Charles Price, who was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Belgium and Great Britain, is having lunch in the clubhouse of the Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells. From its founding in 1957 by a group including her father, W. Clarke Swanson of the Omaha frozen-foods Swansons, and Bob McCulloch, a Los Angeles businessman, Eldorado has been the most exclusive and prestigious country club in the Coachella Valley. Last year, members whisper, President Clinton’s request to jog on the grounds was turned down. “We have Ford as a member. We have Bush. We have Reagan. That’s plenty of presidents for us,” one member snaps.
The stunning, brick-and-glass gatehouse and the clubhouse were designed by William Cody, and many of the original members came here from Smoke Tree and Thunderbird. They were a mix of old money from Texas and California (the Moncrieffs, the Frenches, the Dohenys, the Kecks), conservative Hollywood (Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart, Greer Garson), and the Los Angeles tycoons who would form Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet (Holmes Turtle, Justin Dart, Earle Jorgensen). “It was awfully cliquish,” says William Frye, who used to stay at Eldorado with Rosalind Russell and Frederick Brisson. “You didn’t see lots of people.”
A key founding member was Freeman Gosden, who played Amos on the Amos and Andy radio show and was a close confidant of President Eisenhower’s. The president first came to Palm Springs for a week in 1954. He stayed at Smoke Tree at the house of Paul Helms, the Los Angeles bakery tycoon, and played golf with Ben Hogan at Tamarisk and with John Dawson at Thunderbird. The resulting coverage made Palm Springs world-famous for the first time. Eisenhower made many return visits to Palm Springs, and when he left the White House in 1961, he was given lifetime use of a house facing the fairway of the 11th hole at Eldorado. He became so identified with Eldorado that the mountain overlooking the club came to be called Mount Eisenhower.
‘When you played golf with General Eisenhower, no one ever spoke,” recalls Lee Annenberg, sitting in the 6,400-square-foot living room at Sunnylands, the Annenbergs’ 250-acre estate in Rancho Mirage, which has its own nine-hole golf course. Her mint-green Escada jacket almost matches the celadon walls on which hang more than 30 masterpieces by van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, and Picasso. “There was this silence. He was very serious about his golf. And he always wanted to be called ‘General,’ and we all became very good friends. He was a chef. He loved to cook steaks, and he would put on an apron and a high, tall chef hat and do delicious barbecued steaks. They had their friends at the club—the Darts and the Gosdens and the Turtles. The Firestones. It was like a big, happy group. They had us over from time to time, and they came here from time to time. He came here for golfing and fishing. We had the lake stocked with fish, and as he got older and it was harder for him to play golf, he would come over here and fish.”
Sunnylands was designed by A. Quincy Jones, a second-generation Los Angeles modernist who later became the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. All of the furniture was designed by Billy Haines and Ted Graber, the Hollywood interior decorators known for their sleek, comfortable style. The house was completed in 1966. “When we had our first meeting, the only thing I said was ‘I have a feeling I’d like a Mayan roof,’” Lee Annenberg says. “And today it’s become a well-known home. It was declared a national historical site, because during the Bush administration the White House gave a dinner here for Prime Minister Kaifu of Japan.”
In fact, since the Annenbergs opened Sunnylands, every occupant of the White House except Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter has come to call. “Even Hillary Clinton’s been here,” says Lee Annenberg. “President Clinton came to see the art, but he didn’t stay overnight. President Bush has been here lots of times. And President Reagan, of course, all the time. President Ford. President Nixon. like. . . . I pinch myself to believe that I am living in this house and have led the wonderful life I’ve had. I mean, Prince Charles has been here twice. Prince Andrew has been here twice. The Queen and Prince Philip have been here. We’ve had a lot of interesting people in and out of this house.” Pointing to the loggia outside, she says, “Right over there, at that table, President Nixon told me he had asked Walter to be his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.”
Walter Annenberg served as ambassador to Great Britain from 1969 to 1974. During that period, Lee Annenberg says, “we hardly came here at all. And the pictures only came when we left London.” The Annenbergs now divide the year between Philadelphia’s Main Line and Rancho Mirage. Every year, at the end of April, the paintings at Sunnylands are packed and sent by private plane to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they hang until the middle of November, when they are packed and flown back out to the desert.
“Some say the official social season closes when the Annenbergs leave on May 1,” remarks Merv Griffin, who spends winter weekends at his 240-acre horse farm in La Quinta. Or, as Dolores Hope puts it, “Anyplace the Annenbergs go, they make a big difference.” Since they arrived in Palm Springs, the Annenbergs have helped to found and fund the Eisenhower Medical Center, the Palm Springs Desert Museum, and the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert. And when Ronald and Nancy Reagan were in the White House, Sunnylands was the place to be on New Year’s Eve.
