Visiting an oasis in the desert in Palm Springs, California

Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 this year, and his former home in Palm Springs is still drawing fans, writes Isabel Conway.          

A cemetery may not be an obvious place for spotting celebrities but Desert Memorial Park in Palm Springs is no ordinary graveyard.

Here legendary O’l Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra, surrounded by Rat Pack buddies and icons of the golden days of Hollywood, rests in the shade under a cloudless technicolor sky.

It is Sunday lunchtime in California’s beautiful desert oasis where the stars of the past had their fun in the sun out of the spotlight in those pre twitter and other social media days. Fans rock up regularly to pay homage to ‘the voice’ whose simple grave marker predicts “the best is yet to come”.

Out of towners bring flowers and recordings of hits like ‘My kinda Town’ and ‘New York New York’. Others have something a little more to Sinatra’s taste — his favourite drink Jack Daniels.

Palm Springs resident Roger Freeman, a entertaining and well-informed source of showbiz history and gossip, especially on Sinatra’s life and times, scatters dimes beside the miniature bottle of Jack Daniels (legendary drinker Sinatra would turn in his grave at such a miserly measure) on the gravestone engraved ‘Francis Albert Sinatra 1915-1998’.

It will soon be close to boiling point but the word is that these alcoholic tributes disappear mighty fast. Roger points out that Sinatra, generous to a fault as long as he was in a good mood and you weren’t offending him, would approve but anyway he is in no position to object.

The dimes have significance too. “When Frank Jr was kidnapped and Frank Sr was negotiating his release with the kidnappers he ran out of dimes on a remote pay phone and the line went dead. It was a terrifying moment. After his son’s release Frank resolved never to be without a pocketful of dimes”.

This year marks the Sinatra centennial — he would have turned 100 on December 12 next — and Palm Springs is celebrating his life and times and Frank’s legacy of philanthropy, glamour and hell raising in various ways. A centennial exhibition of his life and music at the New York’s Public Library of Performing Arts is expected to go on tour in Europe later.

Everywhere you look in Palm Springs you find reminders of the Sinatra era from black and white photographs of him at Melvyn’s restaurant, a favourite hang-out where he equally terrorized and rewarded (cleaners looked forward to finding $20 bills he dropped on purpose for them under his table here and at Johnny Costas ), to the wonderfully retro Riveria Resort that dates back to the late 1950s. In his heyday Sinatra brought down the house at this go-to hot spot for celebrities and now 50 years on The Riviera is again a ‘too cool for school’ haunt for younger generations.

The ‘roll back the clock’ vibe at the quirky Purple Room (motto: “alcohol may be a man’s worst enemy but the Bible says love your enemy”), tables grouped around the intimate stage, epitomises times when Frankie and Dean Martin brought their friends to eat well and drink and play hard until dawn.

Sinatra stories are part of Palm Springs’ history, how he threw his then wife Ava Gardner’s clothes into their driveway during a furious row; a cracked washbasin at one of his homes caused by a champagne bottle which missed him during another tiff with Gardner.

His grand daughter artist Amanda Erlinger (Nancy Sinatra’s daughter) describes the doting family man who taught her how to paint and was fiercely protective of herself and her sister, taking them to Europe for the first time on one of his last tours — playing the RDS in Dublin in the late 80s.

Visiting an oasis in the desert in Palm Springs, California

“A lot of what you read about him was exaggerated, he did live life to the hilt, they all did, he was so generous and so loyal to his friends but he didn’t always get the same back and that disappointed him” she says.

We chat about her superstar grandfather and his love for this picture perfect place with its numerous golf clubs, laconic lifestyle and mountain views.

By the time he was 30 Frank Sinatra had given away $50,000 worth of gold cigarette lighters to friends. His closest buddy and protector Jilly Rizzo, whose close links to the Mafia cooled relations with the likes of John F Kennedy whom Frank allegedly introduced to Marilyn Monroe, is buried close to Sinatra at Desert Memorial Park. “He was the best” is on the grave marker.

