Locals gambling at Dunes Club Cathedral City courtesy palm springs historical society

Coachella Valley History Lives on in Local Lore

Bandits, aliens, sasquatch, big spenders, and other memorablenews reports from thedesert frontier.

Emily Chavous Foster History

Locals gambling at Dunes Club Cathedral City courtesy palm springs historical society

Locals gambling at the old Dunes Club in Cathedral City. Al Wertheimer is pictured third from left.

Bandits Attack New York Mayor

When the Big Apple’s notorious Prohibition-era mayor, James John “Jimmy” Walker, rolled into town on the Golden State Limited locomotive, March 14, 1931, a gang of outlaws targeted his private train car a half-mile from Palm Springs Station.

The masked gunslingers forced Walker to deboard with his hands held high.

Clad in a suit, and squinting as he stumbled from the train’s footboard into the sun, the playboy politician met a horde of journalists and shutterbugs chasing a juicy story.

Walker was tangled in scandal. Though the mayor purported his desert visit was in pursuit of “restored health” and at the behest of a physician, he’d made the cross-country trek to visit a friend, Samuel Untermyer; soliciting advice from a trusted elder seemed more plausible. Untermyer, a prominent New York attorney, had built a reputation representing highbinders, and poor Walker was about to be ousted from office.

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The photo-op was staged, of course, and the train eventually carried Walker to the depot, where his apparent West Coast fanbase had gathered. But the spectacle didn’t end there. After embarking in a limo, he was then held up by a herd of cowgirls, who carted him off in a wagon to participate in a community parade down Palm Canyon Drive.

Ahead of his departure, Walker held a press conference thanking Palm Springsers for their hospitality. The temperature back home was not so forgiving.

April 20, 1931, Time reported: “New York’s glib little mayor returned last week from his California vacation, during which the City Affairs Committee had requested Gov. Roosevelt to remove him from office.”

At least Walker had a lingering tan from his multiweek holiday in the Wild West village known as Palm Springs.

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The Dunes Club in Cathedral City burned down.

Mysterious Fire Disappears Mobster Casino

As the Great Depression rippled across America, two of four Wertheimer brothers — Al and Lou — escaped to the sun-drunk, showbiz-laden Coachella Valley. Reputed associates of Al Capone, the Wertheimers were known casino operatives and members of the notorious Purple Gang, which had all but dissolved by the early 1930s at the hands of Detroit police.

The smooth talkers got on quick with Palm Springs authorities, who greenlit the 1936 opening of their Dunes Club casino in what is now Cathedral City, despite gambling being illegal. It was a swank place dressed in a Spanish colonial suit — the kind of joint that served fine steak dinners and employed its own small orchestra. You might casually bump into Clark Gable and Carole Lombard over martinis at the bar. (A Dec. 31, 1937, news report in The Desert Sun documented a raid by the sheriff during which “a hundred motion picture stars were at the club.”) Eventually, locals and police had enough.

The club burned down to the ground in an arson fire. Nobody bothered to look for suspects.

“Big Al came to a bad end ... as did the Dunes,” Ray Mungo wrote in his 1993 novel Palm Springs Babylon. “Wertheimer had the misfortune, like Teddy Kennedy, to be behind the wheel of a car with a woman — Bernice Mannix — who wasn’t his wife and moreover was married to an MGM studio executive. She died in the accident they had, he was gravely injured, and shortly thereafter, in 1943, the club burned down to the ground in an arson fire. Nobody bothered to look for suspects or rebuild the property.”

Eisenhower Pens Treaty With ETs

In February 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower planned a five-day getaway to Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs with his wife, Mamie; her mother, Elivera; and an entourage of 40 Secret Service agents. Newspapers advised the public that the visit was “entirely a vacation,” urging crowds to leave Ike alone and let the man golf in peace.

“Palm Springs will be a good host and respect the president’s wishes,” Mayor Florian G. Boyd told The Desert Sun. Eisenhower made no formal appearances, though he did sign 23 bills into law and obliged more than one photo-op with the local paper during his stay.

On the night of Feb. 20, the president made an unscheduled departure from Smoke Tree Ranch, prompting a baffling report from the Associated Press: “Pres. Eisenhower died tonight of a heart attack in Palm Springs.” He didn’t, though. Minutes later, they issued a correction.

But the president’s whereabouts remained to be seen.

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In a press conference the following day, White House press secretary James Hagerty informed bewildered reporters that Eisenhower chipped a tooth on a chicken wing and needed immediate dental attention. Naysayers assert that he slipped out to visit Edwards Air Force Base, where a group of ETs were rumored to be lounging after a long, intergalactic flight. It was a serious meeting, according to one whistleblower. The aliens wanted signoff on biological experimentation, and Eisenhower wanted to avoid a space war he knew we couldn’t win.

