Nelda Linsk

Nelda Linsk, Then and Now

Long before the 1980s anthem, a young woman and her racquet club crowd showed the world that girls just want to have fuu-u-u-n!

David Lansing History

Nelda Linsk

A high-fashion New York magazine once described Slim Aarons’ 1970 photograph “Poolside Gossip” as “the quintessential image of high-class leisure” showing “two queens of Palm Springs society: Helen Kaptur, in a white lace pants outfit with a bare midriff, hair teased and fully lacquered, and Nelda Linsk, in yellow palazzo pants — both improbably lounging in full sunlight by Linsk’s seminal midcentury home, designed by [Richard] Neutra, and known as the Kaufmann House.”

You know the photograph. You’ve seen it hanging over a bar in Palm Springs or in a retro furnishings store on Palm Canyon or at a friend’s home in Old Las Palmas. The Paul Kaplan Studio sells canvas copies of the image for $510 (a bargain compared to the Aarons-signed prints offered by New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery for a cool $25,000). Maybe you even own a copy. I do. I’ve looked at it so often that the main characters in the photo are like family to me. The woman on the left striding like a model on the catwalk (long, tan legs, wearing heels!) with the floppy white hat, cradling a cocktail, might be my older sister. The exotic-looking woman half-seated on a chaise, her face partially hidden by the flip of her blond hair, is a neighbor who often stops by for a dip and a drink. And the woman in the yellow palazzo pants, the one who obviously lives in this house, whose very body language — arms lassoing her knees together — suggests control but also a smoldering sexuality? That is my wife, Nelda.

Or so I imagine.

My poster-sized print of this mesmerizing image, which I bought from an outfit in London, resides in my Palm Springs living room, looking out over the doleful ruins of Charlie Farrell’s old Racquet Club, which is really where our story begins.

Nelda Linsk

Photo by Arthur Coleman

Nelda Linsk

Nelda, gracing the cover of Palm Springs Life in December 1970 at the entrance to the Kaufmann House.
From the Palm Springs Life Archives

Slim Aarons, Nelda Linsk, Richard Neutra, Charlie Farrell, the Racquet Club — it might not seem obvious but they’re all connected. One leads, inevitably, to the next. Without Charlie Farrell, there would be no “Poolside Gossip.” It’s like the plot of House of Cards. Or Better Call Saul. At first you don’t quite see how “this” connects to “that.” And then you lean back, let the story play out, and all the parts meet.

There was a time, say 50 years ago, when the world was smaller. More connected. When, as they say, everybody knew everybody else. At least that’s the way it seems to Nelda Linsk, the woman lounging poolside in the yellow palazzo pants.

“My husband was great friends with Frank Sinatra,” she says, sitting beside me at a pool near the now-derelict Racquet Club. She says it casually as if it weren’t a big deal. As if everyone, back in the day, was great friends with Frank Sinatra. I’ve invited her over for another poolside chat thinking it might evoke some of these almost-forgotten stories, and it seems to be doing the trick. “I haven’t been back here in years,” she says. “It brings back a lot of great memories.”

Nelda Linsk

Nelda with C.D. King, manager of Saks Fifth Avenue, designer Bill Blass, and Kay Waycott.
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

I ask her how her husband, Joe, who owned a fashion house in Philadelphia, became friends with Sinatra. Well, she explains, one of the guys who worked for him, Lester Sacks, had a brother, Manie, who was a recording executive with Columbia and one of Sinatra’s best friends. It was Manie Sacks who helped Sinatra get out of a restrictive contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey in 1942 and then helped start the singer’s solo career at Columbia. So one day in 1951, Manie calls up his brother, Lester, and asks if Frank and Ava Gardner (who met at the Chi Chi club in Palm Springs) could use Lester’s Philadelphia house to get secretly married.

After that, says Nelda, “Joe was part of that whole New York Rat Pack group.” A short time later, Nelda, who’d parlayed a series of jobs in fashion from Memphis to New York, went to work for Linsk of Philadelphia, as the concern was known, as a fashion buyer and, as she says with a shrug, ended up marrying the boss. “That’s how I met Frank. I knew him long before I knew Barbara [Sinatra]. I met Barbara at the Racquet Club. Of course, she was Barbara Marx then, married to Zeppo.” And that’s how Joe and Nelda Linsk ended up at the Annenberg Estate on a sweltering hot August day in 1976 when Frank Sinatra married the former Barbara Marx.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Let’s go back to 1963. Nelda, who grew up in a small town in Texas and began her career as a fashion show coordinator for a long-forgotten department store in Corpus Christi, is now married to the much-older and very successful Joseph Linsk. They live in New York and have a place out in the country. One of their neighbors is society photographer Slim Aarons (we’ll get back to him later). Winters in New York being famously brutal, Joe asks his bride if she’d like to go out to Palm Springs, so he can play golf and maybe she can learn to play tennis.

