Palm Springs

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Stars over the Orchid Tree Inn

Palm Springs Weekend stars Troy Donahue and Stefanie Powers (who was William Holden's girlfriend when he died in 1981).

Palm Springs Weekend stars Troy Donahue and Stefanie Powers (who was William Holden's girlfriend when he died).

One other small, classic Palm Springs hotel—the Orchid Tree Inn—also holds a special place in my heart. It’s where my mother lounged around the pool with Troy Donahue. I’m guessing that must have been around 1965, a year or so after his oh-so-brief marriage to Suzanne Pleshette and a couple of years after he’d made Palm Springs Weekend with Connie Stevens and Stefanie Powers. Donahue was an interesting character. Born Merle Johnson (supposedly he got the Troy Donahue monicker from his agent, Henry Wilson, who had tried giving it to James Darren, but it didn’t stick), Donahue was part of the ’50s pretty boys pack that included Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and Doug McClure among others.

Of course, Hudson and Hunter turned out to be closet homosexuals (in the late ’50s Hunter used to hang out at the Desert Inn with his boyfriend, Anthony Perkins who, a few years later, would, as Norman Bates in the Hitchcock classic Psycho, dress in women’s clothing when he murders Janet Leigh in the shower). But the whole was-he-or-wasn’t-he guessing game about Donahue’s sexuality was a little more complicated. Not that the marriage to Pleschette proved anything since it lasted only a few months. He wed another actress, Valerie Allen, in 1966, but that didn’t last long either. After that, his life kind of went in the dumpster. Heavy drinking, drugs—the usual. When he died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 65, he was engaged to the mezzo-soprano opera singer Zheng Cao. It would have been his fourth marriage.

The Orchid Tree Inn is also where, on another occasion, my mother met William Holden. According to her he was “hiding out” (she never said from what or from whom) in one of the Spanish-style bungalows that ringed a desert garden courtyard. Once or twice she was invited to join “Bill” (as she said he insisted on being called) for a round or two of well-chilled martinis. This was after my father had left and my mother was alone. I don’t remember my mother telling any particular stories about “Bill” Holden and maybe it’s just as well. Some things should remain secret. Towards the end of her life, primed by a couple of cocktails, she did reveal that once, after a long night of drinking with Holden, the two of them ended up in the pool late one night, drunk, floating on their backs, looking for shooting stars. “God, I was so young then,” she’d say wistfully. “We were both so young.”

Holden was 63 when he died in 1981; my mother, who died a few years later, was all of 55.


The keyhole entrance to the Korakia lobby.

The keyhole entrance to the Korakia lobby.

I don’t think I’ve ever stayed at the same place twice out here in the desert. Well, that’s not true. I’ve hung out at the La Quinta Resort, where I’m currently holed up, many a time, but that doesn’t count. I consider La Quinta my desert home-away-from-home. There are just too many interesting places to stay out here to make a habit of this place or that place (with the exception of La Quinta).

One place I’ll never forget is a little pensione (I know, right?—a pensione out in the desert?) in Palm Springs where I spent a memorable week shortly after it opened some twenty years ago. Built in 1924 by Scottish artist Gordon Courts to resemble a Moorish castle, Dar Morroc—as the place was originally known—was an artists’ retreat in the ‘20s and ‘30s. For decades afterwards it languished as a run-down apartment complex, Then an architect, G. Douglas Smith, bought the property, which was a total mess at the time, in 1989, and gutted it, discovering, as he did so, things like Korakia’s distinct keyhole-shaped grand entrance housing a set of ornately carved Moorish wooden double doors, all of which had been covered up by stucco for years.

One of the things Smith wanted to do with the Korakia was attract an eclectic, offbeat crowd. Which he did. The week I stayed there guests included rocker Gregg Allman, the English film director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella (who was sitting around the pool in Bermuda shorts and dark socks working on something that turned out to be the screenplay for The English Patient), and a Canadian opera star who sang arias every morning outside her room before breakfast.

The Korakia in the '20s.

The Korakia in the '20s.

A couple of times during the week, Smith would cook up some simple family meal—like pasta marinara—and invited anyone who was interested and didn’t have anything else going on to sit at a long table next to the pool and join him for dinner. What I remember is that Minghella always brought the wine and Allman was always stoned. What I don’t remember—unfortunately—is any of the conversation. Too much of that good wine, I fear. Or perhaps it was the Allman herb. Ah, well.


Mel Haber at Melvyn's Bar at the Ingleside Inn.

Mr. Palm Springs, Mel Haber, at Melvyn's in the Ingleside Inn.

For a good 30 years, Charlie Farrell, who, with Ralph Bellamy, spent about $6,000 to start the Racquet Club in 1933 (shortly after the opening they sent out invitations to their friends, the Hollywood elite, offering $50 memberships and received exactly four responses; but Charlie got the last laugh when he sold the property in 1959 for $1.2 million) was Mr. Palm Springs. Then in the late ‘70s a faux-hippie named Sonny Bono moved into town, became the mayor, started up the Palm Springs Film Festival, got rid of all the spring break riff-raff (you could attribute that whole scene—thousands of college students cruising up and down Palm Canyon while drinking, puking, and showing their tits–to Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens who got hammered around the pool at the Desert Palms Inn in the 1963 teen flick “Palm Springs Weekend”).

