Women With Vision

Rita Strombeck History

Palm Springs 75th Anniversary logoThe mention of Palm Springs usually conjures up images of Hollywood movie stars, a playground for the rich and famous, or the golf capital of the world -— certainly not a hub of women’s entrepreneurship. In fact, the development of Palm Springs into a world-class resort community is due, in large part, to the work of some extraordinary women.

In the late 1800s, because of its dry climate, Palm Springs became a haven for people suffering from pulmonary and respiratory diseases. Lavinia Crocker established the first sanatorium in 1893. Other women with an ailing husband or family member followed her lead to take advantage of the area’s healing benefits. Few had any financial resources when they arrived. But their tenacity, resourcefulness, and mutual support over time gained them appreciable wealth. They also made significant contributions to the larger community.

Nellie Coffman (1867-1950), the “Mother of Palm Springs,” arrived in 1908 in the middle of a severe sand storm. There were no telephones, no electricity, and hardly any roads. A long drought had forced many residents to evacuate the area, leaving only 10 whites and 50 Native Americans in the community. Despite the grim circumstances, the desert’s natural beauty captivated Coffman. She persuaded her husband to give up his medical practice in Santa Monica and move to Palm Springs to treat people suffering from pulmonary diseases. One year later, the couple and their two sons, George and Earl, bought a house and land for $2,000 down. Shortly after moving in, she hung out a sign on the front porch that read “The Desert Inn.” Coffman had big dreams, and it didn’t take long before she and her husband purchased Lavinia Crocker’s establishment and an additional 35 acres to expand. She began replacing the tent houses on the property with wooden bungalows and invited her first influential guests: two reporters from the Los Angeles Times, who would extol the beauty and comfort of her accommodations.

Although The Desert Inn started as a sanatorium, Coffman saw other possibilities and, in 1915, began excluding guests with communicable diseases. Her father, a successful hotel manager in Dallas, discouraged her plans, believing that nobody would ever come and admonished, “There’s not even a road. How can you expect to attract guests?” Undaunted, she replied, “If we give them what they want — good food, clean and comfortable lodgings, and warm hospitality — the roads and autos will come.” And they did. The hotel’s reputation for high standards, quality service, and elegant dining grew. During World I, the inn attracted wealthy Easterners who were reluctant to travel to Europe during wartime. 

Like her father, Coffman’s husband did not share her vision. Her determination to turn the inn into a luxury hotel for healthy people led to divorce in 1917. She later borrowed money and expanded the hotel. By 1928, it became a stunning example of mission revival architecture with guesthouses set in a beautiful 35-acre garden, boasting the first swimming pool in the desert. By the 1940s, with help from her two sons and more than 200 employees, Coffman had created a major vacation destination. Among famous guests were Irving Berlin, J. Edgar Hoover, Shirley Temple, Leo Carillo, Gilbert Roland, Dolores Del Rio, and even Rin Tin Tin.

Ernie Pyle, the World War II correspondent, said of her, “She started what was to become the whole, vast vogue of desert vacationing. All the great resorts — Tucson, Phoenix, Death Valley — the fancy hotels and the Southwest dude ranches and the thousands in trailers who have discovered the uncanny lure of the desert, it all began with Mother Coffman. The whole thing was built on one woman’s spiritual love of the desert.” Today, Desert Fashion Plaza and Hyatt Regency Suites on Palm Canyon Drive stand on the site of the former Desert Inn, which closed in 1956 after Coffman died.

In addition to her entrepreneurial endeavors, Coffman supported those in need. She helped other pioneering women and many local Agua Caliente Indians find employment at the inn. For all but two years, she served on the local school board from 1923 to 1946. She founded Palm Springs Welfare and Friendly Aid, which later became the local United Way. She also helped establish the Palm Springs Woman’s Club in 1938 and served as first temporary chairman. She later became permanent honorary president of the club. Never content to sit back and relax, Coffman remained active until she died at age 83 in 1950.

Cornelia White (1874-1961) and her sister, Florilla (1871-1943), arrived from the East Coast in 1913. Another sister, Isabel (1876-1962), joined them later. After much travel throughout the world, they purchased Palm Springs Hotel from Welwood Murray. While it did not serve food, the hotel accommodated overflow of guests from The Desert Inn. When Murray died in 1914, Cornelia and Florilla bought the parcel of land across Tahquitz Canyon Way, north of present-day Welwood Murray Library. 

Cornelia continued to purchase land in the center of town. In 1947, she deeded some of her property along Tahquitz Canyon Way between Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon Drive to Palm Springs Desert Museum. When she died in 1961, her house was willed to the Palm Springs Historical Society and moved to the Village Green, where it sits today.

While Cornelia was the most entrepreneurial of the sisters, Florilla, a doctor, devoted herself to more charitable work. During World War I, she served as the Palm Springs village health officer and founded The Nightingales, a group of registered nurses she brought from Riverside to assist with the flu epidemic in 1918.

Cornelia was an avid horsewoman. Defying the accepted social standards for women of the times, she reportedly never wore skirts and was usually seen wearing riding pants and boots, a safari jacket, and a sturdy jungle pith helmet.

Zaddie Bunker (1886-1969) came to Palm Springs in 1914 with her husband. They studied auto mechanics from handbooks and opened Bunker’s Garage, which they constructed out of sheet iron. Keenly aware of the growing influx of tourists, Zaddie and her husband bought additional property and built the Bunker Cottages. 

Zaddie’s husband did not share her vision and eventually left her. Undaunted, she continued to run the garage as a skilled mechanic and became one of the village’s most successful entrepreneurs and wealthiest landowners. 

