Sinatra's kinda kinda holiday

By Frank Barrett, The Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 09:23 07 March 2005

The Best Is Yet To Come, reads the inscription. It's the title of the relentlessly upbeat song which begins: 'Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum,' and ends: 'Wait till you see that sunshine place, there ain't nothin' like it here.'

The 'sunshine place' where I'm bending down to read this inscription is far from upbeat: I'm in the Desert Memorial Park cemetery in Palm Springs, California. 'The best is yet to come' is the epitaph on the grave of 'Francis Albert Sinatra 1915-1998; Beloved Husband and Father'.

Frankie is buried in a quiet spot in the middle of row B-8, flanked by family and friends. It's late January - the mountains which surround Palm Springs are all capped in snow but here in the sunbathed valley, even though it's only 10am, the temperature is already in the 70s.

One seriously doubts that when Frankie breathed his last the best was really yet to come. Surely 'I Did It My Way' would have had more of a ring as an epitaph. However, you cannot fault the modesty of Sinatra's final resting place.

Larger than life when he was alive, in death he is just another rectangular stone plaque. Nearby, ex-Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono (of Sonny and Cher), who died after skiing into a tree, has the epitaph 'And The Beat Goes On' (again, probably not, one would have to say in the circumstances). Not even Sonny is allowed anything grander at the Desert Memorial Park than a standard plaque.

Unlike Frank, however, Sonny is honoured with a tacky bronze statue on Palm Springs' main drag. But if it's monuments of Sinatra you require in Palm Springs, all you have to do, to borrow somebody else's epitaph, is look about you.

The road that runs past the Frank Sinatra 'compound' in the neighbouring community of Rancho Mirage was renamed Frank Sinatra Drive (look out also for Gene Autry Trail, Kirk Douglas Way and Bob Hope Drive, all honouring other notable residents).

Michael S. Wolfson Park, at DaVall and Frank Sinatra Drive, boasts a spooky taped welcome from Old Blue Eyes himself which you activate by pressing a red button: 'Hi, this is Frank Sinatra,' says a very wheezy voice (here's what a lifetime's smoking can do for you). 'The city of Rancho Mirage, an oasis in the desert and the playground of presidents, welcomes you to Michael S. Wolfson Park ...'

Just after Frankie went to Hollywood in the early Forties, he found his way to the growing community of Palm Springs, about 100 miles south-east of Los Angeles.

By the time he flew in with his wife Nancy and their children for some R&R in 1946 it was already the favourite decadent getaway spot for the Hollywood elite. Frankie liked what he saw. Palm Springs' initial popularity was a result of the two-hour rule in studio contracts which meant that directors anxious to reshoot a scene could call in actors at two hours' notice.

In the late Twenties, Palm Springs was just about two hours' drive from Hollywood (such is progress that, on a bad day, the journey can now take up to four hours).

Happy to find somewhere they could play safe from the prying eyes of the public and Press, A- list Hollywood stars such as William Powell, Ruby Keeler, Rudolf Valentino, Al Jolson, Harold Lloyd, Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, Ginger Rogers, Gene Autry and Loretta Young acquired properties here.

For Frank, who always enjoyed the idea of partying more than working, Palm Springs was the perfect ring-a-ding spot where he could lose himself-surrounded by his ever-present entourage and coterie of hangers-on.

It was here where Frank began his romance with Ava Gardner, who became his second wife, when he bumped into her at a party where she was dancing with her then boyfriend Howard Hughes. Palm Springs was that sort of place.

Palm Springs' post-War reputation was truly established one day in 1947 when Sinatra wandered into architect E. Stewart Williams's office on East Palm Canyon Boulevard.

Williams recalled: 'Frank came in wearing a white sailor hat and licking an ice-cream cone and said, 'I want a house'. He said he wanted to build a vacation home where he could spend more time with his family.'

Inevitably, perhaps, the house that Frankie built proved to be a classic of Desert Modernism, the architectural style notable for its use of glass, clean lines, natural and man-made materials, and the melding of indoor and outdoor spaces. It was said to define a lifestyle of elegant informality - or as elegantly informal as the extremely wealthy are ever likely to want to get.

Architects adapted modern materials, techniques and floor plans to the special requirements of desert living, creating modern structures of every size and function. The results are those distinctive boxy houses with huge glass walls and big swimming pools - particularly loved, for some reason, as locations by British TV commercial directors.

In the Palm Springs' Tour of the Stars' Homes it is this Sinatra property - Twin Palms at 1148E Alejo Road, at the heart of Palm Springs' 'Movie Colony' community - that tends to excite most interest. The only thing that tourists normally see, rearing above the property's walls, are the distinctive twin palms that gave the house its name.

According to legend, Twin Palms boasts an oversize swimming pool built in the shape of a grand piano. And, at noon, the loggia walkway is said to cast a 'keyboard' shadow in the appropriate spot.

Sinatra was famously hospitable - when he was in residence he would hoist a Jack Daniel's flag at 5pm signalling to the neighbours that they could pop round for cocktails.

He also hosted legendary parties beside the Twin Palms pool. Over the years, guests included everybody from Bob Hope and Joan Crawford to Jack Benny and Cary Grant. Greta Garbo once astounded the crowd by swimming topless.

But while Sinatra built the house for first wife Nancy, it was second wife Ava Gardner who shared Twin Palms with him. The stylish home was famously the setting for a tempestuous row that marked one of the final scenes of their epic love story.

