Palm Springs: An Oasis Of Nostalgia In The Desert

Living it up like a bygone movie star, '50s-style

In an era that now celebrates Sinatra, swing dancing, and martinis, it was just a matter of time before Palm Springs came back. The campy California desert resort--a couple of hours' drive from either Los Angeles or San Diego--is in the midst of a remodeling boom. At least a half a dozen old hotels have been or are in the process of being refurbished. Hundreds of stylish urbanites from Los Angeles and elsewhere are snapping up area properties as second homes.

To investigate this new-old thing--a sort of South Beach in the desert--I checked into the Ballantines Hotel at 1420 North Indian Canyon Drive. This 14-room motel, a favorite of the young Marilyn Monroe, was purchased just last fall by Fraser Robertson and Sarah Robarts, two Brits who were surprised to find no places in Palm Springs that celebrated the city's 1950s heyday. Robertson and Robarts filled the place with furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and Harry Bertoia. The rooms are now Fifties Fabulous right down to the avocado-colored kitchen appliances and rotary dial telephones. Blue Astroturf surrounds the pool, and lounge music fills the air. Rooms start at $169 a night in high season, which begins Nov. 1.

Other unique places to stay include The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, an eight-room bed and breakfast where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard honeymooned; Korakia Pensione, two restored villas in a Moroccan style; and the Racquet Club of Palm Springs, one of the original playgrounds of the stars. You can even rent Elvis' onetime home for $500 a night. Invite your friends over--the King's hot tub has room for 12--but you may have to order in dinner, because the kitchen is tiny.

CELEBS. To get an overview of the city, hop on one of the twice-a-day bus excursions given by Celebrity Tours. (The tour costs $14.95 and meets at the Rimrock Shopping Center on East Palm Canyon Drive.) Palm Springs is, after all, the city where Liberace died, where Sonny Bono was mayor, and whose downtown features a bronze statue of Lucille Ball. The sites include Bing Crosby's old place and the house where Joseph P. Kennedy wooed Gloria Swanson. It's across from Jack Dempsey's house and down the street from the home Barbara Hutton shared with husband Cary Grant in the early 1940s.

I asked Chuck Miller, our driver/guide, to take us by one of Palm Springs' more modern homes. He pulled up to 470 Vista Chino Drive, the Kaufmann Desert House. A singular piece of architecture, it was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann, for whom Frank Lloyd Wright designed "Falling Water" near Pittsburgh. Wright lobbied heavily to get the job, but this 1946 masterpiece was designed by Austrian architect Richard Neutra, who created many magnificent homes in Los Angeles.

Palm Springs doesn't yet have a tour that shows off its many great modern buildings. All of the houses, celebrity and otherwise, are inaccessible to the public. A brief history and architectural guide is available for $4.95 from the Palm Springs Visitor Information Center. Among public buildings in the book is the Tramway Gas Station at 2901 North Palm Canyon Drive. This soaring 1965 gem, designed by local architect Albert Frey, was recently reborn as the Montana St. Martin sculpture gallery.

Enough culture. What about food and entertainment? Sample the martini at Melvyn's at the Ingleside Inn. That's where bartender David Downey holds court. Downey, who works part-time at private parties and golf tournaments, can rattle off many a celebrity's favorite drink. Former First Lady Betty Ford, whose rehabilitation clinic lies just a few miles away, favors Virgin Arnie Palmers, Downey says. That's iced tea and lemonade, without the vodka.

Don't stay for dinner. The house specialty, veal with a hollandaise-like sauce, was forgettable, and the pasta that came with it was soggy. Better to go to St. James at the Vineyard, where the abalone, fried in a light egg batter, melts in your mouth. It's served with garlic mashed potatoes accented with a hint of pureed carrots. Afterward, walk across the street to Muriel's Supper Club, a new night club with eclectic live music that's trying to recapture the city's glory days.

The next day I drove a few miles east, stopping at Desert Memorial Park in nearby Cathedral City. There, a small stone, lying flat on the ground, reads: "Francis Albert Sinatra, 1915 to 1998." Above that is an inscription: "The best is yet to come." You could say that about Palm Springs, too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.