Zaddie became the first female holder of a chauffeur’s license in California and started a transport service, bringing mail and passengers from the train station at the far north end of the village into the center of town. Her two sisters, Henrietta and Lillian, subsequently joined her in her entrepreneurial endeavors. Henrietta opened a hotel on North Palm Canyon Drive, and Zaddie and Lillian bought property across the street from Bunker’s Garage (the current location of Desert Fashion Plaza) and built the first movie house. The sisters continued to buy property and build theaters. During the 1940s and ’50s, they leased most of the downtown block to the famous Chi Chi nightclub.

In 1946, at age 60, Zaddie started taking flight instructions in San Bernardino, received her multiengine rating at age 63, and made her first solo flight at age 66. At 73, she passed the strenuous physical for Air Force jet pilots and became an honorary Air Force colonel. She piloted an F-100 Super Sabre jet and became one of the first women to break the sound barrier. At age 76, she won a cross-country airplane race from Dateland, Ariz., to El Centro, Calif., beating five male pilots. In her 80s, she applied for the Apollo moon flight. Although she wasn’t given permission to participate, she was allowed to spend some time in the space capsule simulator. 

Harriet Cody (1886-1954), a Vassar graduate, came to Palm Springs in 1916 with her husband, who was suffering from tuberculosis. The couple had little money, initially lived in a tent in Tahquitz Canyon with their two horses, and was often forced to rely on the generosity of their neighbor, Nellie Coffman, for food. To earn money, Cody rented her horses to tourists. Slowly, she acquired more horses. By the time her husband succumbed to his illness in 1924, Cody had 35 horses and established the first riding stable in Palm Springs at the corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road. Endowed with a keen marketing sense and excellent riding skills, Cody dressed in jodhpurs and silk monogrammed shirts and rode through the grounds of The Desert Inn to promote her stable.

Realizing that greater profits were to be made in real estate, Cody began to buy land with the money she acquired from her stable. In the 1930s, she built Casa Cody, a charming inn surrounded by bougainvillea and citrus trees. Although partly destroyed in a 1948 earthquake, Casa Cody was rebuilt and continues to receive guests from around the world.

Pearl McCallum McManus (1879-1966) was the daughter of San Francisco judge John Guthrie McCallum, the first permanent white settler in the area who arrived with his family in 1884 seeking a healthy environment for his tubercular son. Over time, he bought thousands of acres of land. But, because of his own poor health and extended periods of drought, the land remained dormant for years. Judge McCallum died in 1897, intestate.

In 1909, McManus left Los Angeles and moved to Palm Springs with her ailing mother. She became involved in disputes over water with government agencies. Little was done to help save the vegetation on her father’s property, which eventually became desolate.

McManus and her mother had little money and, like Harriet Cody and her husband, were frequent recipients of Nellie Coffman’s benevolence. Soon after her mother died in 1914, McManus met and married real estate agent Austin G. McManus of Pasadena. With his encouragement and guidance, she became an astute landowner and trader in her own right. Over the years, she bought back much of her father’s property and at one time was the largest landowner in Palm Springs.

Although she experienced great poverty, McManus had vision. With the profits she received from the sale of the family’s neglected property, she constructed a hotel in 1924 that became the first three-story property in Palm Springs: Oasis Hotel. By the time it neared completion, however, she discovered she had insufficient funds to furnish and operate it, so she leased it to a hotel manager from Los Angeles.

McManus began to buy land with the money she received from leasing the Oasis. By conducting title searches on property that was abandoned by early settlers, she found the original owners, contacted them, and bought up as many lots as possible. She sold some of her property to the City of Palm Springs for a landing field. The federal government later appropriated the parcel during World War II for an Army air transportation center. Today, Palm Springs International Airport is the site of her landing field.

A true entrepreneur at heart, McManus built the first apartment house in Palm Springs: Hacienda Apartments. She also developed the city’s first main subdivision, Tahquitz River Estates, and many individual houses, often living in them before offering them for sale. Working closely with architects, she was responsible for designing and building the first Saks Fifth Avenue and Robinson’s stores in Palm Springs. Through hard work and perseverance, she became wealthy. She always felt that her greatest achievement was the construction of the Palm Springs Tennis Club, which opened in 1937.

Like the other pioneering women, McManus also provided assistance to a number of charities. She was a charter member of Palm Springs’ Pathfinders, which helped boys and girls in the area escape the summer heat. In 1937, she donated land at the corner of Baristo and Cahuilla roads to the Palm Springs Woman’s Club for a clubhouse. She also helped establish the club’s scholarship program.

Ruth Hardy (1892-1965) graduated from University of Indiana and, like many entrepreneurs, reinvented herself numerous times throughout her life. She was a medical social worker, lawyer, interior decorator, actress, hotel owner, civic leader, and politician. In 1935, she purchased the former estate of the owner of the Pierce Arrow motorcar and turned it into a first-rate hotel: Ingleside Inn. By this time, Palm Springs had become a destination for celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world, so Hardy decided to open an exclusive hotel by accepting no reservations. A stay at the Ingleside Inn was by invitation only. Some of her famous guests included Lily Pons, Howard Hughes, Greer Garson, Margaret O’Brien, Salvador Dali, and Elizabeth Taylor. Deeply concerned about the city’s future development, Hardy became a member of the first Palm Springs City Council, where she served from 1948 to 1960. She was heralded as the person responsible for the planting and lighting of palm trees along Palm Canyon Drive.