Three Silent Film Stars Who Lived in Palm Springs

In the desert, the days are never long enough: how three silent film stars made Palm Springs their sanctuary.

Clayton Trutor Arts & Entertainment, History


For more than a century, Palm Springs has been Hollywood’s home away from Hollywood. Initially, studios found the Coachella Valley’s panoramic mountain views amenable to shooting Westerns. Director Frank Lloyd made particularly striking use of the landscape in the Zane Grey films of the late 1910s. Zane Grey was soon joined among the palms by a bevy of stars. Initially, the big names camped out at Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn, where a sanctuary of gardens bloomed in the desert among the inn’s Spanish Mediterranean buildings. The inn served as a temporary residence and retreat for the likes of Rudolph Valentino and William Powell. Years before Palm Springs incorporated as a city in 1938, stories about all the stars enchanted by the Desert Inn on Tahquitz Canyon Way made the name “Palm Springs” famous.

No longer a Hollywood secret, Palm Springs drew ever more renown and visitors. As this sanctuary became a destination, stars from the silent film generation started to put down stakes of their own in this enchanted space. Among the first stars to build homes and lives in Palm Springs were Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Harold Lloyd. Though their lives took divergent paths, they shared what entertainment writers of the day called “Ranch Fever.” This fever emerged from a shared desire to get away from the pressures of making and promoting pictures. It was rooted in a belief that much of the romance that first drew celluloid dreamers out West had been lost among the regimen and bustle of the entertainment industry. Palm Springs was a place where that feeling could be recaptured. Lloyd, Bow, and Dove built lives of their own in the valley as they sought to make such sentiments tangible.

the private life of Clara Bow
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Carla Bow.

I don’t want my two boys to become Hollywood kids. I wouldn’t want them to go through what I did,” Clara Bow said after the birth of her second son, George, in 1938. Several years earlier, Bow and her husband, cowboy actor Rex Bell, had started visiting Palm Springs for extended stays as their schedules allowed. The birth of the couple’s first son, Rex Anthony “Tony” Jr., in 1934 precipitated their search for a more permanent retreat. The Bells rented a home at Winterhaven Manor for several seasons before purchasing their own in 1938 on West Camino Encanto in the fashionable Mesa neighborhood.

At the time, Clara Bow was one of the most famous people in the world. The red-haired star of It (1927) and Wings (1928) embodied everything glamorous and daring about the 1920s. The Jazz Age star had been dubbed “The It Girl” by English author Elinor Glyn, who penned the novel It about a plucky, sensuous shop girl who won over her brooding boss. Bow proved the perfect vessel for Glyn’s character. Her playful, flirtatious screen presence mesmerized audiences the world over. Not bad for a young lady just a few years removed from a childhood of crushing poverty in Brooklyn’s tenements.

Off screen, Bow’s wild lifestyle played just as significant a role in cultivating the “It Girl” mythology. Bow was the quintessential 1920s flapper, replete with cigarettes, a flask, and stockings rolled below her knees. Her amours were the frequent subject of gossip columns. Her burning of the candle at both ends concluded amid the sensational trial of Daisy DeVoe, Bow’s secretary who was convicted of stealing her fur coat. DeVoe’s defense consisted of a character assassination of Bow, trotting out stories real and imagined of the star’s escapades. DeVoe ended up in prison, and Bow ended up temporarily in a sanitarium in Glendale, unable to cope with the anxiety caused by the trial.

Armando’s Bar

Clara Bow hangs out at a desert shindig.

The public memory of Bow’s private life has been shaped in recent decades largely by Kenneth Anger’s lurid account of life in Tinseltown, Hollywood Babylon (1975), and the equally sensational Bow biography by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein that came out the next year. More sedate renderings of her life, such as David Stenn’s Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, find the truth to be a lot less outrageous than previously presented.

Bow found a longtime love in Rex Bell, who was a well-known cowboy actor for Fox Films. The couple married in 1931, splitting time between Hollywood and Bell’s 400,000-acre Nevada ranch in the Mojave Desert. Walking Box Ranch, as it was known, was a working ranch more than twice the size of New York City that Bell maintained for the rest of his life. The Bells’ ranch was located in a desolate section of Southern Nevada, established 70 miles south of Las Vegas before the name Las Vegas even registered nationally.

For Bow and her family, Palm Springs was a place of retreat — neither smack dab in the middle of Hollywood nor deep in the heart of the Mojave, far from friends and familiar faces. The couple entertained the likes of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Errol Flynn, and John Barrymore. Bow loved taking her boys on outdoor adventures and took up reading as a favored pastime in Palm Springs.

