It was November 1961, and Frank Sinatra was king of the world: America's top recording, movie and nightclub star, owner of film and record companies and casinos, confidant of powerful politicians and gangsters, squire to the world's most desirable women, and enthroned among a band of cronies — the famed Rat Pack — with whom he could work and party and make global headlines.
And he was livid. He had just heard from Peter Lawford, the English actor and Rat Packer who had married into the Kennedy clan, that President John F Kennedy would not, as had previously been arranged, be spending a few days at Sinatra's 2½-acre Palm Springs estate.
Lawford had been instructed by the President and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, to tell Sinatra that the desert compound had been deemed insufficiently secure for a presidential visit. (The real story was murkier: the FBI had discovered that a mistress of the President's was also dating a Chicago crime boss who had recently stayed at Sinatra's — and that Sinatra had introduced her to both men.)
Sinatra had spent months planning for Kennedy's visit: he had built cottages on the Palm Springs property to house the President's staff and security; he had installed a complex telephone system, a helipad and a massive flag pole. He had gone so far as to slap a plaque on the house declaring that JFK had slept there.
Now, the cruel news delivered, he vented his fury by smashing a sledge hammer into the concrete slab on which the President's helicopter had been meant to land. When he finally exhausted himself, he was lost in a snit for weeks.
That spectacular blow-up wasn't the only time Sinatra lost his head in Palm Springs. He arrived in the town in 1947 with his first wife, Nancy, and their three children, building a stylish, low-slung Desert Modern house, which was christened Twin Palms. That marriage soon ended, and Sinatra spent a great deal of time in The Springs, as it was known, with his second missus, Ava Gardner. The pair famously drank like fish and fought like devils: Sinatra's press agents made more than one trip to Palm Springs to smooth over some scene their clients had created, and a bathroom sink at Twin Palms still sports, it's said, a fracture from the time when Sinatra hurled a Champagne bottle at his bride.
After that tumultuous marriage ended, Sinatra sold Twin Palms and began to build his compound at the Tamarisk Country Club, the refuge in which, for the rest of his life, he would escape the workaday grind and night-time hustle of Hollywood and Las Vegas.
When he wasn't blowing his top, Sinatra symbolised something like the acme of the Palm Springs style, a looser, more idle way of life than he and other stars pursued elsewhere. It was open shirts and swimming trunks and sunglasses and midday cocktails by the pool; it was blazing sun and cool, dark interiors, with massive windows revealing dramatic desert landscapes. It was Los Angeles without the movie biz or the tourists, Vegas without the casinos.
And it was tiny. In 1960, Palm Springs had only 13,000 permanent residents, but a remarkable pantheon of celebrities made it a part-time home. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Al Jolson and Lana Turner were among the many who regularly repaired to the north end of the Coachella Valley to escape the burden of work and reporters and whatever else might nag them back in the real world.
They had favourite restaurants and night spots in Palm Springs, and they golfed, rode horses and threw parties. And the town thrived with their custom: in that post-WWII era of tail-finned cars and sharkskin suits, sleek, angular weekend homes and hotels and restaurants popped up all over Palm Springs like wildflowers after a desert shower. But it was a place for calm, a kind of neutral zone where they could be themselves in peace, and at 120 miles removed from the corner of Hollywood and Vine, just far enough to be a proper getaway.
You might think that stars would feel exposed in such a small town. But by the time Frank and the boys started lighting up the desert sky with their patented brand of ring-a-ding-ding, Palm Springs had already been hosting celebrities for decades. Besides, desert life tends to attract people who want to live on the edge of things and leave worldly silliness such as celebrity behind. If Hollywood big shots wished to liaise or booze or bronze or simply recuperate in their town - and so long as they kept quiet about it - the locals didn't ever seem to mind.
Superficially, Palm Springs resembled Las Vegas, but it bore a very different atmosphere. In Vegas, money (and the gangsters who liked to make it) was the principal concern; Palm Springs was homey. There were people in Vegas to whom even the likes of Sinatra were answerable, and they liked things kept on the lowdown; but in Palm Springs, Sinatra could shut the gate to his estate and create whatever sort of Shangri-La he could imagine. It's no wonder that an errant Don Draper should have found himself enmeshed in a decadent ménage in Palm Springs in a memorable episode of TV's Mad Men. Out there in the desert without the distraction of casinos, there was nothing to do but indulge yourself.