Finding Sinatra in Palm Springs
Frank Sinatra still seems to be everywhere in Greater Palm Springs, from the radio waves to the streets, despite having died nearly 25 years ago. In June I came to get his the fall in nearby Cathedral City, on a trip to the desert just before local businesses take a summer break.
Musically and stylistically, it can feel like it’s still Frank Sinatra’s world, and we’re just living in it. It’s hard to walk through an upscale hotel, airline club, bar, or mall today without hearing its music.
A Sirius channel (moderated by his daughter Nancy) is devoted to the man in the hat. Spotify has two Sinatra channels. May 13 has been designated Frank Sinatra Day by the United States Congress. And a fight between Sinatra and GODFATHER author Mario Puzo (Sinatra felt the book insulted Italians) inspired the recent Paramount+ series The offeron the making of the film GODFATHER.
A trip to Greater Palm Springs (Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella) can feel like a nostalgic trip to the mid-20se Century America. Low-rise mid-century modern homes are distinguished by sunlight. The same goes for names on streets and hospitals like Bob Hope, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra Drive. Photos of Sinatra and other luminaries of the era can also be seen at the magnificent Annenberg estate, Sunnylands.
Sinatra was not originally from Palm Springs, although he had lived there for fifty years. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, he is remembered in the desert with a star on the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs at 123 N. Palm Canyon Drive.
Before becoming a permanent resident of Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, (where Sonny Bono, several Gabors and “Avengers” star Patrick Macnee are also buried) Sinatra owned several homes in the area. Architectural Summary recently showcased his former Palm Desert estate, Villa Maggio, named after his Oscar-winning character FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. It was $4.25 million.
Sinatra originally lived there with his wife Nancy. After his divorce, he and his second wife Ava Gardner called him home. The house has a piano-shaped pool and a crack in a bathroom sink from a bottle of champagne Sinatra threw at Gardner. Known for his fiery temper, Sinatra was called an “18-carat manic-depressive”. This tirade ended with him throwing his possessions down the driveway as he evicted Gardner and his friend Lana Turner.
When I drove to look for Sinatra’s grave, I expected tight security, worthy of someone supposedly “connected”. But Desert Memorial was quiet, green and empty. The cemetery has true visiting hours in Palm Springs. It is only open from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., closed for hot afternoons.
Considering his fame and wealth, Sinatra’s final resting place is not particularly imposing. There’s no awe-inspiring mausoleum or heroic statue like rock star Johnny Ramone built in Hollywood Forever. Instead, Sinatra’s tombstone is a simple flat slab, parallel to the ground. But even this simple resting place has its share of drama.
We parked in the right row and walked through the grass to Sinatra’s grave. It was immediately clear what it was, with dimes, pennies and other coins strewn across the plate. One reason: Sinatra’s version of the song “pennies from heaven.”
The other reason is much darker. In 1963, the singer’s son, Frank Jr., was kidnapped. While trying to call the kidnappers from a designated payphone, senior Sinatra ran out of pennies. A dramatized version of how Sinatra’s banker opened a safe for the singer and handed him a briefcase full of ransom money, defying the FBI, is here.
After the kidnapping, Sinatra swore he would always have change for a phone call. He was buried with a dime roll. He was also reportedly buried with cherry-flavored Life Savers, Tootsie Rolls, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, stuffed animals and a dog biscuit.
Frank’s original headstone, seen in many photographs, read “The best is yet to come / Francis Albert Sinatra / Beloved husband and father”. In 2020, this tombstone disappeared and was replaced by another for Francis Albert Sinatra, Sleep Warm Papa.
The change of headstone may be the result of disagreements within the Sinatra family. When Sinatra died in 1998, he was married to his fourth wife, Barbara, who presumably endorsed “The best is yet to come.”
But in a controversy brought to light (not literally) by Life in Palm Springs, after the death of Barbara Sinatra in 2017, a new headstone was surreptitiously installed. While it’s unclear who authorized it, the caption “Sleep Warm, Poppa” may point to Sinatra’s surviving daughters Nancy and Tina.
Several Sinatra Palm Springs haunts are still in operation, such as Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge. Sinatra, an outrageous tipper, was known there to hand waiters $100 bills to make sure his friends’ drinks were always replenished.
Sinatra called alcohol “gasoline” and it fueled his fires. Sinatra’s personal favorite was Jack Daniels with ice and water, but he was also known to drink Martinis, Manhattans, and more with his “Rat Pack” pals like Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.
The Rat Pack also met and performed occasionally at The purple room in Palm Springs, a bar and a club. Still offering live performances, the club immortalizes Sinatra and Davis with giant images. But with summer temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the Purple Room is closed until Labor Day.
Still, you can create your own Frank Sinatra weekend in Palm Springs. Shop at large thrift stores in town, last stop for the possessions of the greatest generation. My wife received a sparkly pink evening dress. I found an original Aquascutum jacket.
Drop a few pennies at Sinatra’s grave or find an air-conditioned restaurant to raise a drink to his memory. Cruise the palm-lined streets and gaze up at the mountains in the clean desert air, as Sinatra sings “Come Fly With Me.”
It’s easy to imagine you’re back in the 1950s. Don’t close your eyes.