Trouble in Little Tuscany

An exclusive excerpt from the new book Palm Springs Confidential, by Howard Johns.

Site Staff Arts & Entertainment

Immediately to the west of the Racquet Club is Little Tuscany Estates — a small rocky outcrop of custom-built homes in and around Chino Canyon, the former summer home of Indian tribal shaman Pedro Chino and his family. Named after the hilly region of northern Italy favored by painters and poets since the14th century, this protected enclave was first subdivided and offered for sale in 1935 by Rufus Chapman, a local Realtor. Some homes are small bungalows, while others are huge, multilevel constructions with unobstructed views. Beware! This holy place brings good luck to people who respect the ancient gods. But if you offend them, it is said, dire consequences will follow.

April Fool’s Day 1965 was no joke for pugnacious actor Tom Neal. That was the day he shot and killed his 29-year-old wife, Gail Evatt, in the front living room of their rented home at 2481 Cardillo Avenue. (Peculiarly, the family of Gloria Swanson — no relation to the silent screen actress — that owned this ramshackle, four-bedroom house also ran Sands Spa Hotel where Shauna Grant died, which gives them the dubious distinction of owning two infamous celebrity homes.)

According to police reports, Neal wanted to have sexual intercourse that night, but Gail, a pretty brunette receptionist from the Palm Springs Tennis Club, wasn’t in the mood. Rather than continue the fight, Gail, who planned to seek a divorce, grabbed a bedspread and prepared a makeshift bed on the living-room sofa. The crackle of flames in the gas fireplace must have made her drowsy. Police believe she was drifting off to sleep when a jealous Neal, who suspected his wife of infidelity, entered the room and demanded sex. When she refused, Neal purportedly tugged at her sweater and green pedal pushers until he broke the zipper. Neal then took aim at his wife’s head with a .45-caliber pistol and pulled the trigger.

When the police arrived at dawn the next day, they found Gail lying face up on three bloodstained sofa pillows with a dark red hole in the left side of her head. Her legs were akimbo, white underpants pulled halfway down her waist. Neal, a coat slung over his hunched shoulders, stood silently outside the house with his attorney. It was the beginning of the end of his life. A former prizefighter whose quick fists made him the Mickey Rourke of his day, Neal had starred in a bunch of B movies in which he frowned and fretted and flexed his biceps: Flying Tigers, China Girl, Air Force, First Yank in Tokyo, and Detour — a grim tale of murder that hung over him like a black cloud. In it, he played a doomed pianist who falls in love with a young woman and strangles her with his bare hands. Neal, it seemed, had difficulty separating fantasy from reality and in moments of intense emotional stress, he became that same character: a man cursed by his inner demons.

In 1951, fate tempted him in the bewitching figure of Barbara Payton, a bottle-blonde movie starlet, who was so turned on by Neal’s lovemaking, she said, that it “sent red hot peppers down my thighs.” But when Payton announced she was dumping him for callow actor Franchot Tone, Neal beat his competitor to a bloody pulp, sending him to the hospital for 10 days with a concussion and broken nose.

Neal threw a knockout punch, but it was Tone who emerged the sympathetic winner, and Payton was so overjoyed, she married him. When his movie roles dried up, Neal retreated to Palm Springs, where Ethel Strebe offered the persona-non-grata actor the temporary job of dinner host at her restaurant, The Doll House.

How it must have infuriated Neal to take reservations from fellow costars like George Montgomery (Ten Gentlemen From West Point) and Alan Ladd (Beyond Glory). So he turned to landscaping, which people snickered was the only thing he could do without hurting somebody.

Neal was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife. His 20-day trial in Indio Court was the longest and most-publicized legal case in that city’s history. Barbara Payton, whose own career ended in oblivion when she was arrested for prostitution, drunkenness, and passing bad checks, was a spectator. A jury of nine women and three men listened to evidence from 21 witnesses before convicting Neal of involuntary manslaughter. Instead of going to the gas chamber as he deserved, Neal was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. He died in 1972, eight months after being paroled for good behavior. Neal was 58.