“They brought me to my senses,” Bow said in 1938 of the life she was building with Bell and their young sons, which lured her away from the hustle and limelight of Hollywood. Bow and Bell had both already made their exits from the movie business. While residing in Palm Springs, Bow lent her name to a restaurant in Los Angeles, but that venture soon went belly up.

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Clara Bow with future Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert in 1934, four years before buying her Palm Springs home.

Despite her deep attachment to family, Bow continued to struggle with anxiety for the rest of her life. Eventually, the couple drifted apart but remained committed to their children. After the couple separated and the children were older, Bell turned his attention to a political career in Nevada. He sold their Palm Springs home in the early ’50s while Bow moved into a small home in Los Angeles, accompanied by her personal nurse, Estella Smith. Bouts of insomnia and mental illness were struggles throughout Bow’s later years, as she became something of a recluse and spent significant stretches in institutions in Southern California and Connecticut. Despite their separation, Bell and Bow remained in close contact in later years. He eventually became lieutenant governor of Nevada and died while campaigning for governor on July 4, 1962.

Bow died of a heart attack at age 60 in 1965. A group of about 100 people celebrated her life at a funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, including some of the friends and colleagues she knew in Palm Springs: This is Your Life host Ralph Edwards, comedian Jack Oakie, and former light heavyweight boxing champion Maxie Rosenbloom. She was laid to rest alongside her husband.

Harold Lloyds movie colony retreat
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Harold Lloyd. 

One of the first silent film stars to build a home in Palm Springs was Harold Lloyd, the silent-era comedy master who counted Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks among his peers. On screen, the bespectacled Lloyd won laughs as an eternally optimistic goofball named “the Boy.” He wowed audiences with his daredevil stunts, most memorably hanging from a clock on the side of a skyscraper in Safety Last (1925). Lloyd proved as astute at the movie business as he was as a performer, retaining tight control over his pictures. He parlayed his success into a vast fortune that enabled him to build one of Hollywood’s most resplendent mansions, the 44-room Greenacres estate in Beverly Hills.

By comparison, Lloyd wanted something modest for a desert retreat. The home he built in Palm Springs’ emerging Movie Colony neighborhood was much smaller than his Benedict Canyon mansion but retained the trademark elegance and spectacular design of his other properties. To this day, the North Avenida Palmas property consists of a main house and two casitas that form an “L” around a lushly maintained lawn and terrace with a swimming pool. The Spanish Mediterranean style of the Lloyd bungalow may have influenced many of the surrounding properties, which were built later but share in its ornamental style.

Lloyd took great pleasure in contributing to the architectural blooming of Southern California in the 1920s.

“This is the golden age for architects and landscape engineers in Southern California, a brave time, like the 15th century in Italian cities. The conjunction of new wealth, enthusiasm, climate, irrigation, and freedom of idea and expression is working magic in these hills,” Lloyd wrote in his memoir, An American Comedy, published in 1928.

The Lloyds moved into their Movie Colony home in 1925. The family raised three children there: son Harold Jr. and daughters Gloria and Peggy. It proved a multigenerational haunt for the Lloyds, as their children eventually brought their children to the estate, where they enjoyed many seasons in Palm Springs.

The family frequently entertained friends and neighbors at the house, including Louella Parsons, Cary Grant, and Bing Crosby. Besides relaxing at his retreat and entertaining, Harold Lloyd enjoyed physical activity. He was a serious handball and tennis player, as well as a golfer. In Hollywood, he was well known for sneaking onto the golf course at Pickfair, the famed home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, for a late-night round.

The Lloyds often hung out poolside and at the tennis courts at the nearby El Mirador Hotel, the glamorous inn that opened on New Year’s Eve 1928.

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Lloyd (left) with tennis pals Charles Farrell, Johnny Mack Brown, and Frank Morgan at the Racquet Club in the 1930s.

Harold and his father, J. Darsie “Foxy” Lloyd, who built his own place in the Movie Colony, formed a baseball team that played against groups of visiting Hollywood stars during the 1920s and 1930s at the Desert Inn on Sunday afternoons. Frequently, the games raised funds for local charities.

Lloyd played tennis often with neighbors and visitors to Palm Springs. The racket-slinging set included Spencer Tracy’s wife, Louise. In 1942, Louise founded the John Tracy Clinic, a nonprofit that has helped hearing impaired children in Southern California for more than eight decades. She also launched the annual “Tennis and Crumpets” tournament as a fundraiser for the clinic. Lloyd and the rest of the local tennis clique were the first group of competitors in the tournament.

