Cameron’s ironic London moustache didn’t code properly in Palm Springs.
The town has a very large community of, mostly older (retirement age-ish), gay men, and many of those have moustaches. Not the recently resurgent sort of facial hair you see on the faces of young guys in Shoreditches or Brooklyns – where it seems to denote an attempt to redefine masculinity – but the sort that reminds you of the Village People or Magnum PI. Porn staches. Like the brush moustache Cameron’s father, an unreconstructed redneck, has had his entire life.
Whether the Village People appropriated moustaches (and other symbols of unbridled manhood) to make their own ironic statement we cannot say. Irony can be treacherous to interpret, which may be why the group’s music is now played at weddings and other gatherings where one later regrets one’s actions. What we can say is that PS is full of gay men who remind Cameron of his father, and that under these circumstances Cameron (who is 52) also reminds Cameron of his father. It is certainly stimulating to vacation among, and be sexualized by, a large community made up of multiple copies of your dad. So for Cameron, a visit to PS, a dream world for so many other reasons, is at the very minimum a tourist trip into the back of his mind.
But this gets more tangled. For Charlie (who is 43, and effectively a generation earlier in gay politics), PS is full of hot men who remind him of his husband, but who also blur strangely into his father-in-law. Just try to square that circle! That aside, the gay culture of the town reads to Charlie like a museum. For him, a trip to PS is a trip down memory lane, or maybe a voyage into the innocent world of pre-AIDS gay porn – meaning shaggy haircuts, droopy taches, tight undershirts, shorts that are too short, and expanses of unruly chest hair, with the added insanity of never worrying about condoms. VHS memories beset by colour bleed, tracking lines, and graininess. By the way, PS remains the locus of a fair few modern porn flicks, in ever-increasing resolution.
The town is an oasis in the desert a two-hour drive from LA. It took off, really, as a playground for movie stars who wanted to avoid the glare of publicity in Hollywood, and who built themselves experimental mid-century pavilions and temples on isolated estates to escape to. One imagines their debaucheries unfolding against a backdrop of exquisite modernism, lavish pools, Star Trek surfaces of glass, stone and concrete, sinuous organic furnishings and knick-knicks, abstract art, all of it making as much, if not more, sense in one of the deserts of Mars. As mirages go, it’s compelling. Design has always been half the fun in PS.
When you think about it, you realize that the pornographic imagination in its early forms was basically modernist and utopian: free love, free sex, freedom from clothes, freedom of expression, freedom to be and enjoy the simple being of others, freedom to frolic in pools. (Freedom, you might counter-argue, from healthy self-criticism.) An enclave in a no-mans-land makes perfect sense as the setting for this; for letting it all hang out, man!, as the hippies said, and maybe the hipsters are still saying a version of this. Remember that the word ‘utopia’ actually means ‘nowhere’. As you drive toward it, a town rises out of nowhere, protected from reality by the gold, silver, and lavender mountains of the Coachella valley like a kind of Shangri-la.
Its heritage and romance (despite everything, we want to say that) aside, we like the Palm Springs of today for its twentieth-century simplicity and beauty. It still feels like a refuge. The heat of the desert can be scorching, and it forces you to loaf by pools or float in them like jetsam. There are many graceful pools to drift around in. Palm Springs is one of our favourite places in the world because of its high temperatures and deep pools, and the corresponding number of books they force us to read. And because there is an atmosphere of optimism in a place that unashamedly transports you back to a well-designed future whose clean lines speak of reason, function, and progress. As it turns out, the emptiness mapped out in the town’s fantastic curves and grids invites you to occupy it and make yourself at home.
Of the places we have been in Palm Springs, we feel most at home at the Ace hotel. (We also like the Jonathan Adler maximalism of the Parker, but holy shit is that heading in another direction.) Yes, the Ace is what you might call a hipster outfit; yes yes, in terms of its fashionability it may be a couple of degrees above absolute zero. In the lobby there is a guitar propped up for general strumming, macramé hanging over the windows, and a glass case full of the artefacts one needs to survive in such decompression: selected clothing, trainers, accessories, modish gewgaws, all a little pretentious perhaps, but all displaying the quiet, edifying DNA of modernism. Use is beauty, said Corbusier. Hallowed be his name.