Gravel-voiced, pockmarked, Hollywood gangster actor Marc Lawrence, who shot up the screen in This Gun For Hire, Dillinger, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle, now hides out with his favorite companion, Nicky, a toy poodle with a diamanté collar, in the pink stucco home he built for himself at 2200 Vista Grande Ave. (between Via Olivera and Via Escuela).

The film noir star, who made a lucrative career for more than 60 years playing hoodlums, hit men, and Italian capos in 300 films and TV shows, has lived in this nondescript house surrounded by piles of Etruscan art and filled with yellowing movie posters since 1977. His daughter, Toni, an actress-sculptor, and his artist-son, Michael, pay him obligatory visits twice a year.

To date, the irascible actor has survived the McCarthy communist witch hunts, the death of his screenwriter wife Fanya Foss, and a near-fatal car crash. (Rescuers had to cut him out of his crushed Lexus.) Most recently, the hardy nonagenarian was seen in From Dusk Till Dawn and Gotti, as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger apocalyptic thriller End of Days. Lawrence’s own end, however, seems nowhere in sight. He still works occasionally and pops up frequently on the celebrity book-signing circuit to promote his bitter memoir, Long Time No See.

Australian-born actor Tristan Rogers, the insolent Robert Scorpio for 10 years on General Hospital, has been a resident at 483 W. Via Escuela (originally Chino Mesa Estates) since 1997. A familiar TV face for three decades, Rogers is also in demand as the weathered voice of Outback Steakhouse, in addition to many cartoon characters.

Rogers was arrested and convicted of his second drunk-driving offense in 1993 and placed on three-year’s probation. His desert move was intended to keep him sober and away from temptation, which is why he prefers to stay home with second wife Teresa Parkerson and their two kids.

But it hasn’t deterred him from enjoying the local nightlife, including a visit to Toucan’s, a gay bar, where patrons spotted Rogers drinking a Yuletide toast with a male buddy on Christmas Eve 2001.

Steve Broidy, the kindly president of Monogram Pictures, later Allied Artists, which produced the Bowery Boys, Mr. Wong, and Charlie Chan series, owned the house at 535 Via Escuela from 1951 to 1966. (Note: Actor Robert Young is often misidentified as the home’s former owner, but he did not live here.)

The no-frills equivalent of Miramax, Broidy’s company released such prestige pictures as William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion and Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon. He backed William (The Exorcist) Friedkin’s first film Good Times starring Sonny and Cher. In 1972, Broidy quietly bankrolled The Poseidon Adventure for producer-friend Irwin Allen when a cash-strapped 20th Century-Fox was unable to come up with all the money. The film grossed $42 million and kicked off the movie-stars-in-jeopardy film cycle that has remained a ticket-buying staple for 30 years.

Broidy performed many philanthropic endeavors and was a recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He crafted the merger of Cedars of Lebanon and Mount Sinai Hospitals into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of which he was president, served as a director of Union Bank, and was a benefactor of such schools as Loyola University in Los Angeles and Marymount and Claremont colleges. A longtime baseball fan, Broidy suffered a fatal heart attack, age 86, doing what he loved best: munching on a hot dog while watching a ball game at Dodgers Stadium on April 28, 1991.

In 1967, rugged leading man Rod Taylor, who followed Errol Flynn across the Pacific Ocean from Australia to Hollywood, where he battled savage morlocks in The Time Machine and defended a coastal town against attacking gulls in The Birds, owned the house at 444 W. Mariscal Road. Taylor vacated the home when he divorced his second wife, Mary Helim, in 1969.

