Stanley Stewart visits Palm Springs and discovers Beverly Hills in the desert
IT is not really until I am naked in the hot pool with the minister and his wife that I begin to appreciate the character of the desert. The reverend puts it nicely. Lolling in the steaming water, where his buttocks appear like two pale islands, he says, All sorts of quirky stuff happens here. The desert is a tolerant place.’’
At first glance the Sonoran Desert in California’s outback looks a severe sort of place, with its bleak hallucinogenic landscapes and its cactus spikes the size of kitchen knives. But the point of deserts is that feeling of remoteness; the desert is the destination of escapists, eccentrics and hedonists. The desert is the place where anything goes.
Palm Springs, these days just two hours down the freeway from Los Angeles, has been dealing with anything going for almost a century. In the early years of Hollywood, location scouts arrived looking for backdrops of palm trees, desert dunes and the kind of canyons that cowboys liked to gallop through.
The Sheik was shot here with the smouldering Rudolph Valentino. Theda Bara, the original screen vamp, minced up and down a make-believe Nile in Palm Springs. Having come to work, many stars stayed to play. In the days when actors were under contract, their employers stipulated they were not allowed to travel more than two hours from the studios. Two hours brought them to Palm Springs, which had the added benefit of a perfect climate 10 months of the year. The desert was their escape from the goldfish bowl of Hollywood.
Palm Springs’ walk of fame, where the names of resident stars are embedded in the pavements, runs from Mary Pickford to Chevy Chase, and includes Lucille Ball, William Holden, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Doris Day, Catherine Deneuve and Marlene Dietrich. Greta Garbo came here to be alone. Marilyn Monroe was allegedly discovered at the Racquet Club where Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn conducted their discreet affair.
Bogart and Bacall were fans. Elvis and Priscilla had their honeymoon here. Robert Downey Jr was busted here. Brad and Angelina holiday here. Frank Sinatra did it his way in the valley for almost 50 years, with a succession of wives and not a few of his Rat Pack buddies, and is buried in the valley not far from his former home.
Wedged between the seared flanks of the San Jacinto, the Santa Rosa and the San Bernadino mountains, the Coachella Valley is a string of exclusive towns that merge seamlessly into one another: Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Palm Springs. The last has managed to give its name to the whole oasis.
Had you dropped in by parachute you could be forgiven for not getting the desert thing. Palm Springs is a resort town where everyone gets to be the pampered celebrity. There are things to see. The Joshua Tree National Park, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the US, is a half-hour’s drive away. But you don’t come to see things. You come to chill out, to lie around the pool, to have mud masks smeared over your cheekbones, to take in a leisurely round of golf.
In such a place it is all about the accommodation. The resorts come with high walls, sprinkler-fed lawns, cabanas with cooling mist sprays and spas where you are likely to find Botox injections and breast implants on the treatment menu. This is holidaying in the up-market suburbs — a sort of Beverly Hills in the desert — manicured, neat, orderly and completely stress-free. But if that sounds like a monoculture, it is not. Everyone wants in on the desert thing and Palm Springs has emerged in the new millennium with more identities than Madonna. Celebrity playground is only the beginning. It runs the gamut from retirement retreat to nudist colony.
We’ll get to the nudity later. Let’s give a moment first to the senior citizens. They are old people but not as we know them. Had they retired in Florida, perhaps they would have settled down to slow decline. But out in the desert the old folks come over slightly strange. Hormone-replaced and Viagra-fuelled, facelifted and tummy-tucked, yoga-powered and loaded with a lifetime’s loot, they seem to have got hold of the idea that retirement is freedom and it is time to party.
They cruise about town in sporty convertibles or on Harley-Davidson motorbikes. They wear T-shirts that say things such as Stand Back: I am Spending the Kids’ Inheritance. The old folks even have a show to celebrate their lifestyle. The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies is an evening of rollicking vaudeville in which the dance troupe is the star. All its members are professionals who
Celluloid dreams: Towering trees at Palm Springs, main picture;
celebrity visitors, above; Marilyn Monroe, left, the Rat Pack, far left