Editor’s Note: The is the first of a two-part series on the history of the LGBTQ community featuring local author David Wallace.
See Part 2: Out in the Sun
Walk down Palm Canyon Drive and it’s hard not to notice rainbow flags hanging in businesses or see same-sex couples holding hands. Though the city may be a gay mecca today, for many years a conservative “old guard” ruled this resort town, insisting the pleasure pursuits of “alternative lifestyles” (as they were once called) stay hidden out of sight.
So how did a dusty little outpost at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains become an internationally known destination for gays and lesbians? In his book, A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay & Lesbian Paradise, author David Wallace tries to separate fact from fiction.
A former West Coast editor for People Magazine, Wallace is the author of multiple books chronicling the history of Old Hollywood. A longtime resident of both New York and Los Angeles, he now resides in Palm Springs, teaching memoir writing and giving lectures on gay and lesbian history at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.
VIDEO: Author David Wallace notes Palm Springs’ earliest gay pioneer.
Wallace’s focus on his adopted hometown sprang from a desire to capture a “hallowed mythology” that is fading from “our cultural consciousness,” he writes in the introduction to his book. He admits that telling the history of a subject once considered taboo requires “taking off rose-colored glasses” and that the results might “possibly upset some readers brought up to believe that Hollywood propaganda was holy writ.” But in a town filled with so many legends, both people and stories, it’s inevitable that some myths linger.
Dr. Florilla White (center), who co-owned the Palm Springs Hotel with her sister in the early 1920s, would entertain actor Rudolph Valentino (to her right).
The secrets and scandals of our desert oasis may have started from the very beginning, when a pair of curiously independent women, Dr. Florilla White and her sister Henrietta, purchased the Palm Springs Hotel from Welwood Murray. The hotel catered to an eclectic group of adventurers and artists, including Rudolph Valentino. The silent film star and his second wife, Natacha Rambova, stayed with the sisters on their way back from a quickie marriage across the border in Mexicali. A year later, when he was hauled into court on a charge of bigamy, it was the White sisters who testified that the marriage had never been consummated. Allegedly, Wallace writes, the notorious lover and his gorgeous new wife had spent their honeymoon in separate beds.
As the little town expanded so too did its reputation among the Hollywood elite. When asked what attracted the celebrities, Wallace simply says one word: “Privacy.” The old studio system guarded stars like gold and required them to remain within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles unless otherwise authorized. In those days the train departed Union Station daily for Palm Springs, although, Wallace explains, most celebrities preferred to drive, taking Highway 60 (in the pre-interstate days) and stopping for a leisurely lunch at the Mission Inn in Riverside.
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The appeal of Palm Springs was, then, as it is now, that you could travel two hours from L.A. and feel like you were in another world. “Here, the stars could come and enjoy themselves, away from prying eyes,” says Wallace.
Escaping to the quiet, uninhibited desert put the city on the celebrity map when Greta Garbo insisted on having the premiere of her 1936 film, Camille, shown at the grand opening of the Plaza Theater downtown.
Greta Garbo in a scene from Camille with Robert Taylor, which premiered at the Plaza Theater in downtown Palm Springs in 1936.
Rumors had swirled about Garbo’s sexuality for years, but, as Wallace notes, the studio heads overlooked it because she was the biggest box-office draw in the world. While the movie opened simultaneously in New York City, the star spent the weekend in seclusion at Palm Springs’ famed Ingleside Inn. Avoiding the crowds and klieg lights out front, she made a late entrance, arriving after the movie had started, and sat in the back row of the balcony.
In Palm Springs, Garbo knew her secrets were safe with her good friend and MGM Studios colleague, Edmund Goulding. The actor-turned-director owned a compound in The Mesa neighborhood on the south end of town. His home, a back-lot version of a Normandy farmhouse, was surrounded by connecting cottages where male and female companions of varying sexual persuasions stayed for extended vacations. Garbo was a frequent guest, often staying with her close friend Mercedes de Acosta, the poet and playwright whose out lesbianism eventually caused problems for her more high-profile companions.
Wallace’s book describes Goulding’s well-known hobby of hosting bisexual orgies at his Palm Springs estate and Hollywood homes. Always the consummate artist, Goulding would cast willing young starlets with handsome up-and-coming actors to play out his sexual fantasies while he directed the action and adjusted the lighting and music.
Actor-turned director Edmund Goulding, on the tennis courts at the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs.
Cary Grant enjoyed the privacy of his home in Palm Springs, located right by what is now Desert Regional Hospital. Actor Tab Hunter (right) was among the regulars to Palm Springs.
The profile of Palm Springs continued to grow and so did the hedges that surrounded the homes, providing even more privacy for celebrities to indulge in their desires during the Hollywood heyday of the 1940s and ’50s. Matinee idols (and perennial bachelors) like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter could frolic in private backyard pools or chum it up at Charlie Farrell’s raucous Racquet Club (where beer was always free but Coca-Cola cost a quarter). The pals could cut loose away from public scrutiny, occasionally stopping for a pre-arranged photo-op surrounded by beautiful women.
Cary Grant spent weekends at his walled estate in the Movie Colony neighborhood with three of his six wives. His constant companion and on-again-off-again “roommate” of several decades, Randolph Scott, just happened to live around the corner on Tamarisk Road with his wife — most likely a “lavender marriage” of convenience, according to Wallace.
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The goody two-shoes glamour of the 1950s eventually gave way to the permissiveness of the ’60s and ’70s, but Palm Springs remained a buttoned-up town thanks to its conservative old guard, led by “Cowboy” Mayor Frank Bogert, Wallace says. Even as gay liberation entered the mainstream, the mayor and city council insisted that bars and clubs catering to “those people” be relegated to unincorporated areas south of town toward Cathedral City.
And while many of the marquee names that made Palm Springs famous moved down valley to a quieter country-club life in Rancho Mirage or Palm Desert, there was one local legend who spanned the decades, Wladziu Valentino Liberace. From his early days as the clean-cut but quirky boy next door (who happened to be a piano prodigy) to over-the-top world-renowned entertainer, Liberace grew up with Palm Springs.
Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert (left) with California Gov. Pat Brown.
He bought and renovated a succession of homes beginning in the 1950s, each one grander than the next until finally settling into the Cloisters, a 1920 Spanish courtyard hotel in Palm Springs that he made into an over-the-top oasis. He was known locally for his generosity, and also for his sexual proclivities — an open secret he went so far to defend that he sued a British tabloid that claimed he was a homosexual (and he won!).
But as Liberace retreated into his private paradise in the mid-1980s, still publicly insisting he was straight, the world outside was changing and so was the city of Palm Springs.