“I’d never been here. We flew into L.A. and then rented a car and drove to Palm Springs. We stayed at The Racquet Club. That was the place to be. Even in New York everyone knew about The Racquet Club. I remember waking up the next morning and it was just magical. The air, the mountains, the smell of the citrus blossoms. I’d never experienced anything like it. I fell in love with Palm Springs immediately.”

Nelda Linsk

Nelda, choreographer Tony Capps, and Barbara Marx (Sinatra).
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

On another visit, during which they rented Claudette Colbert’s house in the Las Palmas neighborhood, they decided to buy their own place. “Our Realtor kept wanting to show us the Kaufmann House but we weren’t interested. We didn’t want a place with high maintenance.”

But the real estate agent kept at it. One morning he brought over a book with those gorgeous black-and-white photos by Julius Shulman, insisting that Joe and Nelda should really have a look at the place.

“So we decided to go take a peek, just for fun. I remember when I walked in the gate and saw all of that [Utah] flagstone and that upper loggia [what Richard Neutra called a “gloriette”] with those incredible views, I said, ‘This is it, Joe. This is our house.'”

They paid $149,000 for the Kaufmann House, “which was a lot of money in those days,” says Nelda with a laugh. Perhaps. Until you realize that the house cost nearly $300,000 to build in 1946 so they got it for half price fewer than 20 years later. (The original budget was $30,000 but Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann employed three crews working 24 hours a day to finish the home. Fanatical about every detail, he eventually made more than 600 change orders to Neutra’s design.)

Nelda Linsk

Nelda with Barbara Sinatra.
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

Nelda tells this story while getting up from her chair and walking up a gravel berm that looks over the back wall of what used to be The Racquet Club. She looks wistful and, quite frankly, beautiful. Thin as the model she used to be, platinum hair in a timeless half-flip framing her pale skin, balls of onyx cabochon earrings matching a large ring on her wedding finger, and rocking black-and-white geometric palazzo pants. They seem to be her fashion signature, those pants.

Looking out at the ruins and trying to figure out where, exactly, Charlie Farrell’s house was in the compound, she tells me a slightly risqué story about the actor that involves him standing naked on the end of the diving board over his pool while doing something very naughty that, no doubt, was meant to titillate his cocktail party guests. “Oh, Charlie was a character. He was always fu-u-u-u-n.”

That’s the only word in her vocabulary that she drawls out like the girl from rural Texas but also because it’s a word she uses a lot when describing what life was like in Palm Springs in the ’60s and ’70s.

Playing tennis at The Racquet Club with Barbara (Marx) Sinatra and Dinah Shore and Mousie Powell, wife of William Powell and founder of the club’s Tuesday night Mouseburger Tennis Tournaments? “Oh, honey, it was just fu-u-u-u-n.” The Helen Rose fashion shows that she and Barbara participated in? Dancing under the stars to the strains of the Tony Rose orchestra? Endless cocktail parties at the Farrell House? It was all just fun, fun, fun.

Nelda Linsk

Nelda rubbed shoulders, shook hands, and danced the night away with some of the most famous names to come through Palm Springs. She says no one made a big deal of it.
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

It is 1964 and Joe and Nelda own the Kaufmann House. But it is not habitable. “It had sat abandoned for several years,” says Nelda. “Nobody wanted it. The curtains were falling off the curtain rods, the pool was full of debris.” Before the Linsks could move in, the property needed to be rehabbed.

“A lot of our friends had places over at The Racquet Club, so we’d go over there for cocktails. It seemed like almost everyone had hired this one designer: Arthur Elrod. So we hired Arthur to do our renovations. We were just getting back from Europe when the house was done. In those days Joe smoked and Arthur had his brand of cigarettes in the cigarette urns and he had his famous candies in the candy dish. Arthur knew what he was doing. He was special.”

And, of course, Arthur Elrod was fu-u-u-u-n.

Nelda Linsk

The late Gloria Greer used to say it wasn’t a party until she showed up. But it wasn’t a great party until Nelda arrived.
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society

When they decided to make some additions to the house, they went back to Elrod who suggested they hire his good friend, William Cody. “He was brilliant,” says Nelda. “He built an office for my husband that carried on the horizontal roofline of the house and you would have thought it was a Neutra design. In fact, one time Neutra came by for a visit and I rather apprehensively showed him what Cody had done but he gave it his blessing. He said he thought Bill had done a magnificent job.”

