The History of the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival

As the festival culminates its 10th year, it continues to foster literary discussions, cultural exploration, and educational initiatives.

February 2, 2024
Story by Site Staff

The Founder and His First Angel

Jamie Kabler and Helene Galen

Jamie Kabler was attending the 2012 Sun Valley Writers’ Conference when he turned to his partner, Helene Galen, and said, “Why not in Rancho Mirage?”

Two years later, the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival was underway at the Rancho Mirage Library.

Now in its 10th year and propelled by generous and loyal “angels,” including Galen, the festival is known for bringing together dozens of well-known authors to speak to more than 1,000 readers annually.

The festival’s mission is “to bring our readers a rich and diverse program with topics ranging from politics, history, and humor to health and literary fiction.” The program delivers with top authors and experts in their fields — distinguished historians, respected journalists, and gifted storytellers. Many have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Booker Prize and are New York Times bestsellers.

Kabler, whose passion for literature traces to his childhood when his grandmother read stories to him, tunes the festival program himself. He leans into his favorite genres — memoirs, biographies, and history — and determines which authors to invite to present at the festival.

Armando’s Bar

The festival’s first author poster (2014).

Readers evidently like his taste, as tickets for the festival sell out within an hour of going on sale nine months earlier, in March, with no headliners announced.

The valuable “angel” contributions he rallies every year support honorariums that ensure the nation’s best writers come to Rancho Mirage. Galen, a Rancho Mirage resident since 1980 and chairman of Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, was the festival’s first angel. She continues to contribute $50,000 annually, matched by donations from her friend and philanthropist Harold Matzner and the Auen Foundation.

“I hope in time it will be thought of not only as a writers festival, but also as an idea festival,” Kabler told Palm Springs Life. “The key to life is that we constantly get to learn and share new experiences.”


Award-Winning Presenters

A decade of world-class programming

600 sessions

300 authors and special guests

45 Pulitzer Prizes

38 Guggenheim Fellowships

34 Emmy Awards

17 Golden Globe Awards

14 National Book Awards

8 Bronze Star Recipients

8 Grammy Awards

7 James Beard Awards

7 Oscars

6 MacArthur Awards

5 Peabody Awards

4 Booker Prizes

3 American Academy of Arts & Letters Literary Awards

3 Lambda Literary Awards

2 Presidential Medals of Freedom

2 Silver Star Recipients

2 Tony Awards

1 Medal of Honor Recipient

1 Musical America Conductor of the Year

1 Sandy Hume Award


10 years of the rancho mirage writers festival

2013

January:Philanthropist Jamie Kabler floats the idea of the City of Rancho Mirage hosting a writers festival featuring an A-list of authors and special guests.

May 2: The city approves the closure of the Rancho Mirage Library to present the inaugural Rancho Mirage Writers Festival over four days in January 2014.

Gary Shteyngart discusses his book, Little Failure (2015);

Gary Shteyngart discusses his book, Little Failure (2015).

Helene Galen and Jamie Kabler (2015)

Helene Galen and Jamie Kabler (2015).

2014

Jan. 15–18:Rancho Mirage Library hosts the inaugural festival, drawing 410 attendees to see Pulitzer Prize–winning keynote speaker A. Scott Berg and 20 other authors including Linda Fairstein, Lisa See, and Joseph Wambaugh. The first session features Fairstein, Andrew Niederman, and David Abrams. Six founding angels propel the event: Helene Galen, Diane and Hal Gershowitz, Anne Holland, Lois Horvitz, Donna MacMillan, and Jan Salta.

March 26: California Secretary of State approves the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival Articles of Incorporation.

April 25:Department of Treasury (IRS) assigns the festival an Employer Identification Number.

May 28:Registration confirmed with Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trust.

2015

Jan. 21–24:Six hundred guests attend the second annual Rancho Mirage Writers Festival, which features 40 authors and special guests including humorist Dave Barry, Daniel James Brown (The Boys in the Boat), Rancho Mirage resident Jason Matthews (Red Sparrow), Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire), Gary Shteyngart (Little Failure), and actor Michael York, who shares stories about his life in film.

May 22: Internal Revenue Service approves the festival’s 501(c)(3) status.

Daniel James Brown signs autographs (2015)

Daniel James Brown signs autographs (2015).

Kabler welcomes attendees to the 2016 festival.

Kabler welcomes attendees to the 2016 festival.