After Bono crashed and burned skiing into a tree at Lake Tahoe in 1998 there really wasn’t a face to Palm Springs. Maybe the only person who has come close to carrying on the Mr. Palm Springs legacy started by Charlie Farrell would be Mel Haber. Mel doesn’t have the star wattage of Farrell or Bono but he’s been running the curiously intriguing Ingleside Inn since 1975 when he bought the rundown property and emptied his bank account to renovate it.

I haven’t stayed at Mel’s place for a few years but it’s always fun to drop in at the bar of his eatery, Melvyn’s, and chat with Mel if he’s around. He’s got so many good stories to tell that, if you’re not careful, you’ll find that hours have gone by and now you need to ask Mel for a table in a restaurant because you’re getting hungry.

When Haber bought the Ingleside Inn, which started out as a private estate built in 1925 by the widow of the man who designed the Pierce Arrow automobile, he discovered fifteen drawers full of index cards containing personal information about former guests.

An undated penny postcard of the Ingleside Inn.

An undated penny postcard of the Ingleside Inn.

“I thumbed through some of them and actually got goose pimples,” says Haber. “The names were legendary. I found a registration card for Salvador Dali on which had been penciled, ‘I believe he is a painter.’ There was one for Elizabeth Taylor that said ‘Movie Actress’ with several question marks after it. There was a card for Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn of Hollywood, California, and someone had penciled in ‘No Good. They’re Jewish.’ Another card said Earl Martyn and penciled alongside it was ‘Howard Hughes; wants no one to know.’”

Of course, this was all before Haber showed up. But you get a pretty good idea of just who has stayed or dined at the Ingleside Inn since then by checking out the B&W photos hanging on the restaurant walls. There’s Haber with Bob Hope, Haber with John Travolta, Haber with Joan Collins (you get the idea). So many of the women in these photos have puffy faces and towering hair and greatly resemble the Gabor sisters. Or maybe they are the Gabor sisters.

And has Haber been keeping little note cards since he bought the place? He’s not saying. But my guess is absolutely.


Charlie Farrell with Marilyn Monroe at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs.

Charlie Farrell with Marilyn Monroe at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs.

From a story about Charlie Farrell, founder of the Palm Springs Racquet Club, that ran in a 1963 issue of Sports Illustrated:

There is the (Racquet Club) story about the time some years back when a lady visitor from the East sat herself on a stool at the bar, ordered a cocktail, and asked Tex Gregg, the bartender, if there were any movie celebrities around. Tex cased the room, then turned to Clark Gable, who was also seated at the bar, and asked, “Have you seen any movie starts around?”

“Nope,” said Gable. “Haven’t seen a single one.”

Or this one: For several years Jack Benny used to have an annual skit on his weekly radio program called “Murder at the Racquet Club.” In one such, Benny, as the sheriff of Riverside, drove up to the front gate of the Racquet Club and demanded admittance so he could investigate the homicide. “Are you a member?” intoned a voice over the club’s public-address system.

“No,” answered Sheriff Benny.

“Then you can’t come in,” said the voice.

“All right, throw the body over the wall,” Benny shouted back.

Shortly after this profile of Farrell was published, the Racquet Club was sold and quickly became a pale shadow of its riotous past. His wife, Virginia, died in 1968 and Farrell, fed up with the whole scene, gave up the life of the bon vivant to stay home in his bathrobe and watch TV night and day, waiting for the end to come. Unfortunately, he had a bit of a wait; the years were unkind to Farrell who, they say, descended into senility and decrepitude.

Charlie with his "My Little Margie" co-star Gale Storm, who he reportedly detested (the feeling was mutual).

Charlie with his "My Little Margie" co-star Gale Storm, who he reportedly detested (the feeling was mutual).

When he died, a few months short of his 90th birthday (a lot of bio’s say he died at 88 or 89 but Farrell, like a lot of Hollywood stars, fibbed a bit about his age over the years), even the local press didn’t take notice for several weeks. Charlie Farrell, the soul of conviviality, founder of the Racquet Club, former mayor, star of the silent screen and TV, ended his life a reclusive desert rat. He was buried, without services (and with almost no mourners) twenty years ago in Welwood Murray Cemetery in Palm Springs. For years it was almost impossible to visit Farrell or other well-known celebrities buried there, like Nellie Coffman and mid-century modern architect Albert Frey, as the cemetery was locked and gated. These days it’s open daily for visitors. Charlie, who always knew how to pick his real estate, has a prime location in row 10-3, plot G. Virginia, who he always referred to as his “beautiful, long-suffering wife,” resides next door in plot F.

I have to say–I think there’s a movie here.


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.


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