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Palm Springs Gay History

Cary Grant and Randolph Scott in pool

Hollywood’s Playground Comes Out

By Randy Garner

Palm Springs has evolved into a vibrant oasis known for its rich history, beautiful landscapes, and captivating allure. Over the years, the city has cultivated a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, with numerous LGBTQ+ events, accommodations, and establishments that cater to all aspects of the community. From lively pool parties and pride festivals to a thriving nightlife scene and a strong sense of community, Palm Springs has truly earned its reputation as a beloved and popular gay-friendly getaway. But how did we get here?

A Refuge From Hollywood

Palm Springs’ journey as an LGBTQ+ destination dates back to the early 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, affluent individuals seeking refuge from the bustling cities flocked to Palm Springs. The studio system exerted tight control over actors’ personal lives, including their public image and relationships.

Among the things that might go wrong included activities that the performer did away from the set outside the context of the movie production. These activities could affect the public perception of the revenue-generating performer. This created the necessity of a contractual provision known as the Morals Clause. It was initially designed to establish some boundaries around the behavior of performing artists. The clause enabled the studios to terminate a performer’s contract quickly if the clause was violated.

The Morals Clause might be the only provision that would allow studios to rescind the contract, hence its initial importance. It adopted what was then considered deviant sex – homosexuality. It was not unusual for a studio to hire private detectives to follow stars and see if they were engaging in homosexual behavior.

Early image of Rock Hudson in Palm Springs
Rock Hudson and Mayor Charles Farrell. Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society.

 Palm Springs Gay History – Hollywood Stars

Many Hollywood stars, especially those who identified as gay, faced pressure to hide their sexual orientation due to societal norms and the fear of career repercussions. Palm Springs offered these individuals a sanctuary away from the prying eyes and judging attitudes. The walls surrounding many of the homes and resorts provided privacy, yet Palm Springs was still close enough to the studios that a star could show up for a movie or television production call in a couple of hours.

Greta Garbo

For Greta Garbo, this was a trailblazer’s hideaway. The Swedish actress, known for her fierce independence and mysterious persona, was one of the first Hollywood icons to establish a presence in Palm Springs during the 1930s. She found solace in the desert, which allowed her to escape the media’s constant scrutiny and the studio system’s expectations. She insisted on having the premier of her 1936 film, Camille, shown at the grand opening of the Plaza Theater downtown. She was MGM’s biggest star. It was reported she stayed at the Ingleside Inn at the time. Other celebrities in attendance were Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Tyrone Power, Ralph Bellamy, and famous singer Rudy Vallee.

Famously gay director of Camille, George Cukor, was also in attendance. He went on to win an Academy Award for Best Director for My Fair Lady. He was discreet but known to have parties at his home for closeted celebrities and other gay men he met. His friends included gay actor William Haines, costume designer Orry-Kelly, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and gay songwriter Cole Porter. He was directing Tallulah Bankhead in Tarnished Lady in 1931. He directed Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett in 1935 and Holiday in 1938.

Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and Janet Gaynor were part of an underground lesbian, or at least bisexual, element in Hollywood society.

Greta Garbo in Camille1936

William Haines

William Haines, a prominent Hollywood actor from the 1920s and 1930s, has a significant connection to Palm Springs. He starred in more than 50 movies. Haines, known for his charismatic on-screen presence and his pioneering role as an openly gay actor during a time of societal intolerance, developed a deep love for Palm Springs. After he was fired from the studio for being gay, he and his partner opened an interior design business. Clients included Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Constance Bennett, Marion Davies, Lucille Ball, Ann Rutherford, Jack Benny and George Cukor. As his ultra-stylish crowd regularly traveled to Palm Springs, so did Haines.

In 1960, he redesigned and redecorated the home of Mrs. Irving Florsheim (of the shoe fortune) at 688 East Vereda Sur. It was so well received that it was opened for home tours and considered one of the most modern homes in Palm Springs.

