Nowadays, the Palm Springs area has one of the highest per capita LGBT populations in the U.S. (around 40%) and one of the highest concentrations of gay/lesbian resorts in the world (around 30). It’s easy to think that it all happened after the sexual liberation of the 1960s and ‘70s, but gays’ and lesbians’ attraction to Palm Springs stretches back a lot further – all the way back to the 1910s, in fact!
According to David Wallace in his groundbreaking 2008 book A City Comes Out (a must for anyone interested in Palm Springs gay and lesbian history), it was a lesbian named Florilla White who in 1913 purchased and ran one of the first lodgings in the area, the Palm Springs Hotel. White was the resident medical doctor for Palm Springs for many years, and cohabitated with art collector Rose Dougan in here in the 1940s. They were a relatively out couple for the times, and Dr. White was also good friends with bisexual silent screen heartthrob Rudolf Valentino (whose most famous film The Sheik was partially filmed near Palm Springs).
The Hollywood zenith in Palm Springs occurred during the studio system of the 1930s to 1950s, when stars were heavily controlled, and most contracts stipulated that actors could not travel more than 200 miles from Los Angeles during film production. Mellow Palm Springs thus became the natural nearby getaway for celebrities. It was a place devoid of paparazzi and studio handlers, and desert homes were usually surrounded by high walls, allowing anything to go on within the stars’ private compounds. In fact, Howard Hughes’ (aka “The Aviator”) 1940s walled Spanish stucco property for his alleged mistresses later transformed into the El Mirasol in 1976, becoming the first all-male resort in the now predominantly gay Warm Sands neighborhood. Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s Cathedral City ranch morphed into the former gay resort New Lost World in 1982, complete with nude sunbathing and male burlesque shows.
Rumored bisexual/lesbian stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, and Gloria Swanson all spent time Palm Springs. Colbert even owned an exclusive jewelry shop in downtown in the 1950s and would often personally wait on customers. Swanson was a said to be frequent visitor at Desert Knight, the town’s first lesbian hotel.
And the guys came too. Cary Grant, Tab Hunter, Errol Flynn, Rock Hudson, and Liberace all spent time with their gay pals and lovers here. Liberace died of AIDS in 1987 at his opulent Palm Springs home called Casa de la Cloisters. His mother lived on adjoining back property, and the home was rumored to be the site of numerous gay sex parties. Up until its recent remodeling, a large outdoor candelabra and a cursive L on the gates could still be seen outside the seven-bedroom, 8,000 square-foot mansion.
Rock Hudson also spent a great deal of time in Palm Springs, where he also threw huge gay parties and lived with two of his long-term lovers in a virtually out way. His personal secretary Mark Miller tried to hide Rock in Palm Springs when he was dying from AIDS in the 1980s. Hudson also hung out with former Palm Springs mayor and Hollywood actor Charles Farrell (pictured above), who was also known to be bisexual/gay and owned the famously star-studded Racquet Club hotel. Another famous local hotel, the Parker Palm Springs, inhabits the site of the former Givenchy Hotel and Spa Resort, opened by gay TV host and entrepreneur Merv Griffin.
Nowadays, in the no-secrets TMZ era, Hollywood stars waltzing around Palm Springs are harder to come by. However, longtime resident and gay crooner Barry Manilow has a house here, as does his pal Suzanne Somers. Let’s just hope the new generation of out LGBT Hollywood stars of the 21st Century will leave such an interesting desert legacy behind.