Palm Springs, USA
Leaning back in
his Harley Davidson, black leathers and droopy
moustache, ready to motor out into the Californian
desert, at a glance he might have been mistaken
for Dennis Hopper in a scene from Easy Rider.
His T-shirt said: 'Sink your claws into something
But the desert
heat can play tricks. In fact he was an ageing
German businessman from Cologne, with a paunch
to match his wallet. He and his pack of 14 bikers
had flown over to Los Angeles to re-live their
fantasies, hiring their machines at Dollars 1,000
a week each.
They were staying
in five-star luxury in downtown Palm Springs where
raising hell equates to a foursome at bridge on
a Monday night. Born to be wild they might have
been, but these latter-day Valkyries rode their
Harleys like souped up zimmer frames with wheels.
Hell's grannies had come of age.
The German bikers
were typical of those who have been infected by
the gentility of life in Palm Springs . It was
the same in the seedy bar where a skimpily clad
barmaid in off-white mini-skirt and cantilevered
breasts, chewed gum and took turns on the Karaoke
machine. A red-necked pool-player turned to our
group and said: 'Excuse me but would you mind
moving up a few inches so that I can play my shot?'
He could not have
been more polite had he said it with flowers.
I wondered if I might find a plaque on the wall
saying: 'The last recorded bar-room brawl in Palm
Springs took place here in July 1972. This was
the final occasion that a pool cue is known to
have been used in anger.'
Maybe it is a
combination of the old people and the heat, but
Palm Springs is an oasis of good behaviour and
old fashioned manners in a country not noted for
may be the civilising influence of golf. The town
has more than 100 golf courses and 350 days of
sunshine a year on which to mow them. There is
even a practice putting green at the airport.
Its most famous
golfer, most famous resident indeed, must be Bob
Hope, the film actor, now 93, who lives above
the town in a 29,000 sq ft villa, sleeps in a
4,000 sq ft bedroom and eats in a dining room
with seating for 300 people. I know these facts
because they were supplied by Bruce Poynter, one
of that peculiarly American sub-species, the sort
who were weened on Ripley's Believe It or Not,
who seem to retain an inestimable capacity for
storing useless statistics.
Poynter is a
guide with a company called Desert Adventures
which takes people out into the desert to look
at cacti, old Indian settlements and the graves
of long dead gold prospectors. He does not consider
himself an authority on the homes of the stars.
But in Palm Springs you have to know where the
stars live. The stars demand it. In their carefully
disguised search for anonymity they have all contrived
to live in the same large housing estate.
Nobody seems to
mind the tour buses except the people at Marilyn
Monroe's old pad. They got so fed up they slapped
restraining orders on the tour companies, preventing
them from pointing out the place. Poynter was
discretion itself as he told us to ignore the
house with the white railings. 'Whoo woo,' we
shouted in a juvenile display of defiance.
We gasped as we
admired Randolph Hirst's former residence, now
owned by the doctor who gave Betty Ford her last
face-lift, and there was undisguised admiration
for 'Lassie's trainer's house'.
had a post box shaped like a piano. They say he
used to come to the door personally at Halloween
at which point, no doubt, the kids would run off
screaming into the night.
compete in banality with the discovery that one
of the houses was owned by the man who invented
the yo-yo and the parking meter. Most of the houses
now only seemed to enjoy associated status, their
former owners having passed on to that great casting
couch in the sky. Dean Martin, Sammy Davies jnr,
Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Carol
Lombard remain with us only in celluloid. Others
such as Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth
Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor's mother are hanging
on in there. And Elvis Presley? Who knows?
Their former haunts,
such as the Racquet Club where Marilyn Monroe
was 'discovered' and the Ingleside hotel, where
Greta Garbo went to be alone, are still there.
Today there are new stars on the block: Kevin
Costner was spotted recently driving a white Volvo.
But their lifestyles are less flamboyant than
of Palm Springs , the mega rich who flaunt their
wealth in ostentatious Rolls-Royces and big houses
on the edge of town, are the native Americans.
The 284 Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians
are said to share a net worth of $2.9bn, more
than $10m for every man, woman and child. It is
not, however, shared so equally. Perhaps 30 per
cent live below the poverty line.
The very rich
ones are those that owned land on which casinos
and hotels have been built. You, like me, may
have been reared to believe that native Americans
had been run off their happy hunting grounds.
In most cases this was indeed what happened, but
late last century Palm Springs was dismissed by
US government land valuers as worthless desert
so the tribe held on to much of the land.
realised its mistake when people started going
there for the spa waters and a hotel was built,
but it was too late. After a series of Federal
Court actions the Cahuilla finally got their hands
on more than a fifth of the land in Palm Springs.
Now everyone wants
to be a Cahuilla. To qualify you must be one-eighth
Indian and there is talk of watering it down further
to one-sixteenth. The chief is not called Running
Deer but Richard Milanovich.
None of this deters
Poynter whose knowledge of the Indians probably
matches and in some cases, exceeds their own.
He runs survival courses in the desert. He knows
which plants to eat, which make good tea and which
get you as high as a kite.
He knows Latin
names, Indian names and folk names of plants,
insects, lizards and mammals. His party trick
is to pick up a rattle snake in his bare hands.
'Hollywood has greatly magnified the danger of
rattle snakes. Bites are rare,' he says.
He is one of those
people who confesses to having learned little
at school but who, upon leaving, have had the
capacity of a human sponge to store facts and
figures. I tested him frequently. 'Is that a humming
bird?' I asked.
'Sure is,' said
Bruce. 'The humming bird has a heart rate of 1,250
beats per minute and breathes in and out 250 times
a minute. We would need to eat 350 pounds of hamburgers
a day if we had the metabolic rate of a humming
bird,' he said.
I saw people in
Palm Springs who appeared to have combined the
eating habits of a humming bird with the metabolic
rate of a hibernating hamster. Many were youngsters
in T-shirts, shorts and spiky hair-cuts who appeared
to have stepped straight out of a Gary Larson
So this is Palm
Springs where the air is clear and most of the
stars are in their firmament, where the golf courses
breed like jack rabbits and where the Indians
sell whiskey to the visitors. See the oasis where
Rudolph Valentino filmed The Sheikh and the cowboy
town where Roy Rogers shot a thousand baddies.
Get on a Harley and live out your fantasies. It's