At the time, remembers Nelda, they didn’t have many neighbors. “There was absolutely nothing across the street, just vacant lots. Mary and Jack Benny lived next door but that was about it. We didn’t have a tennis court on our property so if we weren’t at The Racquet Club, we’d play tennis on the Bennys’ court. Anne and Kirk Douglas were here. They had a house on Via Lola.

“One time when I was out of town, Joe was having dinner at their house. They had a little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that jumped on his lap and he fell in love with that dog. And he went out and got one and surprised me with it. And from then on, we always had a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.”

It’s hard to describe exactly what life was like in Palm Springs in the ’60s, Nelda admits. There were stars all over the place — Cary Grant, Greer Garson, the Gabor sisters, Jose Ferrer, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, Lucy and Desi — but, she says with a shrug, nobody made a big deal of it. “They were free to enjoy themselves at places like the Bamboo Bar [at The Racquet Club] or Chi Chi or Ruby’s Dunes. There were no paparazzi. We all saw things we probably shouldn’t have seen but no one talked to the newspapers or magazines about it. There was just this sort of unwritten code that when these people were in the desert, they would be left alone. It’s what made The Racquet Club so magical. It was a safe haven for everyone.”

Nelda Linsk

Nearly half a century after Aarons’ photo, Nelda can still dress up any pool in the valley.
Photo by David Lansing

“Robert Wagner,” Nelda recalls, “once said, ‘I met the world in the bar at The Racquet Club,’ meaning ‘I met the Zanucks and the Goldwyns and Cary Grant.’ I mean, I would see Greta Garbo window-shopping. What Palm Springs gave me was a glimpse of belonging.”

That’s the way Nelda remembers it as well. “We were all at The Racquet Club together all the time. I didn’t know how to play tennis very well but I’d watch Dinah Shore or Barbara play and then we’d all have lunch together. Mousie Powell used to stage fashion shows around The Racquet Club pool and I started modeling along with Barbara and Helen Dzo Dzo (Kaptur), the other gal in the “Poolside Gossip” photo. It was just a smaller world back then.”

I ask how the famous Slim Aarons came to be. She laughs and says it happened the way everything did back then — serendipitously. “We had a house in Bedford Village [New York], and Slim had a place right down the road and we were friends,” she says. “So he happened to be in Palm Springs and called me up one morning and said he wanted to do some swimming pool shots. I said, ‘OK, come on over.” He told me to call up a few of my friends. I called up Helen, of course, and a couple of other friends. Slim came over about an hour later with a tripod and his camera. There were no assistants, no makeup artists, no hair-stylist, nothing. We just put on the clothes we had in our closets. Very casual. In fact, if I’d known then what I know today, I might have dressed up a little more.”

The whole thing, says Nelda, took about an hour. “And then Slim said, ‘Let’s drink some Champagne.’ And we did! It was fu-u-u-u-n.”

I ask Nelda why this particular photo has become so famous and she tells me a story she’s obviously told before, how Slim Aarons called her up one time while at a book-signing party in New York and asked her the same question. “I told him because I was in it!” she says, laughing. Then, she reflects, “I think it was our lifestyle. The mountains, the sun, the pool, the relaxed atmosphere — everybody could look at that photo and think, Oh, that looks like fun.”

Gary Johns, a real estate agent at the Paul Kaplan Group and vice president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, says, “That photo has taken on a life of its own. And it’s not just in Palm Springs. You see it in homes in Dubai and Paris and the Hamptons — it’s everywhere.”

Johns points out that although the photo has always been popular, it became an aspirational symbol of an erstwhile desert lifestyle when Vanity Fair used it to illustrate a 1996 story about Palm Springs.

I show Nelda my own over-sized copy of “Poolside Gossip.” She leans forward, looking closely at this other Nelda Linsk, the one from 1970 where she’s wearing yellow palazzo pants, chatting with her old friend, Helen Dzo Dzo Kaptur, who died last year, only weeks after the two of them went back to the Kaufmann House to recreate the famous photo. She lightly touches the younger image of herself, as if she is someone she used to know a long, long time ago.

“And to think everything started with that first visit to The Racquet Club,” she says with a sigh. “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?”

Nelda Linsk

The Slim Aarons photograph, “Poolside Gossip,” that became the embodiment of Palm Springs style.
Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images