Convinced one night that Frankie was shacked up at Twin Palms with Lana Turner, Gardner stormed in, triggering a mighty row that ended up with Sinatra hurling Ava's clothes out of the house on to the driveway and neighbours calling the police.

Folklore has it that the bathroom wash basin still bears the crack left when, during the row, Frankie threw a bottle of champagne into it. Now, if you have the money, you don't have to wonder about the Twin Palms legends - you can stay the night here and live the Rat Pack dream.

Upmarket home rental company Time & Place Homes has acquired the house, restored it to its original splendour and is offering the place as a holiday home (a three-night weekend rental will cost about £3,000).

Nathan Todd of Time & Place Homes was waiting to show me round. Also there was performer Frankie Randall, who has been in Palm Springs since Sinatra suggested he move here 30 years ago.

'He said: 'Come and have some fun!', recalls Frankie. 'The way it was with Sinatra, if he liked you - he liked you.'

Sinatra certainly liked Randall, a fellow native of New Jersey. It was through Sinatra that Randall won a recording contract with RCA Victor (Sinatra's testimonial included the observation that 'Frankie Randall is my favourite piano player and a marvellous talent who plays more piano than there are keys').

Admitted into Twin Palms, we have the chance to test the legends. Yes, here is the piano-shaped pool and there are the piano key shadows of the walkway.

Inside the immaculately restored house we locate the bathroom and discover the famous champagne bottle crack in the wash basin. We touch it wonderingly.

Nathan told me of the lifelong Sinatra fan who had just rented the house for her 60th birthday party to which everyone had to come as their favourite Rat Pack personality. 'She slept in the bed where Frankie slept with Ava. She woke in the night and looked out at the pool with the steam rising off it. 'I could see him there,' she said: 'There was a definite presence. That's what everybody says.'

Frankie Randall recalled the Palm Springs nights when Sinatra would sit out on the patio to smoke. 'He'd look up at the night sky filled with all the twinkling stars and say: 'Is this Paradise?'. He felt right at home - he had peace and tranquillity here, it was easy for him to get around, it was his playground.'

The Twin Palms idyll didn't last long. After his divorce from Ava, Sinatra moved across town to his new home on the 17th fairway of Tamarisk Country Club, which became known as 'the compound' soon after he moved there in 1957.

It is now owned by a Canadian businessman and you can't see much of the compound as you pass by on Frank Sinatra Drive.

You glimpse the tops of the guesthouses that Sinatra built and gave names such as The Tender Trap and My Way. The two-and-a-half-acre spread also includes a movie theatre, sauna, barbershop, two pools, a tennis court and a studio where Sinatra painted.

It was also here where Sinatra had one of the biggest disappointments of his life. In 1962 he built a special guesthouse, adding 25 phone lines for White House staff and installed a helicopter pad for a planned visit by President John F. Kennedy - until then Frankie had been a lifelong Democrat and a staunch supporter of JFK.

But concern about Sinatra's links with organised crime persuaded the President it would be better to stay across town with Bing Crosby (ironically, a staunch Republican). Sinatra was furious.

On hearing the news of JFK's change of heart he went outside and smashed up the new concrete helicopter landing pad with a sledgehammer. Fortunately, Ronald Reagan was less bothered about Sinatra's Italian-American connections and Frankie weighed in on Ronnie's presidential campaign - later organising his inaugural.

The Rancho Mirage Compound became his preferred retreat in later years. Surrounded by a protective wall and retracting bullet-proof window shield in the Sinatra bedroom, he liked nothing better than to cook out at barbecues for friends and family.

By the Eighties Palm Springs had begun to resemble a rest home for geriatric stars where the Desert Modern style merely struck people as odd. Rocker Billy Idol, for example, famously remarked that the place reminded him of The Flintstones' home town, Bedrock.

Palm Springs, however, has bounced back. Just as Miami's Art Deco South Beach has been rediscovered and hailed as chic, Palm Springs is enjoyinga similar revival. Faded hotels and motels have been given a new lease of life. Nightclubs and restaurants once frequented by Sinatra and his gang have vanished but in their place has emerged a new breed of elegant designer eateries - less starstruck, perhaps, and more Starbucks.

This revival is nicely demonstrated by the stunning comeback of the hotel now called Le Parker Meridien, which originally opened as Palm Springs' first Holiday Inn in 1959. It later became Gene Autry's Melody Ranch and then the Givenchy Spa resort before being transformed into its present highly splendid incarnation by New York designer Jonathan Adler. It's boutiquey but not in an overly fussy way (you can find the light switches, for example).

I was interviewed on KJAZZ by local DJ legend Jim 'Fitz' Fitzgerald about why a journalist from London wanted to write about Palm Springs. 'What do people in the UK know about Palm Springs?' They're starting to find out, I told him (surprisingly, there were several British people at my hotel).

'The future looks good?' he asked. Sure, I said. I would rather go on holiday to Palm Springs than almost anywhere in the States. Things are looking very good, I told him. But, of course, I already had a line given to me by Old Blue Eyes himself. The best is yet to come ...

Travel Facts

British Airways Holidays (0870 2433 406, offers fly-drive packages to California. Room rates at Palms Springs Le Parker Meridien start at £206 per night (Phone 001 760 770 5000 or visit

Time & Place Homes (001 760 320 1058, offers rentals at celebrity Palm Spring residences.Three nights at Twin Palms costs £2,850 plus 11.5 per cent occupancy tax. For further information on Palm Springs visit

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