Love and lust in the desert

Marilyn Monroe strutting her stuff at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs.

Marilyn Monroe strutting her stuff at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs. Photo by Bruno Bernard.

This is the way we started eons ago, after being booted out of the Garden of Eden. Huddled together near a small reflecting pool of water in the desert beneath an astonishing sky full of fiery meteorites hissing in the torpid night, unable to sleep, desiring to tell each other stories; to dance, to cry, to shout out into the darkness.

That’s how Palm Springs started out as well, evoking some latent memory deep within us of other faraway locales—Turkey or Greece or maybe Morocco. A small band of Agua Caliente natives telling stories around their sacred hot springs were eventually replaced by artists and then movie stars who gathered around glittering pools, cocktails in hand, spinning their own yarns, with the promise of romance as heavy in the air as the scent of night-blooming jasmine.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, celebs congregated at small hotels and semi-exclusive estates. And while they may have ridden horses or played tennis during the day, the real action didn’t heat up until after the sun went down. Like moths to the flame, the Hollywood elite would congregate at private bungalows and Spanish-style guest houses until someone finally suggested shifting the party to one of the illegal gambling parlors in Cathedral City or maybe the Racquet Club’s Bamboo Bar where, on any given night, you might find Joan Crawford, Clare Bow, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant or Gloria Swanson. Drinking, flirting, pairing off.

This was the desert my parents glowingly described to my sister and me following their own infrequent retreats to Palm Springs in the ‘60s when they were trying to patch up their marriage.

On one such trip, I remember my mother calling my sister to say they were sitting around the pool enjoying cocktails with Mr. Troy Donahue. Mother put him on the phone. My sister, who must have been about 16, turned a whiter shade of pale and screamed. Once the story got around school, she suddenly became exotic, desirable, popular. That’s what a little glamour—even someone else’s—could do for you.

The first hotel in Palm Springs opened in 1886, but it was Nellie Coffman who discovered how to brew romance in the desert. Not when she built the Desert Inn in 1908 but when she added the town’s first swimming pool 17 years later. Before that long-forgotten but oh-so-momentous occasion, Palm Springs was just a dowdy little health retreat. A place the infirm came to take in the dry air, the hot mineral springs. But once Nellie added cooling, alluring water—a pool—romance and glamour followed as naturally as restless stirrings at a high school prom. Others soon stole the formula. When the El Mirador opened in 1928, its 75-foot pool attracted so many members of the Hollywood community that they pushed out the arty crowd that had preceded them. The city’s reputation was made.

If Nellie Coffman was the mother of Palm Springs, Charlie Farrell was the father. Farrell—who made a number of silent pictures in the ‘20s but is probably best remembered as the TV dad in “My Little Margie” with Gale Storm (how’s that for a Hollywood name?)—was playing tennis with Ralph Bellamy at El Mirador when they were bounced off the courts because Marlene Dietrich wanted to play (and, so the story goes, because they were Jewish). In response, they bought some land across the street and opened their own joint in 1932. The Racquet Club would become the hangout for the next 30 years.

It’s still there, having been reconceptualized as a private community of bungalows, townhouses, and lofts (the most prestigious of which are the seven historic Albert Frey residences which are currently being restored and upgraded). I took a stroll around the grounds Sunday morning, listening to the songbirds flitting in the mature tamarisk trees that Farrell planted as a wind break for his tennis courts years ago. If you know a bit of the history of the place you can search out the Spencer Tracy cottage which sits next door to what was once Joan Crawford’s bungalow. Not far away is the bungalow where, they say, Johnny Hyde first discovered Marilyn Monroe back in 1948.

Marilyn with Johnny Hyde at the Racquet Club.

Marilyn with Johnny Hyde at the Racquet Club.

From Ray Mungo’s book Palm Springs Babylon: “Hyde was fifty-three years old at the time, married and the father of four sons, representing top stars such as Bob Hope, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth. Marilyn was a nubile twenty-two. Hyde fell madly in love with her, made a complete fool of himself over her, left his wife and family, and arranged cosmetic nose and chin surgery for Marilyn in 1950. His infatuation with the blonde bombshell did in his ailing ticker; Johnny Hyde suffered a heart attack at the Racquet Club on December 17, 1950, and died the following day.”

Love and lust in the desert.


1 comment

  1. Sonia Rodriguez’s avatar

    Amazing….how life was then.

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