Singing Irish leprechaun Dennis Day, a regular on Jack Benny’s radio program as the naive teenager (“Gee, Mr. Benny!”) and the butt of his cheap jokes in the film Buck Benny Rides Again, lived at 485 W. Santa Elena Road, one block north of Chino Canyon Road. The crooner of a tearful version of “Danny Boy” spent his retirement drinking Coors, eating Pepperchinis, and watching The Benny Hill Show on TV. He died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1988.

Local tour guides insist that Zsa Zsa Gabor once lived in regal splendor at 595 W. Chino Canyon Road. Gabor has made a career out of playing the matrimonial merry-go-round and has become the brunt of jokes for her single-minded attraction to aristocratic husbands who can afford her wild spending sprees on excessive makeup, diamonds, and furs. The most frequently wed and parodied of Hungary’s three famous gold-digging sisters, Gabor’s choice of acting roles sound less like films and more like perfumed pages from her own diary: Lovely to Look At, We’re Not Married, and The Story of Three Loves, among many others.

The fact that this house, which was owned by Los Angeles interior designer Hamilton Garland, was not built until 1968 and Zsa Zsa never officially purchased it hasn’t stopped the avalanche of frosty anecdotes about her matrimonial activities that were supposed to have taken place here.

Whatever the naked truth, Zsa Zsa’s nine mates have included hotel chain owner Conrad Hilton, whom she married in 1942, and the silver-tongued, Russian-born actor George Sanders, her dutiful husband from 1949 to 1957. (Sanders took over as star of RKO’s long-running series The Saint from actor Louis Hayward, a resident of the Mesa.) Gabor first fell for Sander’s roguish charm in The Moon and Sixpence, which she saw at a New York movie theater in 1942. During one scene, Sanders violently beat Hedy Lamarr.

“This is the man for me,” Zsa Zsa excitedly told her mother, Jolie Gabor (pronounced Show-ly), who was seated next to her. Zap! Gabor got her wish, beatings and all.

“George had wanted a hausfrau, and that’s what my glamorous daughter became,” complained Mama Gabor. “When Zsa Zsa heard his car, she would run to the bar and prepare his vodka, then drop to her knees, and he’d pat her head like a dog and say, ‘Are you a good girl?’”

Apparently, she was not. The end of their marriage came shortly after Sanders’s star-making performance as the waspish theater critic, Addison DeWitt, in All About Eve. Friends said that Sanders became convinced that he was a great dramatic actor and embarked on a very busy trans-Atlantic film career. Left alone, Zsa Zsa began an affair with equine-endowed Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, who was twice as much fun as George. Although they were briefly reunited in the weirdly prophetic Death of a Scoundrel about a foreigner who cons American women out of their money, the Sanders-Gabor marriage was over.

Elvis Presley owned two homes in his all-too-brief lifetime: the two-story limestone Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., where he died from cardiac arrhythmia caused by a deadly cocktail of pills — codeine, Quaaludes, Valium, pentobarbital, butabarbital, and phenobarbital — while sitting on the john; and the secluded Palm Springs wrought-iron manse, located high on the south side of West Chino Canyon Road that he enjoyed from 1970 until his death in 1977.

Presley bought the 5,000-square-foot Spanish-style contemporary home (number 845) from Richard “Dick” McDonald, co-founder of the worldwide hamburger chain — who undoubtedly appreciated Elvis’ insatiable appetite for his starchy products, even if he didn’t like the singer’s mawkish music.

Between concert tours, the king of rock ’n’ roll and lover of junk food lived it up behind the gates of this four-bedroom love shack, which first caught his attention when driving through the neighborhood while he was renting another house at 372 Camino Norte. Elvis enjoyed different modes of transport, mostly Cadillacs courtesy of Plaza Motors, and watched multiple television sets from Hallmark TV, surrounded by walls of gold records and trophies, whenever he stayed in the desert. But superstardom had its downside.

“All we do now after an engagement is fly back to Graceland to be locked up there for a couple of weeks, till we get bored and back to L.A., then to Palm Springs to be a recluse in the desert,” Presley confided to comedian Sammy Shore.

