In Palm Springs, a New Set of Pleasure-Seekers Take Hold
What is it about Palm Springs that keeps drawing waves of people looking to slow down, drop out, go a little wild? Irina Aleksander meets the latest arrivals who are inventing the desert oasis all over again.
Palm Springs is reachable by plane, but everyone will say that on your first visit you should probably drive. There are a few reasons, the primary one being the windmills. Right before you get off the I-10, there are hundreds of them, maybe thousands. From afar they look like crosses on a hill, up close, like plane propellers on stilts. Driving through the wind farm, your car begins to rattle and sway, shoved around the road by the Santa Ana winds. Preset radio stations jam and turn to static. Soon, you’re surrounded by 160-foot-tall, man-made machines planted like crops across a wide expanse of uninhabited desert. The sight, simultaneously ominous and beautiful, makes you hold your breath. But then you arrive in Palm Springs proper and exhale. Because here is the tranquil, hot valley—a strange little civilization inhabited by very tanned people who drive convertibles, reside in immaculate Midcentury Modern homes, and spend their days in pools with the same time and devotion that people elsewhere commit to offices. The overall effect is like passing through a time warp and touching down in a colony left over from the 1950s.
“This is Mars,” John says. I meet John in the shallow end of the pool at L’Horizon, a newly opened hotel along Palm Canyon Drive. John’s hair and skin are golden, his teeth and tennis visor very white. John works in men’s apparel and is one-fourth of two couples that drove in from L.A. on a steamy weekend. The women in John’s group are both named Stephanie. One of the Stephanies is wearing an orange bathing suit and reading a pink book. (Upon closer examination: Candace Bushnell’s Killing Monica.) This Stephanie moved to L.A. from Wall Street a year ago. “And this is our fourth time here,” she coos from her lounge chair. Chris McPherson
John and Stephanie are part of what the locals are calling the renaissance of Palm Springs. Once a sanctuary for the Hollywood set, the city is again attracting the sorts of people who have the unique power to christen destinations and lead their followers into the desert. Two years ago Leonardo DiCaprio bought a home here. Last May, Nicolas Ghesquière, the creative director of Louis Vuitton, staged the brand’s resort show at Bob Hope’s former estate. That same weekend Thomas Middleditch, the star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, was seen lounging by the pool at the Parker Palm Springs. Days before I arrive, Tavi Gevinson Instagrams photos from the Saguaro, a remodeled Holiday Inn. Barack Obama has been several times in the past year and, if you believe the murmurs of the local real estate agents, is looking to buy.
The only thing more fun than imagining all those people lounging around a pool together is considering what brought them here. Palm Springs is, after all, a town of retired showgirls and studio execs, of golf in the afternoon and oysters Rockefeller at dinner, of Robert Downey Jr.’s drug arrests and Lindsay Lohan’s trips to the nearby Betty Ford Center—a throwback to a time when people left the breezy coastline for a seductive desert town where they could disappear, rest, and be cured by the sun.
“I could never find a place to stay before,” John says. But now, with many hotels sold out on weekends, new ones have risen. L’Horizon is the work of Steve Hermann, who’s designed homes for film producer Megan Ellison and the Saudi royals. Further down the road is V Palm Springs, part-owned by Mark Geragos, the Armenian-American lawyer once employed by Michael Jackson. On the other side of town, Arrive Palm Springs, a boutique hotel bankrolled by Ezra Callahan, the millionaire Facebook alum, is opening in early 2016.
On my first day, I check in to Sparrows Lodge, a lush compound of rustic cabins for the unfussy traveler who has a fussy taste for aesthetics. (There are no phones or TVs, but birds on everything: tissue boxes, hangers, Q-tip packs.) “Definitely a more youthful and affluent person is coming to Palm Springs,” says Jason Perry, the hotel’s general manager. “It’s someone who might spend time in an exotic place in Europe, but they choose to come here because it has a cool factor now.” Chris McPherson
Palm Springs came about as the antidote to Hollywood. In the 1920s, when studios controlled actors with lengthy contracts and strict morality clauses, the stars needed a place to get away and let loose. Palm Springs was close enough not to violate the “two-hour rule”—the leashlike range actors were allowed to wander from studio lots—with a tiny population made up mostly of Cahuilla Indians and TB patients seeking relief in the dry heat. In 1934, the actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy opened the Charles Farrell Racquet Club, and soon the rest of Hollywood followed, building homes in what became known as the Movie Colony.