The publicity fiasco surrounding the pre-wedding party at Melvyn’s restaurant for Sinatra and his widow and fourth wife Barbara that turned into a major scandal is part of Palm Springs folklore. Jilly was dispatched to destroy the cameras of two National Enquirer photographers caught hiding behind a tree who had snatched pictures of the couple after which Sinatra was seen to drive his Rolls Royce straight at the cameramen.

Visitors curious about Sinatra and the hell-raising Rat Pack times can still find those who remember it all. Start with Mel Haber, suave owner of Melvyn’s and the Ingleside Inn, both liberally sprinkled with stardust. John Travolta has just been here and Lily Tomlin was hanging out at the cocktail bar earlier in the week I stayed.

Showing me where Sinatra and his entourage always sat, Mel confesses that he usually tried to steer clear of him and never spoke to Sinatra unless spoken to. “Nobody did, you absolutely never approached him uninvited, it was too risky”.

The rich and famous originally began arriving in Palm Springs back in the 1920s when the so-called ‘two-hour rule’ decreed that actors under contract with a Hollywood studio had to be able to return within that timeframe to Los Angeles if a re-take or other emergency arose. With more than 350 days of sunshine a year Palm Springs was the ideal escape.

After a decade or two in the shade the resort is enjoying a whole new renaissance with A listers. Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Charlize Theron, Adele and many more are regulars. The international film festival in January is now a prelim for the Oscars, while the Coachella music festival brings in lots of celebs and regular music fans.

Leonardo di Caprio is another recent arrival. We drove past his £3-1m modernist home, available for holiday rental for around $4,500 a night.

That’s quite a bit more than you would pay to rent out Twin Palms Estate, Frank Sinatra’s original home located in the Movie Colony district.

It has a grand piano-shaped swimming pool, and is the last word in retro chic. It’s a favourite for weddings and party rental, from $2,600 nightly, and it’s good value as it sleeps at least 10.

Sinatra fans will be in their element, the melody of It was a Very Good Year on the air while Sinatra’s ghost hoists a Jack Daniels flag to tell his friends cocktails are being served.

GETTING THERE

Flights:

Direct flights from Dublin to Los Angeles (a two hour scenic drive from Palm Springs)with Ethiopian Airlines three times weekly from €650 return including taxes. www.ethiopianairlines.com

American Holidays www.americanholidays.ie offer packages. See also www.visitusa.ie  

Where to sleep..Ingleside Inn (www.inglesideinn.com) 200 West Ramon Street is steps away from South Palm Canyon Drive near to all the PS action. Bungalows and hacienda style en suites and secluded swimming pool where the sign bans “horseplay”.

From €119 for two deluxe room Riviera Palm Springs Hotel (www.psriviera.com) refurbished playground of the past, daily poolside flag raising to mark cocktail hour at Bikini Bar in homage to Sinatra. Fantastic spa and fine dining at Circa 59 restaurant with live entertainment. From €105 double room with balcony.

Where to eat:

Take breakfast at an outdoor cafe on South Palm Canyon drive near the Walk of Fame. Johnny Costas (www.johnnycostaspalmsprings.com) Authentic Italian food, Sinatra swore by Johnny’s meatballs in a special sauce and linguini clams and look out for Johnny who shows up and has great Sinatra anecdotes.

My pasta with Portofino pasta with Lobster and other seafood was sublime. For supper with a show The Purple Room is a pure blast from the past www.purpleroompalmsprings.com

What to do: *Sinatra hideway homes and hangouts. www.visitpalmsprings.com A free Buzz vintage trolly bus makes loops of the main drags.

* Elvis fans will love nosing around the honeymoon hideaway where the King carried his new bride Priscilla over the threshold www.elvishoneymoon.com

*Palm Springs mid century modernist heritage is unique, a style defined by steel, concrete and glass known as “desert modern”. Take the Modern tour with Michael Stern,(www.themoderntour.com). You might well glimpse Leonardo diCaprio at his secluded desert playground and the hideaways of other celebs.

* Escape the heat by taking the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tramcar climbing 6,000 feet up sheer cliffs, climate equivalent of a “drive from Mexico to Alaska” with hiking trails and splendid views. (www.pstramway.com) For more information see www.visitpalmsprings.com 


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