Outside the Booth Theater the other evening, at the intermission of "Other Desert Cities," a woman puffed on a cigarette and announced to her friend: "We just closed the house in Rancho Mirage for the season, and we're off to Amagansett for the summer." I hadn't been aware that there was a Palm Springs/Hamptons social axis, but then again I hadn't been aware of a lot of things about Palm Springs, where "Other Desert Cities" is set, until I took a dive into a few books about the place recently.
All of them - "Palm Springs Mid-Century Modern," by Dolly Faibyshev;"Julius Shulman: Palm Springs," by Michael Stern and Alan Hess; "Palm Springs Holiday," by Peter Moruzzi - are in some measure about the architecture and artists and stars and style for which this desert area is famous. (For the current scene, you have to check out Palm Springs Life magazine and its website, palmspringslife.com)
As you cruise top-down through these histories, you find yourself wind-splattered in facts about Palm Springs and, as Dolly Levi would put it, its "environs." Marilyn Monroe was discovered here. Darryl Zanuck won a house in a poker game here. General Patton conducted mock World War II battles in the desert here. Ronald Reagan, so crucial to "Other Desert Cities," spent every New Year's Eve of his Presidency here.
If you excavate the less picture-y, more scholarly books and websites about Palm Springs, such as the Palm Springs Historical Society's site,www.pshistoricalsociety.org, you discover less glitzy but no less fascinating tidbits. In 1884, the first white settler, Judge John Guthrie McCallum, a San Francisco lawyer who chose the area in hopes that its dry, hot climate would cure his son's tuberculosis, renamed the place Palm Valley. Three years later, the small Palm Springs Hotel opened, and that name stuck. Until 1915, when Nellie Coffman, the daughter of a Santa Monica hotel owner, turned a small sanatorium into the Desert Inn, Palm Springs was almost exclusively visited by sufferers of tuberculosis, asthma, arthritis, and allergies. Coffman wanted to make the place "attractive to attractive people."
By the 1930s, Palm Springs had started attracting what are its totems to this day: movie stars and golf lovers. In 1937, Richard Neutra, the Austrian-born acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright, built his first house in Palm Springs, and the town added modernism into the mix of its other signature ingredients. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Las Palmas neighborhood bustled with bigwigs. (Sometimes literally: Liberace had a house there.) On one street in the area, property owners included Jack and Ann Warner, Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, Kirk and Anne Douglas, and Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller. Dean Martin, Lew and Edie Wasserman, songwriter Sammy Cahn, and gossip columnist Rona Barrett all lived within three blocks, and novelist Harold Robbins lived around the corner. (Another best-selling novelist, Sidney Sheldon, surveyed the scene as the stars got older and quipped: "The average age is deceased.")
I have to confess that as I read the Palm Springs books my eyes started to glaze when I got to the Frank Sinatra era. The singer bought a two-bedroom house in 1957, after his divorce from Ava Gardner, and over the years turned his property into a compound. He installed a helipad in the hope that his friend, JFK, would use the property as his West Coast White House. Instead, the President stayed at Bing Crosby's house. Sinatra became a Republican.
Sinatra and the Annenbergs - Walter Annenberg had been Nixon's ambassador to the U.K. as well as a publisher and philanthropist - defined Palm Spring's show-biz crowd from the 1960s into the 1990s, and it is their ghosts, along with those of the Reagans, that hover over parts of the area, as well as over "Other Desert Cities," to this day. But so vast is the Coachella Valley into which these communities are set that you can drive around for miles without encountering any glamour. The last time I was in Palm Springs, I saw nothing but skateboarders and Midwestern tourists walking around in the late-afternoon sun. Oh, and I did see a woman (maybe getting ready to open or close her house) like the play's Silda Grauman. She had on a Pucci-print blouse.
Silda wears it better.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com