This story is told to me by a man named Paul. Paul used to run Club Trinidad, a Rat Pack hangout; now he gives tours of the city in his Chrysler Sebring convertible for $45. Bald, sturdy, and smelling of aftershave, Paul has the look of a retired mobster: khakis, loafers, and a big gold pinkie ring. We drive around with the top down and the AC blasting as Paul shows me homes that belonged to Jerry Lewis, Clark Gable, Liz Taylor, Kirk Douglas, and Liberace. He points to a large hillside estate. “That’s Suzanne Somers’s house,” Paul says. “She invented the Thighmaster and made a million dollars. Now she has a line of cosmetics. A very productive lady!”
The most striking thing about Palm Springs isn’t its celebrities but the homes they’ve built here. Between the 1940s and 60s, the area became a staging ground for Modernist architects, drawn by wealthy clients and the unusual lunar terrain. Richard Neutra, William Cody, John Lautner, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler imposed a sharp geometry onto the landscape that we’ve come to know as Desert Modernism: flat roofs, glass walls, free-form pools. It could have all been bulldozed in the 1970s, but then the recession hit and no one bothered. In the 80s, the city became a sleepy retirement community, aided by then-mayor Sonny Bono, who made everything fun illegal, including G-strings. (Really.) Chris McPherson
In the 1990s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, gay men—now estimated to account for a third of the city’s population—migrated to Palm Springs and began remodeling houses. When Midcentury design came back in style, it turned out the city had the world’s largest collection. Palm Springs Modernism Week now attracts close to 60,000 people. More crowds began coming for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, which started in 1999. The Koch brothers, meanwhile, have held right-wing political summits here since 2013, perhaps nostalgic for the years that Ronald Reagan spent at Sunnylands.
Today’s Palm Springs is a blend of its past and present. Drop by Sherman’s Deli & Bakery and you’re likely to encounter vacationing families and transient biker gangs; Native American businessmen and swarms of Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes escaping harsh winters back home; retired heiresses and modern tech moguls. “You have the gays, the grays, and everyone in between,” says Patrick Jordan, a real estate broker who shows me Bob Hope’s Lautner-designed spaceship of a house—currently on sale for $25 million—perched high above the city.
If the new Palm Springs has a set of ambassadors, they might be the three J’s. They don’t call themselves the three J’s, but I meet them in a single day and the mnemonic device helps me remember their names. There is Jason Perry, the 29-year-old Sparrows manager, who introduces me to his friend, Jordan Fife. Fife grew up in Palm Springs, but left to work in the entertainment industry. He worked on a movie called Bride Wars starring Kate Hudson. (“It ended up being terrible and broke my soul,” he says.) So eventually he came back. Now he’s the director of development for Steve Hermann Hotels. Fife has the windmills tattooed on his right thigh, above an Alfred Tennyson quote: “They came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon.”
“Palm Springs is like a beach city with no beach,” Perry says, explaining the allure.
“We like to consider ourselves the Hamptons of L.A.,” Fife adds.
Through Perry and Fife, I meet the third J, Jaime Kowal, a 37-year-old Canadian photographer who came here on vacation three years ago and never left. Now Kowal is the proprietor of several popular Palm Springs businesses, including the Amado hotel, Ernest Coffee, and Bootlegger Tiki, a cocktail lounge she calls a Tikeasy. “There’s a freedom to living in the desert,” Kowal says. “There’s no traffic. The parking is free. Life is easy here.”