Presley’s “arranged” marriage to 21-year-old army brat Priscilla Beaulieu, who was 14 when they met, consisted of pills, Polaroids, and play-acting, but no fully consummated sex, Beaulieu protested, following the birth of their only child, Lisa Marie. After Elvis and Priscilla’s highly publicized divorce in 1973, Presley remodeled this home, adding a large black-and-white-tiled recreation room and a new master bedroom suite.

But the remodeling didn’t stop there. According to friends, Elvis didn’t like the long hours at RCA recording studios, so he remodeled the living room’s vaulted ceilings with acoustical tiles and recorded two songs — “Are You Sincere?” and “I Miss You” — there.

In 1979, pop singer Frankie Valli, whose title song from the movie Grease became a No. 1 hit, arranged to buy Presley’s home and some of its contents. A promissory note held by Marjorie McDonald, wife of the home’s prior owner, prevented the sale. Ricky Nelson’s personal manager and Sun Studios concert promoter Gregory McDonald (no relation) acquired Presley’s home in 1986. It is now used as a corporate retreat. Prices range from $1,000 per night to $10,000 a month.

If you’ve ever sipped a Coke, smoked a Lucky Strike, or nibbled a Premium cracker, then you’ve tasted the fertile imagination of commercial industrial designer Raymond Loewy, one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century. The French-born Loewy’s highly influential design work includes the shapely Coca-Cola bottle, red Lucky Strike cigarette pack, and the silver Greyhound bus. He also designed the experimental Studebaker Avanti (the only automobile exhibited in the Louvre), as well as logos for Exxon, Shell, and Air Force One, plus the interiors for NASA’s Skylab and Space Shuttle.

“Tierra Caliente,” Loewy’s former home at 600 Panorama Road that he built in 1946, has undergone extensive restoration by metalware manufacturers Jim Gaudineer and Tony Padilla. Renowned Swiss architect Albert Frey designed the original house, famous for its kidney-shaped swimming pool that stretches from outside the home into the living room where, at a cocktail party, William Powell and singer Tony Martin took a wrong step backward and fell in.

Patricia Hearst, the bank-robbing hostage/victim of the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose reign of urban terror ended when police raided a Compton house and killed five members in a hail of gunfire, is said to have recuperated from her 19-month ordeal in the palatial home of her late uncle, George Randolph Hearst, the eldest son of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, at 701 Panorama Road. Rosalie Wynn Hearst, his widow, later sold the house to Harvey and Lori Sarner for $1,650,000. Two decades after Patty Hearst’s kidnap ordeal, offbeat film director John Waters gave her acting roles in Cry Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. DeMented.

Austrian-born composer Frederick Loewe lived nearby at 815 Panorama Road for 28 years. A classically trained concert pianist with a large head, pale complexion, and deep-set eyes, “Fritz” Loewe and his writing partner, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, collaborated on the hugely successful Broadway musicals Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. These and other evergreen works would probably never have been written if the two men had not met by chance in the men’s room of the New York City Lambs Club.

Loewe’s gentle disposition contrasted with Lerner’s imperiousness, creating sparks that resulted in the team’s best songs: “Almost Like Being in Love,” “On The Street Where You Live,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” and many more.

The team’s growing bankroll allowed them to enjoy the trappings of success. They each owned a penthouse apartment in New York, villas on the French Riviera, a 75-foot yacht, and two Rolls-Royce convertibles (blue for Lerner, gray for Loewe). Both had a taste for the good life and beautiful women. Yet they were the oddest of showbiz couples: Loewe writing melodies in his undershorts; Lerner nervously chain-smoking on a nearby couch, a worn copy of Roget’s Thesaurus sitting next to a half-empty decanter of whisky. That’s how “The Rain in Spain,” one of their best-known songs, was written.

Lerner, pacing back and forth in their office, suggested the title. “Good,” nodded Fritz, “I’ll write a tango.” Ten minutes later, they had finished it.

