To mark the centenary of ol’ blue eyes’s birth ADAM HELLIKER visited Palm Springs to explore some of the crooner’s old haunts and find out what else there is to see in this ritzy desert resort
When Frank Sinatra got bored in a restaurant he would amuse himself by sticking out his foot and tripping up a waiter laden with plates. How Ol’ Blue Eyes would laugh as he tossed a $100 note on the floor while the hapless underling struggled to clear up the mess.
Nobody would take issue with the old smoothie, certainly not in Palm Springs, the Californian desert resort where he was treated as a deity, but it’s still a surprise, even though it’s been 19 years since his death, to hear tales that don’t always put the crooner in a flattering light.
“He had quite a temper and he’d do some weird things – like drive a golf cart through the doors of the casino,” says Vince Costa, son of Johnny Costa, the Naples-born chef who Frank hired to cook his favourite dish, Clams Linguini, and who went on to open his own restaurant in Palm Springs.
Vince remembers delivering pizzas to Frank’s house on the night after the singer had been told his mother Natalie had died in an air crash. “I peeped behind a curtain and it looked like all Hollywood was there to comfort Frank, stars like Lucille Ball and Sammy Davis Jnr.”
What registered in Vince’s memory, though, was the carpet in Twin Palms, the house where Sinatra lived from 1948 to 1957. “There was red carpet for him, and green carpet for us – the tradesmen and staff.”
As his father is now 84 and retired, Vince has taken over the cooking at Johnny Costa’s, the restaurant that is on the must-see list for Sinatra fans who are booked into Palm Springs to raise a glass of the star’s regular tipple (two fingers of Jack Daniel’s, four ice cubes and a splash of water) to mark what would have been his 100th birthday on December 12.
Another of his favourite haunts was the Ingleside Inn, a kitsch establishment whose owner Melvyn Haber proudly points out the corner table where the Sinatra entourage always sat, with the rule being that nobody spoke to Frank unless spoken to. “If he turned on you, that was it. He used the foulest language in the world.”
It was here that he held a party the night before his wedding (number four) to Barbara Marx, the bash concluding with Sinatra using his bride’s new Rolls Royce in an attempt to run over two photographers in the restaurant’s driveway.
Such was life around Frank, who a recent biography described as “a cauldron of oversensitivity and insecurity”, a man who could ooze charm and wring tenderness from a song only to erupt into fury at a trivial slight.
The top hit for disciples of the King of Swing is his house which, like most of the other stars’ homes in this desert enclave, is a surprisingly modest bungalow set in the sort of suburban road reminiscent of Esher or Cheam.
It was here, on the lawn next to the piano-shaped swimming pool, that Frank would raise a Jack Daniels flag at around 5pm, when he wanted his thirsty chums, such as Dean Martin, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Hope, to pop over for a night of carousing.
The house still has a chip in the sink from where Ava Gardner (later to become his wife) threw a champagne bottle at Frank after hearing he had been canoodling with Lana Turner. It can be rented for £2,000 a night for those fans who want to lull themselves to sleep, humming My Way, in their idol’s bed.
The house is at the heart of the resort’s Movie Colony, and is a fixture on the celebrity tours, whose buses cruise around the roads while tourists are regaled with titbits about the stars of the golden years, including Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Liberace and Zsa Zsa Gabor (still with us, just, at 98). Sinatra’s house has four bedrooms and seven bathrooms. It sleeps eight and costs $2,600 a night (£1,715) To arrange a stay at Frank Sinatra’s house visit www.sinatrahouse.com.
Sinatra’s Rat Pack of boozing buddies would often end up at the Purple Room, which still continues as a kind of 1960s throwback cabaret venue, with dinner served to the backdrop of a camp show.
In his Californian heyday, after a night of carousing, when he would have slaked his thirst for fine music, fast company, beautiful women and booze, Frank’s usual bedtime was 7am. Then the perpetual party he led and underwrote would evaporate.
The most peaceful Sinatra spot in Palm Springs is his grave, in a plot close to Sonny Bono, bearing the inscription The Best is Yet to Come. Plenty of fans pay homage by placing miniature bottles of Jack Daniels on his gravestone (some of them feel so moved that they help themselves to sips).
But Palm Springs has plenty else to offer than just moist-eyed memories of Frank.
The place is an oasis simmering in the desert, a two-hour drive from the hyperactive madness of Los Angeles.
Actually, the business of getting there does not leave one inspired – the 1-10 highway charges its way through concrete eyesores and huge wind farms before decanting travellers into a green-lawned haven (albeit one where the temperature soars by 10 degrees from that of LA).
What was once a simple pitstop was transformed into a ritzy resort, with the once barren desert now blooming with designer shops and every kind of entertainment from theatres to golf complexes, endless fashionable boutiques and bijou little shops selling affordable art.
What’s immediately impressive is the architecture: the place is studded with modernist masterpieces, from private houses to the civic buildings. Many are set, incongruously, in streets bearing names evocative of a cowboy era: Deep Canyon, Indian Trail and Shadow Mountain. [pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”right” variation=”purple”]There was red carpet for him, and green carpet for us – the tradesmen and staff.[/pullquote1]
One of these marvellous structures is the modern art museum, built in 1974, with an astonishing collection of works by Henry Moore, Chagall, Picasso and Degas.
The city is surrounded by mountains, which turn rose pink in the early morning sun. One of the best way of seeing those mountains up close is to catch the Aerial Tramway, the world’s largest rotating tramcar which takes you on an 8,000ft journey to the top for wonderful views (an a relief from the heat). More robust visitors use the summit as a starting point for the hiking trails which snake through miles of wilderness.
The canyons and desert around Palm Springs can also be explored by horseback. The Smoke Tree Stables provide gentle nags for mooching through the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, giving full rein to one’s inner John Wayne.
There are plenty of great hotels, from the hip Sauguaro, a former Holiday Inn that has reopened after a facelift by the owners of the nearby Ace hotel.
Tangerine- and lime walls give this 245-room property a vibrant, youthful look (and you might be feeling both after a sortie to the hotel’s Mexican bar to sample its range of 100 tequilas).
At the more luxurious end of the scale is the Parker Hotel, a former ranch owned by the singer Gene Autry.
It’s at this lush establishment that you’re likely to run into Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio. Here breakfast is served on the outdoor patio at Norma’s, with a menu offering dishes like banana-macadamia nut flapjacks and a rock lobster and asparagus omelet.
For $100 you order a lobster frittata, with an ounce of Sevruga caviar; but the price leaps to $1,000 for a 10 ounce portion. Sinatra would have loved that.
The Saguaro Hotel starts from $89 (£59) a night. (www.thesaguaro.com.)
The Parker Meridien starts at $181 (£119). (www.parkerpalmsprings.com)
Air New Zealand flies daily from London to Los Angeles. Return flights start from £404 and £961 in Premium Economy (www.airnewzealand.co.uk/cheap-flights-to-los-angeles)
For further information: www.visitpalmsprings.com