So great is Kowal and her friends’ commitment to Palm Springs that they jokingly call themselves “the Family.” Their latest recruit is Athalie Laguerre, an early Facebook employee and an investor in Arrive who came to visit in 2014. Within a month, Laguerre bought a home near Kowal’s and then decided to open an artisanal ice cream shop in town. She now splits her time between Palm Springs and Brooklyn.
I ask Kowal, the Family’s unofficial leader, why there’s a sudden interest in Palm Springs. “It’s like when there’s a really good party going on,” she says, sipping, without apparent irony, a drink called Tardy to the Party. “You want to know who’s there and what they are talking about. Like, you have your nose pressed to the window.” In other words: FOMO. Chris McPherson
Like anywhere else, Palm Springs has its rhythms. At times, it can feel like an old European resort where everyone is on the same daily conga line. Mornings are for brunch at Cheeky’s (if you’re the farm-to-table type) or Sherman’s (if you want a pile of lox); maybe you go on a hike or take a stroll downtown and inevitably someone buys a sarong at Trina Turk; as the heat climbs, you retreat to the pool in said sarong and befriend the other pool people; in the afternoon everyone hides out in air-conditioning for spa treatments, aloe vera application, and naps; once the temperatures drop, you go for drinks or dinner with the people you met by the pool. Rinse, repeat.
The heat in Palm Springs is unlike that of anywhere else. Not only is it dry, but the sun here gives your skin a leathery, parched tint. It doesn’t so much tickle your bare ankles as lightly sizzle them. At first, your body rebels—mine broke out in a heat rash—but then your muscles relax and tension thaws. As Zeb Newman, a part-time resident and a producer on The Late Late Show with James Corden, tells me, “I like the oppressive heat. I’m so fast in my life that it forces me to slow down.” Chris McPherson
Because of its climate, Palm Springs has typically been a seasonal destination. Its population surges December through April and clears out by May. “But this summer has been on fire,” says John Paschal, a celebrity photographer and 20-year resident. I meet Paschal at the opening of his new restaurant, Eight4Nine, a large space with white patent-leather banquettes and fuchsia Louis XVI chairs. (A month later, Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset will film an episode here.) Among the guests is Bobbie Eakes, a former All My Children star who tells me she gets through the summers with a season pass to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which travels to the top of Mount San Jacinto, where it is typically 30 to 40 degrees cooler.
Much of Palm Springs is in fact designed to help visitors cope with the heat. Uptown art galleries are aggressively air-conditioned. Restaurants are equipped with mist-producing awnings that function like irrigation systems for humans. Though there are fun décor stores like A La Mod and Modern Way, the most populated are the hat stores offering every imaginable sun-shielding contraption: baseball caps, panama hats, fedoras, straw sunbonnets, tennis visors, etc.
There are as many pool scenes in Palm Springs as there are neighborhoods in New York, and each one inevitably defines who you are. The Ace Hotel is basically a nightclub: there are DJs, pool parties, beards. Sparrows’s pool is for a more civilized but no less hip crowd. (On a Friday there’s a gentleman named Gavin with a man-bun.) At the Parker, waitresses in tennis skirts serve frozen drinks to agents speed-reading scripts. L’Horizon, meanwhile, has the allure of the buzzy new arrival. Not far from John and the Stephanies is a couple from Marin County. Brad wears Oakley sunglasses and Bose headphones. Elaine is reading The Corrections. The waiter offers a brandy made by Steven Soderbergh and they seem genuinely impressed. “It’s safe to say we’re going to try everything,” Brad says. Chris McPherson
True to its name, L’Horizon is a forecast of what’s coming. With rates starting at $605 a night, it is Palm Springs’ most expensive hotel; its restaurant, SO.PA, is led by Giacomo Pettinari, an alum of El Bulli. Hermann, the hotel’s owner, is very proud of these details. In one of the suites, he points out the Forbes & Lomax light switches, the hand-sewn hide rugs, and Le Labo toiletries. “All our sheets are Frette,” he announces. “We have Frette robes, Frette slippers, Frette towels. Everything that is fabric is Frette. And not just Frette— but top-of-the-line Frette.”