But the pressure of turning out hit songs threatened Loewe’s fragile health (he was sidelined midcareer by a massive heart attack), and Lerner, who suffered from depression, became addicted to amphetamines, bringing their 18 year “marriage” to an end. They ceased working together, but remained friends.

After Loewe moved to the desert in 1960, his daily routine consisted of horseback riding and pruning the rose garden on his 13-acre chaparral described by Time magazine as “an airy glass pleasure dome” complete with a bar, library, and fireplace. Singer Marion Bell, the second of Lerner’s eight wives, noticed that her husband’s ex-partner had a framed check for $1 million prominently displayed on the living room wall.

“The bed turns on a turntable,” the New York Herald-Tribune rhapsodized of Loewe’s hilly abode, “so that if he gets sick of one view he can select another.” He also selected nubile young women to keep him company at dinner parties, for which he cooked gourmet meals, and played the piano for Raymond Loewy, Mary Martin, Greta Garbo, Red Skelton, and Frank Sinatra—which he named his collection of goldfish!

Loewe, whom his neighbor Mel Haber later accused of being “mentally incompetent,” died on Valentine’s Day 1988 after being admitted to Desert Hospital with chest pains. He was 86. His estate and musical royalties were left to various medical institutions and to friends such as Franchine Greshler and Kitty Carlisle Hart.  

Despite Zsa Zsa’s dubious local pedigree, her older and better-behaved sister, Magda Gabor, most definitely lived at 1090 Cielo Drive in a contemporary-style house with a spacious kitchen. (The house took 18 months to remodel after she bought it.) Strangely, Magda was also married to George Sanders, establishing what may be a matrimonial record: cuddly George was Magda’s fifth husband and Zsa Zsa’s third. Apparently Sanders had a thing for the family’s “look” — though it was more likely this scoundrel was after their money.

It was no secret that, by the time of his marriage to Magda, George was washed-up and virtually broke. The real surprise was that Magda, who was left a wealthy widow after the death of her contractor-husband Tony Gallucci in 1967, fell for Sanders’s ploy. A heavy smoker, Magda had given up acting to become a hostess, but she suffered a stroke in 1966 and was unable to speak. Her right arm was useless, so she did everything with her left.

Magda’s doting fiancé was actor and neighbor Gar Moore, who made a delicious strawberry trifle for her parties — but had no idea he was about to be left standing at the altar. On Dec. 4, 1970, Sanders, lonely and despondent after the death of his fourth wife, actress Benita Hume, called Magda and asked her to marry him. Although she couldn’t speak, she murmured “y-y-yes.” Delighted, Sanders drove to the desert where Magda, smiling from ear to ear, met him at the front door of her house dressed in a hostess gown, holding a tin of caviar and a bottle of vodka.

Sanders put on a red velvet dinner jacket, and they sped off down the hill to get a blood test and buy a wedding ring while family and friends hastily dressed for the ceremony. The couple’s wedding took place several hours later in Indio, and a reception was held afterwards at the Racquet Club. Six weeks later, Magda discovered the cruel deception and ended their marriage. A new man, gay artist John Morris, who called her “Magpie,” then entered Gabor’s life.

“George was a bitter, mixed-up man,” observed the ever-wise Jolie Gabor, noting he was “cold as an icebox” — like the villainous Mr. Freeze that he played on TV’s Batman. Grimly, the man who began his career as the hero’s best friend in Foreign Correspondent and was nominated for an Oscar in All About Eve ended his days playing assassins and pedophiles in cut-rate melodramas like The Candy Man and Psychomania.

In 1972, Sanders committed suicide in a hotel in Barcelona, Spain, leaving behind a note complaining of boredom. An increasingly reclusive Magda Gabor, who never left the Cielo Drive house except to lunch with her mom and sisters at Le Vallauris, died two months after the death of her mother in 1997. Magda’s home sold for $440,000 in 1998.