William Haines
circa 1932: Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Liberace

Liberace, the flamboyant and talented pianist, became synonymous with Palm Springs’ gay heyday. His friends called him Lee, and he lived in Palm Springs 25 years until his death in 1987. Liberace’s opulent Palm Springs estate, known as “Casa de Liberace,” was a grand reflection of his extravagant personality. It was kitty corner from Our Lady of Solitude church, which would later have his funeral service. Lee regularly entertained guests and threw lavish parties, solidifying Palm Springs as a haven for those who celebrated artistic expression and flamboyance.

Liberace
Liberace – Thanksgiving in Palm Springs – 1958

Rock Hudson

After establishing himself as a Hollywood heartthrob, Rock Hudson began coming to Palm Springs in the early 1950s. The studio forced him into a very public arranged marriage to Phyllis Gates, who worked as a secretary for influential Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who represented Hudson. He knew the importance of not violating the Morals Clause. Henry Willson was also gay and represented Tab Hunter, Troy Donohue, and Robert Wagner. Most fans remember him in movies like Pillow Talk, the first of several successful films he co-starred with Doris Day. Later, it would be the TV series McMillan and Wife from 1971 to 1977, co-starring with Susan Saint James.

He found solace in getting away to Palm Springs, which offered a more tolerant atmosphere while keeping his homosexuality hidden from the public eye.  In Palm Springs, Rock and his lover, George Nader, could carry on without fear of being outed. Nadar was good friends with Rock’s secretary, Mark Miller. He was also an actor for Universal and won a Golden Globe in 1954 as the most promising newcomer.

George had a weekend home in Bermuda Dunes and occasionally took Rock water skiing at the Salton Sea. Their relationship blossomed. After Hudson died in 1985, Miller and Nadar became a couple and lived in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood.

Rock Hudson and George Nader

Tab Hunter

On at least one occasion in the mid-1950s, Tab Hunter and his then boyfriend, Tony Perkins, hid out together at the Desert Inn. The fan magazines often photographed Hunter in provocatively posed on the diving board or in the pool. This satisfies the fantasy of millions of female teens. Tab considered Palm Springs a second home for the 1950s and much of the next decade. It was a place he could escape on the weekends. He generally stayed with friends.

Tab Hunter
Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

Cary Grant

In 1954, Cary Grant and his third wife, Betsy Drake, purchased a 6-bedroom home known as Las Palomas in the Movie Colony. He owned the house until 1972. Cary’s sexual orientation was a subject of conversation and controversy. The speculation was first fueled by the fact Cary shared an apartment in New York with John Orry-Kelly in 1931, who was gay. John would become famous as one of Hollywood’s most prolific costume designers. Then, in 1932, he met Randolph Scott on the set at Paramount. They soon moved in together. To many of their contemporaries in the film business, there was little doubt that Grant and Scott were a couple.

Randolph Scott
Randolph Scott, wife Pat, and PR man Tony Burk at Silver Spur Ranch. Credit Palm Springs Historical Society.

Note that the hero image at the top is Cary Grant (right) and Randolph Scott (left). The Cary Grant estate is next to Desert Regional Hospital by Ruth Hady Park. Randolph purchased a home in Silver Spur Ranch in 1957, next to Thunderbird Heights in Palm Desert. All this added to the allure of Palm Springs, where Cary and Randolph’s lifelong relationship continued to play out.

Palm Springs Gay History – Getting Organized

Through the 1970s, the Palm Springs gay community was not organized and still didn’t realize its potential. The Desert Business Association (DBA), founded in 1979 as a networking group of bar and hotel owners, began to assert itself politically. Greater Palm Springs Pride, which started out as a song and dance revue called “Sizzle” at the Riviera Hotel in 1986, soon made plans to march in the streets. In addition, a small group of friends simply looking out for each other officially formed the Desert AIDS Project in 1984. It was at a time when public agencies and the healthcare system were slow to respond to the virus in the Coachella Valley.