Lloyd also sponsored one of the West Coast’s best bowling teams. Originally known as the “Desert Rats,” the team, which was later renamed “The Harold Lloyds,” competed between the 1920s and the 1940s. They played regularly at the Palm Springs Bowling Academy (the area’s only bowling alley) during the ’40s, often dominating competition before crowds that included many of their friends from the movie business. The Desert Rats won the Southern California bowling championship on six occasions.

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Harold Lloyd’s Palm Springs home, which he referred to as “cozy, not fussy.”

After Harold Lloyd died in 1971, the family sold the then-2,000-square-foot home. It has since gone through a series of owners and expansions and now covers more than 5,000 square feet. In 2004, a couple based in Taipei, Taiwan, purchased the Lloyd estate and refurbished it, adding significant touches of their own tastes. This redesign, conducted by Steven Cheroske Design, was done in line with feng shui principles. The refurbishment took several years and also added a series of modern luxuries and amenities to the interiors. As of this writing, the estate is available for rentals and on the market for an asking price of almost $5 million.

Billie Dove’last act: palm springs

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Billie Dove.

Another silver screen siren of the 1920s had a very different life in Palm Springs. Billie Dove was many things. A model. A Ziegfield girl. A movie star. Louis B. Meyer called her the most beautiful girl in the world. And as much as anything, she was proud to make her home in Palm Springs. The gorgeous brunette with the big eyes and curls made an immediate impression on moviegoers. She was born Lillian Bohny in New York City to Swiss parents. At age 16, she began working as a model after school and was soon discovered by Florenz Ziegfield, who made her an overnight vaudeville star under the pseudonym “Billie Dove.” A jazz and blues vocalist named Eleanora Fagan was so enamored of Dove’s name and mystique that she adopted “Billie Holiday” as her stage name. Soon, Dove transitioned to the movie business and relocated to Southern California.

She is perhaps best known for her role alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926), an early Technicolor film. Her star turn took her into such films as The American Beauty (1927) and Blonde of the Follies (1932). Dove’s tumultuous relationship with Howard Hughes in the late 1920s and early ’30s made her, for a time, the subject of gossip columns. Dove made almost 50 pictures before retiring to Palm Springs in 1932 with her new husband, Robert Kenaston, the scion of a Minneapolis industrial fortune who had relocated to California to try his hand in real estate and as a rancher.

Getting out of the movie business was not a hardship for Dove. She’d had plenty of the limelight and was ready for a more normal life. She rarely gave interviews and found innumerable outlets for her energy in Palm Springs.

Armando’s Bar

Billie Dove with her husband, Robert Kenaston, both dressed to impress.

“There is never enough time,” Dove, age 59, said in 1962 of her more than quarter-century in Palm Springs. “I started work very young in my teens, and I decided that when I married, I wanted to have a normal or nonprofessional life. In Palm Springs, the days aren’t long enough to do everything I like.” She raised a son, Robert Jr., and daughter, Gail, while maintaining the family home largely on her own. For the vast majority of the Kenastons’ life in Palm Springs, they resided on East San Lorenzo Road in Tahquitz River Estates in South Palm Springs. Their Paul Trousdale–designed home was characteristic of midcentury design. It is on the market, as of press time, for $2.25 million. Billie maintained a beautiful patio and pool as well as a luscious garden, which often served as the space where they entertained friends.

The Kenastons were founding members at the Thunderbird dude ranch/golf club and previously frequented the nine-hole O’Donnell Golf Club. They were active club members and regulars at Thunderbird social events. Both Robert and Billie were accomplished golfers. Robert won several member-guest tournaments there over the years.

The family was heavily involved in the civic life of the community as well. They volunteered at The Racquet Club, where they were also members. Billie served as chair of numerous committees for the Golden Sun Gala Ball, which was the largest annual fundraiser for Desert Hospital, now Desert Regional Medical Center. Similarly, she chaired many committees for the Spring Festival.

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The couple pose for a photo at an event at Thunderbird Country Club in the 1960s.

In her free time, Dove developed great skill as a landscape painter. She wrote poetry, some of which was printed in national publications, and took correspondence and college courses, typically focused on literature, writing, or foreign languages. The family owned horses and rode trails throughout the Coachella Valley. Robert Jr. got into the movie business for a time. His mother supported and encouraged him but never pushed him to pursue the trade.

After her husband’s death in 1973, Billie relocated to nearby Rancho Mirage, where she continued to golf and counted the likes of Gerald Ford and Arthur Lake among her neighbors. Late in life, she got involved with AIDS- and cancer-related charities. She died on New Year’s Eve 1997 at the age of 94, having long ago fulfilled her desire to build a normal life outside the film business.