In 1997, Lt. Col. Philip Corso, who served on Eisenhower’s National Security Council from 1953 to ’57, released a tell-all memoir, The Day After Roswell. “We had negotiated a kind of surrender with them,” he recalled of the presidential treaty. “They dictated the terms because they knew what we most feared was disclosure.”

Corso died of a heart attack a year later. The Associated Press did not report on it.

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Sinatra Makes It Rain

At Melvyn’s Restaurant in Palm Springs, a certain blue-eyed crooner, hailed for doing things his way, laid claim to Table 13. Frank Sinatra (and his family, mother Dolly included) dined there so frequently, owner Mel Haber purportedly added glass panes to the front door so staff could watch for the star’s approach and ensure prompt service.

Everyone wanted to serve him. Sinatra was a great tipper, known for doling out C-notes and tossing $20s on the floor for the cleaners to find later. “His tipping was legendary,” Barbara Sinatra attested in her memoir, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank. Chapter 5 recalls a conversation between Sinatra and a valet, as he hands the kid two $100s:

True to his cocky nature, Sinatra asks, “Is that the biggest tip you ever had?”

“Well, no, sir,” the valet responds.

“Who the hell gave you more than that?” Barbara recalls Frank demanding.

“Why you did, Mr. Sinatra. Last week.”

Trash Brigade Beautifies the Desert

When pioneering aviator Jacqueline Cochran — the first woman to break the sound barrier, circa 1953 — spoke at a Coachella Valley women’s luncheon sometime in the midcentury, her opening lines inspired Marian Marsh Henderson to take action.

“Do you women know how dirty this desert is?” Cochran reportedly asked. “It is just a mess. When I fly over it in my airplane, I can see the shine from all the bottles and cans.”

Marian, a bombshell starlet who left Los Angeles after marrying Cliff Henderson, one of the brothers who founded Palm Desert, took it upon herself to do something about it.

She launched Desert Beautiful, sweet-talked her pal Walt Disney into designing her logo, and passed out thousands of free litter bags from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea. She petitioned the state to mandate the beautification of gas stations and installed trash bins at all the major local events, including the Bob Hope Desert Classic and the Date Festival. Within six years, her organization grew to more than 250 members.

In a 1966 article, a Desert Sun contributor remarked: “It’s a beautiful job for a beautiful woman who proves that beauty is good business.”

Lucille Ball Named Honorary Mayor

When Desi Arnaz won a vacant lot at Thunderbird Country Club in a poker game, it made the decision for the entertainer and wife Lucille Ball to plant roots in the desert easy — even though, as a Cuban, he was barred from golfing in the neighborhood.

Armando’s Bar

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

America’s favorite TV couple had escaped to the sunny oasis many times since their 1940 elopement. Lucy vacationed here earlier than that, as a 20-something comedienne cracking jokes poolside at El Mirador Hotel. The power couple got the keys to their custom-built modernist retreat in 1954, and the pair involved themselves in the local community — participating in events like the annual Desert Circus parade and opening the Western Hills Hotel (now Indian Wells Resort Hotel).

After an amicable divorce in 1960, Lucy kept the Thunderbird house and the Rancho Mirage address. The town twice named her honorary mayor ahead of its 1973 incorporation.

Blonde Bombshell Discovered ... Again

In the 2011 book Marilyn: Intimate Exposures, Susan Bernard, daughter of celebrity photographer Bruno Bernard, recalls the fortuitous discovery of a promising ingénue named Marilyn Monroe.

“It was in the Springs one auspicious morning that Marilyn, smelling like baby powder, was unloaded along with the camera equipment from Dad’s station wagon. This magical photo safari would change the course of her life forever, when Dad introduced her to Johnny Hyde, vice president of the William Morris Agency, who fell head over heels for her.”

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Marilyn Monroe and agent Johnny Hyde at the Racquet Club on New Year’s Eve 1949.

It was December 1949. She was 23, posing in 4-inch cork heels on the diving board at the Racquet Club, a members-only tennis club in Palm Springs opened in the 1930s by actors Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy. That month’s edition of Screen Stars magazine referenced the club, hailing it as “so private, Farrell won’t tell how many members it has or what the dues are.”

But Johnny had already discovered Marilyn. The pair met a year earlier at a party in Beverly Hills. He had invited the starlet to join him at the Racquet Club for its New Year’s Eve gala. “John Hyde … hosted Marilyn Monroe, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Karl, Eleanor Cushingham, Sy Bartlett, and Benny Thau,” Palm Springs Limelight News reported after the festivities wrapped.

In the months following their meet-cute in the desert, Hyde left his wife for Marilyn (who reportedly refused multiple proposals from the agent, 31 years her senior). He suffered a heart attack at the Racquet Club on Dec. 17, 1950, and died the next day.

During their time together, Hyde made connections for Marilyn that helped her land important parts, including a small role in the 1950 heist film The Asphalt Jungle. She went on to pen a deal with 20th Century Fox in 1951 that led to career-defining performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955).