The late Dick Haskamp opened the first neighborhood gay bar in 1991, Streetbar. It was the only gay business on Arenas Road at the time. Most of the storefronts were vacant. But that didn’t last. By 2000, Arenas was full. If you ever wonder whether a neighborhood bar can affect an entire city, Streetbar would prove the case. You can still see a line of people out the door waiting for a seat.

Clothing Optional Resorts

Palm Springs offers an array of clothing options for gay men’s resorts. These boutique inns provide spaces where individuals can embrace their authentic selves and enjoy a liberated environment. These resorts play a significant role in attracting LGBTQ+ travelers seeking a place free from judgment and full of acceptance.

Initially, the city leaders weren’t so fond of this so at first they encouraged the gay community to open its resorts in Cathedral City. The most popular one was behind Target, now called the Paloma Resort. But after Palm Springs went through a marked decline in the 70s, it slowly warmed up to the idea, especially as gay men brought money to renovate and revitalize a deteriorating neighborhood, Warm Sands, and create a gay resort town within a town.

El Mirasol Villas is believed to be Palm Springs’ first gay resort, opened in 1976. Close by is the Vista Grande, the first clothing-optional gay resort, which opened in 1984.

el-mirasol-villas

Palm Springs Gay History – The Renaissance

The city began to fill up with gay and lesbian visitors in the 1990s. Events like the White Party and Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend brought even more gay tourists.  Soon, these tourists discovered a virtual treasure trove of nearly untouched, inexpensive, sometimes abandoned architectural gems from the 50s and 60s. The nostalgia for midcentury anything was booming, and without making too much out of a stereotype, gay men with design sense and money flocked here to remodel to their hearts’ content.

Palm Springs has acquired an urban sophistication you cannot find anywhere else. This has led to an explosion in the arts, design, fine dining, and high-end hotels that appeal to young, hip urbanites.

High walls and ficus hedges still sequester many homes and resorts in Palm Springs, but gay people are not hidden anymore. They have become a defining part of the larger, diverse desert community.

Greater Palm Springs Pride

In 1986, a modest soiree at the Riviera ballroom (now Margaritaville Palm Springs) comprised the entirety of Pride. Local performers basked in the glow of a dinner party atmosphere, but it would be six more years before the revelry spilled into the streets.

Eartha Kitt Entertaining at 1989 Pride
Eartha Kitt Entertaining at 1989 Pride

The Palm Springs Pride Parade moved to Williams Road in 1995. It then moved downtown to Ramon Road in 1996 and incorporated a festival on Arenas Road. Having a downtown gay business district gave Pride a focus in the downtown area. Today, Greater Palm Springs Pride is in November and welcomes over 100,000 attendees. That gay district is officially called Arenas District.

drag Palm Springs Pride

Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus

In 1998, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles presented their holiday concert in Palm Springs. After that performance, a group of local residents banded together and formed a singing group called the Caballeros, The Gay Men’s Chorus of Palm Springs.

White Party Palm Springs

White Party began in 1989 as a semi-intimate gay dance party at the Marquis Villas Resort, now Hotel Zoso. It was attended by 500 of producer Jeffery Sanker’s friends and blossomed into a 4-day festival. It’s now called White Party Global and is the largest gay dance party in the U.S., attracting thousands from around the globe.

white party dancers

The Dinah Palm Springs

Under the Club Skirts marquis, Mariah created the world-famous Dinah Shore Weekend in 1991. It was called the Dinah Shore Weekend because it took place at the same time as the Dinah Shore Golf Tournament. The intention was to create an exciting, community-building, life-affirming, unimaginably stellar experience for her customers. She chose the Palm Springs Art Museum to host her first Dinah. It sold out.

Mariah wants The Dinah goers to feel safe and inclusive, so she now books entire hotels so that they are 100% lesbian occupied.. This creates an empowering lesbian world within the city. Today, The Dinah is considered the largest lesbian/queer women event in the world.

Party at The Dinah
Credit: Molly Adams

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