2016

Jan. 21–23: Attendance spikes to 750 for the third edition, which welcomes 45 authors and special guests. Key sessions feature H.W. Brands, who would become one the festival’s regulars, or “Literary Lions.” Bret Stephens, Masha Gessen, Jason Matthews, and Marvin Kalb participate in a lively panel about Vladimir Putin and much of what soon came to be. Other highlights include Lee Child and 2014 National Book Award winner Phil Klay in a memorable free-form conversation, Hector Tobar’s (Deep Down Dark) powerful conversation about “the untold stories of 33 men buried in a Chilean mine and the miracle that set them free,” and model and actress Beverly Johnson’s discussion of her memoir, The Face that Changed it All.

Sarah Lewis signs her book , The Rise (2015

Sarah Lewis signs her book, The Rise (2015).

Dave Barry discusses Best. State. Ever. (2016);

Dave Barry discusses Best. State. Ever. (2016).

Lt. Joshua Silver, Lee Child, and Phil Klay (2016).

Lt. Joshua Silver, Lee Child, and Phil Klay (2016).

2017

Jan. 28–29: Bret Stephens’ impassioned lecture on “The United States and the World: The Next 20 Years” highlights the festival, which draws 750 attendees and features 65 authors and special guests, including U.S.Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, one of only five quadruple amputees from the war in Iraq to survive, who discusses his book, Never Give Up. Never Quit, and Tom Holland (The Origins of Islam), whose talk clocks 1.5 million views and becomes the most viewed video of any Rancho Mirage Writers Festival session. Historian Douglas Brinkley participates for the first time, eventually becoming one of the event’s Literary Lions.

April:Jeanette and Raymond Galante create the Galante Scholar program to give local students an opportunity to attend the festival.

May 4:The festival launches a free-to-the-public Writers Series with authors including Amie Parnes (Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign), Don Winslow (The Force), and Craig Johnson (The Western Star and An Obvious Fact of the Longmire book and television series). The first 200 attendees receive a free book of the author speaking. Recordings of select sessions are available on the festival’s website and YouTube page.

2018

Jan. 24–26:Attendance balloons to 1,000 in the fifth year. Among the highlights are sessions featuring three of the festival’s Literary Lions — Douglas Brinkley, Karl Rove, and Bret Stephens —and attorney and crime novelist Scott Turow and convicted murderer (now lecturer and author) Shaka Senghor. Other sessions include Pulitzer Prize winners Colson Whitehead and Jon Meacham discussing the nation’s struggle to save the Union; Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow) sharing his inspiration for Count Rostov’s extraordinary story; and Sally Bedell Smith (Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life) revealing stories about the British royal family.

February:The Bryn and Richard DeBeikes scholarship program offers festival passes to exceptional college students from Southern California universities.

The first Galante Scholars (2018).

The first Galante Scholars (2018).

Karl Rove at the festival bookstore (2018).

Karl Rove at the festival bookstore (2018).

Richard Mason and Elizabeth Sorensen (2018).

Richard Mason and Elizabeth Sorensen (2018).

2019

Jan. 30–Feb. 1:An evening with Tom Hanks and Maureen Dowd opens the sixth annual event, as the two discussed , a collection of 17 smart and heartwarming stories written by Hanks. Later, for the first time on the same stage, Douglas Brinkley, Jon Meacham, Karl Rove, and Bret Stephens grapple with some of the most gripping topics of the day.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories

The festival coordinates with the General Patton Memorial Museum to display General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Jeep and a tank in front of the Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory.

The Connie and Bob Lurie scholar program welcomes a group of outstanding College of the Desert students tothe festival.

The Writers Series continues with authors A.J. Finn (The Woman In the Window), Andrew Morton (Meghan – A Hollywood Princess), and Lisa McCubbin (Betty Ford – First Lady, Woman’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer).

Sunnylands Roundtable attendees (2018).

Sunnylands Roundtable attendees (2018).

Attendees enjoy the weather and lunch (2018).

Attendees enjoy the weather and lunch (2018).

Colston Whitehead and Danzy Senna (2018).

Colston Whitehead and Danzy Senna (2018).

Tom Hanks (2019).

Tom Hanks (2019).

The festival launches its Book Club and Film Club.

The RMWF Foundation purchases and installs two story dispensers at the Eisenhower Health Emergency Room and the Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory. These machines dispense delightful stories and poems free on demand.

The festival streams its first session for the community.

2020

Jan. 29–31:James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author and most trusted storyteller, and journalist and novelist Carl Hiaasen discuss the impact Patterson has had on the literary community, marking the seventh year of the festival. Among the 70 authors and special guests are two presidential biographers, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham, discussing what makes a great president and leader. Meacham is joined on stage by country music legend Tim McGraw to discuss their book . Lynne Cheney and Karl Rove, who spent six years together at the White House during the George W. Bush administration, reminisce and discuss the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Also, Susan Orlean (The Library Book) and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden talk about the role of libraries, and Tara Westover (Educated) and Khoi Le discuss the transformative power of education.

Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation

Attendance reaches 1,200.

Lori Milken, Dennis Washington, Phyllis Washington, Michael Milken and guest at 2019 Angel Night

Lori Milken, Dennis Washington, Phyllis Washington, Michael Milken and guest at 2019 Angel Night.

Linda Fairstein and Scott Turow (2018).

Linda Fairstein and Scott Turow (2018).

Angel Night 2019

Angel Night 2019.

Douglas Brinkley (2019).

Douglas Brinkley (2019).

The festival welcomes more than 30 students from high schools throughout the Coachella Valley.

The Writers Series features Alexandra Fuller (Travel Light, Move Fast), Dr. Michael Greger (How Not to Die), Edward Neidermeyer (Ludicrous – The Unvarnished Story of Tesla), Zandra Rhodes (50 Fabulous Years of Fashion), and Richard Zoglin (Elvis in Vegas).

All sessions are recorded and made available via YouTube with to the generous support of the Auen Foundation.

September:Almost one year into COVID-19 pandemic, Rancho Mirage Writers Festival postpones its 2021 event.

2022

Jan. 4:Festival board postpones a second time due to the uptick in COVID-19 infections in the Coachella Valley.

Aubrey Serfling, Harold Matzner, and Michael Landes (2020).

Aubrey Serfling, Harold Matzner, and Michael Landes (2020).

Michael Douglas (2020).

Michael Douglas (2020).

Galante Scholars (2023)

Galante Scholars (2023)

2023

Feb. 1–3:The Rancho Mirage Writers Festival returns with its eighth annual event, welcoming 1,100 passholders and 87 authors and special guests. Among the highlights of the program was Admiral William H. McRaven, who commanded attention as he described his involvement in high-profile missions, including the raid on Osama bin Laden, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips. In other sessions, Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Julia Quinn (Bridgerton) discuss their books being turned into television series; Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee discusses his latest book, The Songs of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human; political strategist Donna Brazile and African studies professor Eddie Glaude Jr. talk about what it takes to be black and blue in America; Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr lectures about his new works, Cloud Cuckoo Land and All the Light We Cannot See; and authors Joshua Cohen, Junot Diaz, and Tommy Orange converse about their writing lives, inspirations, and process.

The festival welcomes more than 50 students from high schools and colleges throughout the Coachella Valley, Southern California, and even some from Alaska.

Khoi Le in conversation with Educated author Tara Westover (2020).

Khoi Le in conversation with Educated author Tara Westover (2020).

Susan Choi and Jonathan Safran Foer (2023).

Susan Choi and Jonathan Safran Foer (2023).

Jon Meacham at Angel Night 2020.

Jon Meacham at Angel Night 2020.

Rancho Mirage High School students with David Duchovny (2023)

Rancho Mirage High School students with David Duchovny (2023).

The Writers Series hosts 15 events: Grant Ginder, Geoff Dyer, Congressman Adam Schiff, Annabell Gurwitch, Ashley Weaver, Edward Larson, Kate Quinn, Kirk Wallace Johnson, Melissa Rivers, Janet Skeslien Charles, Amy Odell, Jeffrey Frank, James Burrows, Patrick Radden Keefe, and Delia Ephron.

2024

Jan. 31–Feb. 2: General David H. Petraeus and Lesley Stahl discuss the most significant global challenges facing us today. Petraeus and Admiral William H. McRaven sit with Bret Stephens and talk about their long and distinguished careers in the military and beyond. Other highlights include actor and travel writer Andrew McCarthy (Walking with Sam) recounting an emotional five-week trek through Spain with his 19-year-old son; James McBride (The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store) in conversation about his writing, life, and musical gifts; Dr. Abraham Verghese (The Covenant of Water) talking about his medical career, his second career as a writer and how the two intersect; and former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson speaking to Margaret Hoover about her extraordinary experience as an idealistic young woman thrust into the middle of a national crisis.

Carl Hiaasen and James Patterson (2020).

Carl Hiaasen and James Patterson (2020).

Musician Tim McGraw (2020).

Musician Tim McGraw (2020).

Library directors and staff with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden (2023).

Library directors and staff with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden (2023).

Palm Desert Charter Middle School students with their copies of The Beauty in Dusk by Frank Bruni (2023).

Palm Desert Charter Middle School students with their copies ofThe Beauty in Dusk by Frank Bruni (2023).

The Writers Series presents 13 individual talks and offers more than 2,600 free books to attendees.

The scholar program expects to welcome more than 100 local middle and high schoolers as well as many college students.