“We had nine tables, and Tony Rose’s Orchestra, and, boy, did we really have fun,” says Lee Annenberg. “Bob and Dolores would entertain. Dinah Shore entertained. Everybody entertained. . . . Frank and Barbara came here for a while, but Sinatra did not like to entertain at friends’ houses. In all the years I knew him, only once did he ever sing here, when we were only about 12 and most of the people were hishouseguests.”
This year’s New Year’s Eve party, which I attended, was a much more subdued affair. The guest list was down to four tables, mostly what’s left of the core Reagan circle—Betsy Bloomingdale, Charles and Mary Jane Wick, Armand and Harriet Deutsch, Charles and Carol Price, former ambassador to the Vatican William Wilson, Earle Jorgensen, who is 100, and his wife, Marion—plus Kirk and Anne Douglas and Sidney and Alexandra Sheldon. After dinner, Lee Annenberg made a toast: “I’d like you all to think for a moment of our beloved Ronnie and Nancy, who can’t be here tonight, and of all the other friends who aren’t here anymore.” It was all over at 10 minutes past midnight. As guests lined up to say good night, Walter Annenberg, 91, told each one, “I hope you get everything you deserve and more.”
All through the 70s and 80s, Down Valley boomed. In 1978, after leaving the White House, Gerald and Betty Ford built a house in Thunderbird next door to Leonard Firestone, who had been Ford’s ambassador to Belgium. The former president says, “We looked at Florida. We looked at Pebble Beach. But they were damp, windy. And Mrs. Ford had arthritis.” Betty Ford adds, “There were a lot of golf courses here, too.” In 1982, with Firestone’s help, the former First Lady opened the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse on nearby Bob Hope Drive. Although the Fords also have a house in Vail, Colorado, they spend the larger part of the year in Rancho Mirage, and Betty Ford spends time almost every day at her center.
In 1979, the Vintage Club opened next to Eldorado. It was allegedly the most expensive club at the time—lots started at $330,000— and the first one with two 18-hole golf courses. Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, German art collector Gunther Sachs, former Gulfstream Aerospace chairman Allen Paulson, grain exporter Cargill MacMillan and his wife, Donna, the Nordstrom retailing family of Seattle, and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’s father are among those who own property.
But as El Paseo in Palm Desert evolved into the Rodeo Drive of the Coachella Valley and the per capita net worth in Indian Wells soared until it was reputedly the highest in the nation, old Palm Springs withered. The Desert Inn was long gone, replaced by a shopping center. El Mirador had been torn down in 1973 to make way for the Desert Hospital. The Racquet Club had changed ownership several times, before falling into the hands of Larry Lawrence, the owner of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, who many years later would become posthumously infamous for faking a war record, which led to his being disinterred from Arlington National Cemetery.
“Larry Lawrence destroyed the Racquet Club,” declares Gloria Greer, whose “Stars on the Desert” gossip column ran for years in the Riverside Press-Enterprise and is now televised on the local NBC affiliate. “After he bought it, he said, ‘We must honor Charlie Farrell for being the man who made Palm Springs.’ Within less than a year, Charlie Farrell was not welcome at the Racquet Club. Then he said he had to open it to the public because the members were so cheap that they weren’t tipping properly. It was almost like he set out to destroy it.”
Meanwhile, Palm Springs was getting a reputation for hordes of unruly students pouring in during spring break. Frank Bogert says that he kept the problem under control during his first stretch as mayor, from 1958 to 1966, but by the time he became mayor again, in 1982, “it was like Dante’s Inferno. Tahquitz Canyon was full of kids camping out and shacking up with each other. They’d have 40 people in one room. We made a rule that you could only have two people in a room. And finally we got the idea of closing Palm Canyon Drive off altogether and having entertainment up and down the street.” In 1988, Bogert was succeeded by singer Sonny Bono, who in 1984 bought a house in the La Mesa section, near Herman Wouk and Suzanne Somers, and opened a restaurant in the middle of town. His widow, Congresswoman Mary Bono, recalls, “What Sonny did as mayor was bring attention to the need for special events. The film festival he started gets bigger and better every year. Sonny likened it to Cannes. And now that we have a casino at the Spa Hotel, there are some who envision Palm Springs as being the Monte Carlo of California.”
