The House He Lived In
By Arthur Lyons
Ever since Frank and Barbara sold the desert compound, the whole town's been buzzing about the new owner. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why did he buy it? Meet Jim Pattison - who's going to do it his way
If these walls could talk, what would they be saying? I can't help wondering that as I wait to meet the new owner of the Frank Sinatra compound in Rancho Mirage. Over the years, I'd heard stories about the wild parties held here; the famous houseguests, the goings-on. I can only wonder about the opulence inside.
I wonder, also, about the man who had bought the place when Frank and Barbara decided to leave full-time residency here in the desert and move back closer to the children in Malibu.
All I know at this point is his name, Jim Pattison, and that he's a Canadian from Vancouver and that he plunked down a modest $4.3 million for the property. My curiosity on all points is soon to be satisfied as the gates along Frank Sinatra Drive swing open and I drive through.
After parking in the courtyard in front of the 12-car garage, I'm met by Pattison's assistant, who greets me cordially and leads me through the compound. I realize how lucky I am - few from the press were ever allowed to cover the place during the Sinatra residency.
The first thing that surprises me is the simple, almost barren landscaping. It's vintage desert - sand, rock, ocotillo and cactus. Very little greenery.
The second thing is the...uh, modesty of the place. The whole residence is laid out in a series of one-story bungalows. It looks more like a hotel than a home. The buildings are board-and-batten ranch; the roofs are shake. The look is very Smoke Tree Ranch, the style of desert living (ostentatious in its utter simplicity) begun by such pioneers as Walt Disney.
I'm eventually deposited in a large living room in one of the bungalows that faces tennis courts and a small, blue-tiled swimming pool. Here is where I meet my host, Jim Pattison.
Although Pattison has to be at least 60, he is youthful-looking and casually dressed; a pale blue sports shirt, slacks and a white golfing hat. He is soft-spoken and exudes an aura of self-assurance. Some of that, I learn later, may have come from the fact that he was truly a self-made man. Starting out as a car salesman 34 years ago, Pattison has built The Jim Pattison Group, a business conglomerate that employs 16,000 people and encompasses automobile dealerships, retail stores, manufacturing, entertainment, media, outdoor advertising, and food processing in the Great White North. Sales in 1994 were $3.3 billion.
Pattison is hospitable, but he's a little mystified: Why would anybody be interested in interviewing him, he wonders. I told him how curious we all are about this stranger who came to town and bought the Sinatra residence.
"I'm no stranger," Pattison corrects us. Turns out the man is a bona fide desert rat, having been a resident of Palm Springs since 1975, living in the Canyon area. Twenty years ago, he came to the desert, stayed at "that pink hotel" (The El Mirador) and fell in love immediately.
"I'm a big fan of Winston Churchill," he says. "Churchill always said that the place he liked best in the world was Marrakesh. If he'd seen Palm Springs, he would have liked it even better. I used to come back from Canada as often as I could."
Actually Pattison still lives in the Canyon area, and even though he has bought the Sinatra home, he has no intention of ever moving in. He purchased it for business reasons.
"It suited our purposes," he says. "We hold corporate meetings all over the United States. I thought it would be nicer for people to come here, rather than spend four days at a hotel.
"The Sinatra compound has isolated bungalows so that people who have common interests can meet together and discuss business."
(At the time of my visit, there were 13 people staying in the compound, including the president of Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, an attraction that Pattison owns.)
Did the fact that the Sinatra place belonged to Ol' Blue Eyes affect his decision to buy? "It put a little more sizzle into the deal," he says. "People who come here are interested in Frank Sinatra. It's a definite business advantage."
Perhaps it is because of that advantage that there are still a lot of Sinatra remnants around: In the pillows scattered around the rooms embroidered with Sinatra's favorite sayings like "Don't Get Even, Get Mad," and "You Dirty Rat!!!" In the in-house movie theater where Sinatra entertained his guests with first-run movies, executives of Pattison's car dealership chain now map out selling strategies. In the life-size cutout of Frank, microphone in hand. In the plaques on the bungalow doors that spell out Sinatra's famous hits - "Tender Trap," "New York, New York," "High Hopes" and "All the Way."
As he takes me on a guided tour, Pattison seems proud of the mementos. He leads me from beamed-ceilinged bungalow to beamed-ceilinged bungalow, each tastefully yet simply furnished, many with lavish touches like saunas, massage tables and gym equipment. "I don't know how many bedrooms there are," Jim admits. "But there are 13 bathrooms." Why so much plumbing? "When he built the place, he had each bungalow installed with His and Her bathrooms for his guests' convenience."
We enter a clothes closet which used to be Barbara Sinatra's. Jim laughs at the size of it: "I've stayed in hotel rooms smaller than this."
We pass through a kitchen area that would make a restaurateur jealous, equipped as it is with pizza ovens, stainless steel walk-in fridges. Several cooks are working to prepare lunch for members of Pattison's business empire.
One of the guest bungalows is called The Caboose because that's what it is - a converted train caboose. Next to it are some old railroad memorabilia and a house that contains nothing but electric trains.
Sinatra, it seems, loved electric trains and trains in general. The shelves lining the walls hold a collection of thousands of antique electric train cars. On the table in the center of the room, eight trains run simultaneously, making train noises and puffing smoke.
There is a soft spot in Pattison's heart for trains, too. He is a director of Canadian Pacific. He points out the details of the train on the table with glee. "Look, that car picks up miniature coal, the other dumps it in."
He leads me out to my car for a last look around. Although the compound is perfectly suited for Pattison's uses, it makes me a little sad at the same time. Knowing that business deals and not celebrity-studded parties will be going on behind the walls takes a lot of romance out of the place.
But apparently the Sinatras were ready to sell. Nelda Linsk, the real estate agent who sold the property for the Sinatras, recalls that the closing "was a joy. Barbara was in blue jeans. Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence were guests of the Sinatras at the time. Everybody stayed for Frank's pasta, then Steve and Frank sang. It was marvelous."
I drive through the gates for the last time. They close behind me and on the end of an era.
Originally published in the February 1996 issue of Palm Springs Life.