Our previous encounter with the downtown LA breed of hipster appears elsewhere on this website. To our minds, hipsters are just young people trying to find an honest way to live with themselves. It isn’t an exclusive club. All that seems to be required is that one be passionate about the details of life and unafraid to accept one’s own skin. (We like details. God is in the details, as Mies van der Rohe, another modernist god, was fond of declaring.) There is also an Ace hotel in DTLA, and we like that too.
The Ace in PS takes the best of modernity and runs with it. The rooms are simple and comfortable, and full of friendly, witty little touches. The complex used to be an average motel before the Ace group renovated and expanded it. There was a Denny’s diner attached, and the hotel has preserved this, with some twenty-first century modifications, as the hotel restaurant, which henceforth shall serve southern comfort food, texmex, mex, disgraceful southern-grandma-style desserts, reprehensible southern-uncle-style cocktails.
There are two pools, both welcoming to everyone, including families. Often there are huge, tacky blow-up toys floating in them – for everyone to use. The mix of people lounging around them is insane, from pretty boys and girls to fat hipsters to heavily tattooed lesbian couples to families that engulf all in their path like locusts. It’s fun to hang out selfishly with a mutant mojito and squint at the latest psychotic-girl airport novel in the incandescence that passes for sunshine in PS – but we’re also dying to bring our kids here. This universe is very inclusive, and so much fun.
We arrived in PS a few days before the Dinah Shore festival – which bills itself as the largest lesbian gathering in the world – kicked off. The number of lesbian couples and groups at our hotel climbed, but they were easily absorbed into the heterogeneous mob by the pool. A couple of nights we went out to PS gay bars, but this was never going to be our thing. The bars feel quaint, not because they are mostly full of older men (older than Cameron), but because they remind us of an era when being gay meant pretending to have a good time.
Old habits are hard to break. We got married last year, on the tenth anniversary of our relationship. Same-sex couples in the UK (we live in London) have been allowed to use the word ‘married’ since 2014. We both find the word ‘husband’ strange, like it comes from a universe where we don’t belong. Perhaps it is difficult to stop circling around yourself uneasily when you’ve been doing it your whole life. We met many marvellous people in the gay bars of PS, but we also felt like Schrödinger’s cat, like we were there and not there at the same time. By the way, we don’t suffer from the illusion that what we think of the gay bars of PS matters. They go on just fine without us.
PS is famous for its ‘clothing optional’ gay hotels. We tried one – with the word ‘paradise’ in its title, right? – and lasted about two minutes before we fled. Flee is the precise term. Neither of us is vain enough to mind being naked in public; the problem was that we felt silly and ashamed of ourselves. As an LGBT person you become very suspicious of your sense of shame. In this instance it seemed to be serving us. We left paradise covering our nakedness.
PS is also famous for the visionary mid-century architecture of people like Neutra, Wexler, and Lautner. We decided to get a list of famous buildings and make the pilgrimage around town to look at them. This isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Most of the important examples of ‘desert modernism’ are in private hands and not accessible to the public. We attempt to visit Neutra’s ‘Kaufmann House’, which is one of the most celebrated of the lot, and found that it was fenced in and had a security sign promising that trespassers would be met with an ‘armed response’. When they promise to shoot you in America you have to take it seriously. Again and again we found that these houses were in private hands, meaning rich private hands with no concept of the public good. There are bits of PS modern that can actually be visited, but on the whole you might be better off buying a good book on the subject and reading it while you soak up the general atmosphere of the town. Or you could phone your Swiss banker and buy one of Lautner’s houses so you can admire it as much as you want.
So perhaps not quite a desert utopia then. But never mind: we still think of it as a beautiful neverland. There is nothing quite like the mountains and the cobalt sky of Palm Springs. If you’re looking for a place to rest and recharge, this is one of the most gorgeous non-places in the world to do it.
A practical note: room rates in PS nearly double on the weekend, when it fills up with people escaping LA for a couple of days. If you’re kicking around LA and planning an expedition out to PS, try to do it during weekdays.
Our lasting memories of the trip: 1) Rick’s Desert Grill on N. Palm Canyon Drive: an unreconstructed local diner with unreconstructed waitresses. 2) Cocktails by a pool, any pool. Visit as many as you can. 3) Early morning coffee and a cinnamon roll at Koffi, S. Camino Real. 4) Hitting the World Gym and checking out the local gay subculture.