Today, from Las Palmas to La Quinta, the whole Coachella Valley seems richer than ever. In the winter season, more private jets land at the Palm Springs airport on any given day than commercial flights, and the airport at Thermal, out near Indio, has been improved to accommodate G Vs and Citations. Last year Samuel Untermyer’s mansion overlooking old Palm Springs opened as the Willows, a luxurious eight-room inn where for $425 a night you can sleep in the room where Albert Einstein often stayed. Across the street, the lunch crowd in the garden of Le Vallauris, the town’s best French restaurant, ranges from Dale Chihuly to James Galanos, the Los Angeles couturier, who recently bought a house in Las Palmas. And the modernist cult just keeps growing. “You can still buy a flat-roofed 60s house with sliding glass doors to the pool for $120,000,” says New York art dealer John Cheim, who stayed in the Three Stooges Bungalow at the Estrella Inn on his first visit, last winter. “I’m going out there again to look for a house. You know, sell a painting, buy a house.” It would take several paintings to buy Laurence Harvey’s 1969 Villa Serena in Las Palmas for $1.85 million, or a William Cody-designed ranch in the Movie Colony that recently sold for just under $1 million.
According to real-estate sources, a large percentage of the buyers in Palm Springs are single men and women, and affluent gays are very much part of the mix that makes people say this is becoming the South Beach of the West Coast. Every spring the Nabisco Dinah Shore ladies’ golf tournament attracts thousands of lesbians and the White Party brings in close to 10,000 homosexual men. The big event Down Valley is the Palm Springs Classic Horse Show at the HITS Desert Horse Park in Indio, where for six weeks in January, February, and March the likes of Charles and Kim Bronson, TV personalities Kelsey Grammer and Melissa Rivers, Bechtel heiress Megan Johnstone, Playtex heiress Vanessa Haas, and Suzanne Saperstein, the wife of Houston news-helicopter entrepreneur David Saperstein, set up tents with antique furnishings and sodded front lawns.
“If you’re gay, you want to be in Palm Springs,” says Gordon Locksley. “In order to live Down Valley, you have to be retired, heterosexual, have two children and three grandchildren—and it must be at a golf club.” But not all the big money pouring into the country clubs is in the hands of retirees. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is building a house in the Reserve, one of the newest clubs in Palm Desert, where some 30 charter members are said to have invested more than $90 million. At Eldorado, the talk of the club is the neoclassical villa built on three lots by Montana mining tycoon Dennis Washington and his wife, Phyllis. There are “gold,” “silver,” and “copper” guest rooms, and Phyllis Washington had so many surplus antiques and objets d’art that she opened a well-stocked shop on El Paseo in February. Meanwhile, in Rancho Mirage, retired timber baron Tim Blixseth and his wife, Edra, are constructing a new house with the area’s first private 18-hole golf course. In Palm Springs itself, one of the most sought-after invitations is to Ponderosë, the 12-acre ranch of Bob and Jo Pond, which has six enormous garages for his collection of 106 cars ranging from Pierce-Arrows to Thunderbirds. In 1996, Pond, a commercial floor-cleaning magnate from Minnesota, built the Palm Springs Air Museum, to which he donated his collection of World War I and II aircraft.
There are even some new old stars in town. “Palm Springs is now my personal little haven,” says Loretta Young, 86, who bought a house in the Deepwell area five years ago. “You can do whatever you want to do, if you want to do it. Or you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to do it. And they really don’t squash you the way they do in Beverly Hills.” Her friend Jane Wyman, 85, moved to Rancho Mirage three years ago. On Saturdays they go to 4:30 Mass at St. Louis Catholic Church in a working-class Mexican section of Cathedral City. The church was built in the 1960s with funds raised largely by Dolly Sinatra, the mother of Frank. “This poor church was just falling apart at the seams,” says Wyman. “Loretta said, ‘I’m going to put a new altar in.’ And I said, ‘Well, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to carpet this place, or we’re going to get killed.’ Because it was all shredded and everything. So she put in an altar, with a wonderful crucifix, lit from behind. And I put all the carpets in. It looks like a whole new church. Then we had other little things that we had to do, such as the sound system.”
‘Palm Springs would be nothing if it was just out in a flat plain like Texas,” says Stewart Williams. “As far as I’m concerned, the mountains make Palm Springs. They’ve been here a hell of a long time, and it keeps reminding you that you’re not very much in the scheme of things. Here I am, 90 years old. You know, all these things that I’ve done, they’re not really very important. You can add that to your story. You can also add that I’m the last of the Mohicans. All the rest of them are gone. Every one of the guys that lived here and did all this work is gone now.”
Just before Albert Frey died, he was asked in an interview for The New York Times if he thought his house had withstood the test of time. He answered, “It is forever young.”