Any­thing goes

Stan­ley Ste­wart vis­its Palm Springs and dis­cov­ers Bev­erly Hills in the desert

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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