Imagine Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, cocktail in hand on a balmy desert evening as the sun slips behind the San Jacinto Mountains, lounging by the pool once enjoyed by Dinah Shore and other A-listers. It’s a realistic scenario. The Oscar-nominated actor purportedly purchased Shore’s Palm Springs home this spring, sparking buzz across news wires and social media. The impressive property, designed by prolific Palm Springs architect Donald Wexler, sits on a large lot in Palm Springs’ storied Old Las Palmas neighborhood and swells with more than 7,000 square feet of swank modernism. Built in 1964, the reinvigorated house features floor-to-ceiling glass walls, wooden ceilings, a majestic stone fireplace, a sunken bar, and, of course, a swimming pool protected from paparazzi and prying eyes by mature and well-appointed landscaping.
“It has a great backyard — perfect for privacy,” says real estate agent and author Eric Meeks, whose book The Best Guide Ever to Palm Springs Celebrity Homes provides instant access to more than 600 addresses of properties reported to be owned, once owned, or lived in by Hollywood jet-setters, primarily from the Golden Age. Meeks grew up in Palm Springs and owned Celebrity Books, a local store and website that dealt in autographed books and Hollywood memorabilia.
From buying up midcentury houses in such legendary Palm Springs neighborhoods as the Movie Colony, Little Tuscany, Las Palmas, and the Mesa or grand estates in luxurious gated communities down valley, celebrities are at home here. According to Meeks’ findings, Bill and Melinda Gates have a house at The Reserve Club in Indian Wells, and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell bought a 5,722-square-foot home in 2003 at Desert’s Bighorn Golf Club. In 2008, Carol Channing moved from Sunrise Country Club to Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, not far from Thunderbird Cove, where Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne have a vacation home.
In addition to DiCaprio’s recent headline-making purchase, Oscar winner Anne Hathaway is said to be house hunting in the desert. Jessica Paré of Mad Men fame (she plays Don Draper’s third wife in the award-winning television series) is now a Palm Springs resident, as is Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola), who owns Bing Crosby’s old home — a residence that has also housed some big names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. According to Meeks’ research, Crosby owned the El Alameda property in the Movie Colony area for decades with his first wife, Dixie Lee, and their sons. It was rumored that John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe used the house for a clandestine rendezvous in the ’60s.
A Spanish-style casa at 334 W. Hermosa Place in Las Palmas also attracted a parade of film industry giants. Meeks writes that studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn reportedly owned the property for a number of years, from the late 1940s to 1960, and rented, leased, or loaned it to those he wanted to impress or caress. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz lived there in 1954 while overseeing construction of their Thunderbird Ranch home, which was completed later that year. The Hermosa Place property shared land with the house at 1045 N. Cahuilla Road, which Judy Garland rented the following year.
But big stars in the desert are nothing new. Hollywood legends began claiming Palm Springs for their own almost a century ago, after the area was used as a location shoot for the 1915 version of Peer Gynt. The desert’s austere beauty seduced silent-screen hunk Rudolph Valentino while he was filming scenes for The Sheik in 1921. Valentino stayed at Palm Springs pioneer Florilla White’s house the following year, causing quite a stir and resulting in a headline-grabbing bigamy suit. And the stars kept coming, largely because studios demanded they stay within a two-hour drive from Hollywood.
Members of the Rat Pack soon put down roots in the desert. In 1947, E. Stewart Williams designed Frank Sinatra’s first Palm Springs home — a stunning example of midcentury architecture with a now famous piano-shaped pool — at 1148 E. Alejo Road in the city’s celebrated Movie Colony neighborhood. Nicknamed “Twin Palms” for a pair of trees located poolside, the estate today rents out for private parties, vacations, corporate retreats, and other events. Dean Martin owned a home at 1123 N. Via Monte Vista in Palm Springs, and Sammy Davis Jr. purportedly rented a three-bedroom house at 222 W. Chino Drive — a property once owned by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard during their marriage from 1939 to 1942.
Juicy celebrity gossip — rumored and true — colors the desert’s historical landscape, and several homes have been immortalized over the years through film, fable, or scandal. Liberace’s “The Cloisters” at 501 N. Belardo Road, near Palm Springs’ hip Uptown Design District, was depicted in the award-winning HBO film Behind the Candelabra, which chronicled the tempestuous relationship between Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and his secret live-in lover Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). Liberace owned a few homes in the desert, including a house at 1441 N. Kaweah Road that boasted a piano-shaped mailbox.
Farther north, in the Little Tuscany neighborhood near Chino Canyon, Elvis Presley twice shot out television sets in his home at 845 W. Chino Canyon Road after rival Robert Goulet appeared on the screen. Later dubbed “Graceland West,” the property was one of the few Spanish Colonial Ranch styles designed by Albert Frey and served as both a love nest for Elvis and Priscilla for three years and a wild bachelor pad after the couple divorced in 1973. Post Priscilla, Elvis placed a basketball hoop in the driveway and added a bedroom suite and sauna, as well as a large entertainment area he called the “Jungle Room.” The King recorded nine songs in the home and celebrated his last birthday there on Jan. 7, 1977. Frankie Valli, of The Four Seasons, purchased the estate after Elvis died.
According to local lore, serial divorcée Zsa Zsa Gabor lived a few houses away at 595 W. Chino Canyon Road in the ’70s and early ’80s. Although she never owned the home, she is said to have burned through three of her nine marriages during that time, one of which was to inventor Jack Ryan, who, as the story goes, took apart Zsa Zsa’s Rolls-Royce and refused to put it back together.
Murder and mayhem are also part of the Palm Springs–Hollywood connection. According to Howard Johns, author of Palm Springs Confidential, B-movie hunk Tom Neal shot and killed his wife on April 1, 1965, in the living room of the house they rented at 2481 N. Cardillo Ave. near the border of Chino Canyon and Racquet Club Estates. And it’s believed that Patty Hearst recuperated from her 19-month ordeal with the Symbionese Liberation Army at 701 Panorama Road in Little Tuscany in a home owned by her uncle George Randolph Hearst. Australian actor Tristan Rogers, of General Hospital fame, moved to the desert after his second drunk-driving conviction, in 1993, presumably to bolster his sobriety, and has also been a resident of Little Tuscany since 1997.
Whether to get away from stress, stay out of trouble, get into trouble, or simply to soak up the desert’s magical energy, the influx of the rich and famous to Palm Springs shows little sign of slowing.
“I think a big allure of the desert is the relative anonymity that it affords,” says Patrick Jordan of Patrick Stewart Properties, a desert real estate firm that has brokered some impressive deals. While Jordan respectfully declines to name names, he confirms the area’s continued popularity among the rich and famous. “There are more celebrities and Fortune 500 company owners and executives here than most people are aware of,” he says. “In addition to easy access [from Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego], the beauty and serenity of the desert allows people to let go and really relax.”