After touring L’Horizon, I want to see the other Palm Springs, and so I drag Fife to Melvyn’s, the restaurant opened in 1975 by Mel Haber, a transplant from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Palm Springs has plenty of interesting dining options—most notably, Birba, Cheeky’s Italian-themed cousin, and the modern Workshop Kitchen & Bar, where the walls are concrete and fries are cooked in duck fat. But Melvyn’s is the desert’s version of Brighton Beach kitsch. There are tuxedo-clad waiters; a piano lounge called the Casablanca; and retirees in ascots dining alongside younger people like Fife, who wears a fedora. We order the steak Diane and watch a woman in a pink halter top entertaining two older gentlemen at the bar. “Her name is Sherrie,” Fife guesses. “Definitely a Sherrie or a Marcia. Marcia used to be a party girl, but now she just enjoys Chardonnay.” As we leave, Sherrie/Marcia is dragging her silver foxes onto the dance floor to the tune of “Sweet Caroline.”
The magic of Palm Springs is brewed from these contradictions. You can have a shrimp cocktail at Melvyn’s or “compressed melon salad” at SO.PA. It welcomes travelers who enjoy—or simply want to observe—the wealth and debauchery of the Hollywood set, and health tourists who come for the climate. It’s a place to be seen and to get away. Chris McPherson
By week’s end, I opt for the latter. Overstimulated by Palm Springs’ constant sun and scene, I drop by Two Bunch Palms, a sprawling, gated resort in nearby Desert Hot Springs where Tim Robbins’s character came to hide out in Robert Altman’s The Player. At Two Bunch, cell-phone use is discouraged and everyone pads around in robes. The main attraction is the grotto, filled with lithium-rich mineral waters thought to have therapeutic, mood-enhancing properties. I sign up for the Watsu—a water shiatsu—in a small pool under a tiki hut, where a Swiss woman named Susanne drags me around by my limbs until I’m lulled into a meditative state. As I get on the road, sitting upright feels like a chore. The sun is just beginning to dip behind the windmills, which, it occurs to me, have been spinning tirelessly this entire time, ushering new arrivals into the desert.
The Details: What to Do in Palm Springs
L’Horizon: Celebrity designer Steve Hermann has reimagined poolside bungalows by renowned Midcentury architect William Cody. lhorizonpalmsprings.com; doubles from $605.
Parker Palm Springs: A lush compound with playful Jonathan Adler–designed rooms. parkerpalmsprings.com; doubles from $425.
Sparrows Lodge: Modern rustic cabins for laid-back but aesthetically inclined travelers. sparrowslodge.com; doubles from $199.
Two Bunch Palms: A tranquil hideaway in nearby Desert Hot Springs with restorative, lithium-rich waters. twobunchpalms.com; doubles from $239.
Restaurants & Bars
Birba: A busy garden eatery with a well-priced farm-to-table Italian menu. birbaps.com; entrées $10–$23.
Bootlegger Tiki: A dimly lit “Tikeasy” bar owned by photographer Jaime Kowal (left). bootleggertiki.com.
Melvyn’s: Come for the flambé bananas and tuxedo-clad waiters; stay for dancing in the Casablanca lounge. inglesideinn.com; entrées $23–$43.
SO.PA: Giacomo Pettinari, an alum of Spain’s El Bulli, mans L’Horizon’s open-air restaurant. lhorizonpalmsprings.com; entrées $27–$55.
Workshop Kitchen & Bar: A minimal space where the fries are cooked in duck fat. workshoppalmsprings.com; entrées $22–$37.
A La Mod: Much of the merchandise, like Lucite lighting and other vintage pieces, is locally sourced. alamod768.com.
Just Modern: An assortment of Midcentury Modern home décor, knickknacks, and furnishings. justmoderndecor.com.
Trina Turk: The designer’s flagship store is a mecca for vibrant desert-chic prints. trinaturk.com.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: Take the tram up about 8,000 feet and hike Mount San Jacinto, where temperatures are up to 40 degrees cooler than on the desert floor. pstramway.com.