Palm Springs is one of the world’s gayest cities. It is estimated that a third to as much as half of the city’s population of 47,000 is gay. Palm Springs has had three openly gay mayors and depending on the election cycle, often has a gay majority on the city council. Ron Oden made history in 2003 when he became the city’s first openly gay mayor and the country’s first gay African American mayor who was directly elected.
How did Palm Springs become so gay? In the early days of Hollywood, the city was a getaway where stars could escape the paparazzi while still be in the required two-hour driving time from Tinsel Town. As fate would have it, the driving time between Hollywood and Palm Springs is exactly two hours. Closeted gay celebrities found the freedom they lacked in Hollywood. Much later, the AIDS crisis ironically led to a gay population boom in the city as gay men with the disease went on disability or cashed in on life insurance policies to migrate to a gay-friendly town with a laid-back serenity that seemed to almost impart healing properties.
Palm Springs LGBT history can be traced back to its infancy In his excellent book, “A City Comes Out,” David Wallace documents the presence of LGBTs back to the city’s founding. One of the city’s earliest residents, Florilla White, was a lesbian who purchased one of the first hotels in the city in 1913. White was also the town’s resident medical doctor. She lived with art collector Rose Dougan.
White was friends with bisexual silent screen movie idol Rudolph Valentino, who may have shot his most famous film, “The Sheik,” near Palm Springs in 1921. Valentino sparked a scandal a year later when he stayed at White’s hotel just after remarrying in Calexico. At the time, the law required a full year between a divorce and remarriage. It had only been months in the case of Valentino, who was arrested for bigamy.
Another of White’s friends was Chicago heiress Lois Kellogg who also stayed at her hotel. For her time, Kellogg was relatively out as a lesbian and was one of early Palm Springs’ most colorful characters. She commissioned a sprawling estate to be built on S. Palm Canyon Drive, next to where the Rite Aid is now. The Moorish-themed project was still under construction in 1924 when the architect who was supervising the project died. The development dubbed “Fool’s Folly,” lived up to its moniker and was never completed. Kellogg’s riches to rags life story is documented in the book “Heiress of Doom: Lois Kellogg of Palm Springs” by Peter Wild.
The cover of Wallace’s book features a photo of Rock Hudson and fellow actor Charles Farrell, who was known to be gay or bisexual. Farrell owned the star-studded Racquet Club Hotel and was mayor from 1953 to 1960. Hudson undoubtedly gave Palm Springs tourism and Farrell a boost when he agreed to appear in TV’s number one show, I Love Lucy, in 1955 but only if the show was set in Palm Springs. The episode was titled “I Love Lucy in Palm Springs” features Hudson surprising Lucy and Ethel poolside and telling them a story designed to help them make up with their husbands after the couples quarreled in Hollywood.
Liberace was friends with Hudson and Farrell and owned several homes in the city. He died of AIDS in 1987 in his 6,000 square foot estate near downtown on N Belardo Road, kitty-corner from Our Lady of Solitude Church where his funeral was held. Hudson succumbed to the disease at his home in Beverly Hills two years earlier.
In the pre-Stonewall Days, few people talked about homosexuality let alone be open about it. But stars widely believed to be gay or bisexual who frequented or lived in Palm Springs included Janet Gaynor, Mary Martin, Gloria Swanson, and Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and Tab Hunter. Hunter eventually came out in a 2005 autobiography. Swanson was known to have hung out at the Desert Knight, the city’s first lesbian resort.
You can get a taste of old Hollywood’s influence in Palm Springs in much of the older homes that were built with cinder block fences separating them from adjoining properties and tall hedges blocking the view from the street. The stars were treated well in Palm Springs, but they made sure their privacy was always guarded.
The gayest block in Palm Springs is E Arenas Road, just east of Indian Canyon Drive, but the block’s orientation is relatively new. The first gay bar on the block opened in 1991. It was called Street Bar Named Desire, but now goes by Street Bar. Eventually more bars and stores catering to the gay community followed. Before then, most of the gay nightlife was centered in neighboring Cathedral City where speakeasies flourished in the prohibition days.
Palm Springs’ first gay resort opened as El Mirasol Villas in 1975 in the Warm Sands neighborhood. A few years later, El Mirasol was joined by what now is Vista Grande Resort. Eventually other formerly apartment buildings and small inns became exclusively gay.
The AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, had a paradoxical effect of increasing the gay population of the city. While gay men in the city were dying many more moved there hoping to extend their lives in a warmer, less stressful environment. A desert migration also made economic sense as people infected with the disease and unable to work, looked for a place where housing costs were much cheaper than the big cities. That history was chronicled in the excellent 2015 documentary “Desert Migration” that documents that history through the lives of gay HIV positive men who still reside in the desert. The doc is available online, at many public libraries, including the Palm Springs Public Library.
To learn more about Palm Springs LGBT history, take a ride on a Red-Jeep Gay Icons Tour.