She continued to frequent the Coachella Valley, vacationing here with Joe DiMaggio and allegedly hooking up with JFK at Bing Crosby’s place in March 1962, five months shy of her probable suicide.

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Sasquatch Spotted in High Desert

Strange shadows lurk in the open desert at night.

One of them, hidden among the Seussian trees in and around Joshua Tree National Park, looms 8 feet tall and conceals a pair of glowing eyes behind his menacing mane. They say you’ll smell the Yucca Man before you see him coming. Or, by some accounts, hear him clacking boulders together with his bare hands.

“Under various names and dressed in myriad traditions, Yucca Man has been reported in the wilder parts of Southern California as long as people have lived here,” Ken Layne wrote in Desert Oracle, Volume 4.

Indeed. In a Nov. 15, 1974, interview with the Los Angeles Times, Peter Guttilla, head of the High Desert Sasquatch Research Group (a team that included animal trackers and psychics), alleged, “There have been a number of reports of a Bigfoot-type creature in Southern California and evidence to support the presence of such.”

Sightings from the 1950s on commonly reference a putrid stench, heavy breathing, self-luminous eyes, and unruly body hair. Among the most rehashed tales: Decades ago, on night watch at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms (the largest Marine Corps base in the country), one young man reportedly came face-to-face with the cryptid, who bent the Marine’s drawn gun in half and knocked him unconscious.

Next time you’re out in the desert past dark, if you hear the sound of banging rocks or get a whiff of an unusual odor, get back in your vehicle, and slowly, silently, find your escape.

Man discovers, Loses Gold

On a hilltop in Southern California, in sight of the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, there is gold enough to satisfy the most avaricious man that ever loved the yellow god,” Charles Michelson wrote in the December 1901 edition of Munsey’s Magazine.

The gold mine in question was discovered in 1836 by Thomas L. “Pegleg” Smith, a gruff fur trapper and alleged horse thief who earned his nickname after losing a limb to an arrow and amputating it himself with the help of a friend, a saw, and a jug of Taos Lightning rye whiskey.

Having worked their way west from St. Louis, Pegleg and his ragtag group of landlopers were traversing the Anza-Borrego Desert when they reached the end of their water supplies. Naturally, they dispatched the one-legged man among them to find some.

Pegleg returned with nothing but a few chunks of tarnished metal in his satchel, collected atop a nearby butte. The darkened, oxidized coating implied they might be copper. But when Pegleg had the nuggets tested in San Bernardino, according to a 1904 recounting in the Los Angeles Herald, they registered as gold. “Eventually, he became imbued with the idea that he had made a great discovery,” the paper reported, “and he … organized an expedition to seek for the three buttes in Southern California, where fabulous wealth was hidden.”

Alas, he never made it rich.

By some accounts, more prospectors have sought the site of Pegleg’s score than any other lost mine in the Southwest, “the search for which,” Michelson quipped, “has cost as many lives as most battles.” A few claim to have found it (an anonymous package sent to Desert Magazine in 1965 contained two lumps of gold as “proof”). Others shrug Pegleg off as a drunk and a storyteller. A historical monument to the man in Borrego Springs labels him a “spinner of tall tales”; the community hosts an annual Liar’s Contest in his name.

Whatever the case, the lore lives on in all those who continue to comb the dunes for the misplaced fortune of Thomas L.“Pegleg” Smith.

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Harpo Almost Holes It in the Buff

[Harpo Marx] was really crazy,” comedian George Burns recalled in a 1981 interview with The New York Times. “He’d play golf five days in a row but wear a different color wig every day, just to drive his partner crazy.”

One sweltering August afternoon on his home course at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, the silent film star opted to wear nothing at all.

“I was determined to be a Famous First — the first naked man in history to fire a hole-in-one,” Marx wrote in his 1961 autobiography, Harpo Speaks!. “I didn’t make it, but I came damn close. I came within 6 inches, to be exact, of immortality.”

The neighbors didn’t seem to bat an eye. That was just Harpo.

I was determined to be a Famousi First — the first naked mani in history to fire a hole-in-one.”

Established in 1952, Tamarisk Country Club opened one year after Thunderbird, making it the Coachella Valley’s second members-only residential club with an 18-hole golf course. In an era fraught with discrimination, when Jews were often denied access to similar spaces, Tamarisk sought to be inclusive. The sons of Jewish immigrants, Harpo and three of his brothers — Groucho, Zeppo, and Gummo — were founding members of the golf club, and all had homes near the course.

“The fancier clubs … were restricted,” Harpo noted in the book. “We wanted to put up a course that would be the equal of any, but where everybody would have an equal right to play.”

Even slapstick nudists.

Allegedly, when Harpo died in 1964, his ashes were spread in one of the fairway bunkers on the seventh hole. Whether his ghost brings any luck to fellow free spirits chasing an ace is unknown.