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Palm Springs Gay History Revealed

By Andrew Belonsky


Rock Hudson and George Nader

Why do so many gay and lesbian travelers flock to Palm Springs? Why is it to there that the lesbian Dinah Shore festival holds its annual event every April, and why in the fall do hundreds head to the LGBT Cinema Diverse film festival? And why do so many people keep going back to a town where the summer heat consistently tops 100?

There are valid questions, and almost all can be answered by reading A City Comes Out: How Celebrities Made Palm Springs a Gay and Lesbian Paradise, David Wallace's intimate and affable personable examination of the desert town's gay history.

While architects, landscape designers and Hollywood producers who loved the same sex contributed to Palm Springs's rise in the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, it was movie stars, then a new breed in American popular culture, who came to the desert to escape prying eyes provided the real thrust for Palm Springs's boom. It was here that people like 50s-era star Rock Hudson and lover George Nader, pictured above, could carry on without fear of being outed.

This excerpt, from Wallace's introduction, explains:

Palm Springs, from its very beginnings, has been shaped by Hollywood. If one didn’t know so on first arrival, then driving on the many streets named for stars (such as Dinah Shore Drive, Frank Sinatra Drive, and Gene Autry Trail) hammers home the point pretty effectively. Since the 1920s, Palm Springs has been a playground for Hollywood—both straight and gay—and escape to the desert was fairly easy, rarely more than a two-hour drive on the two-lane blacktops or a ride on the (much missed) trains of the day. It’s about the same today unless freeway traffic is bad.

And it was natural for Hollywood’s stars and power brokers to settle here after their careers faded…the place always has been fairly laid back and the weather—at least for seven or eight months of the year, was so damned nice. Since the film industry has always had a relatively high percentage of homosexual talent by its very nature it was inevitable that many of these new arrivals people were gay or lesbian, and thus by their very presence, they created both a uniquely hip image for the place and, despite occasional efforts of reactionary politicians and monied interests, an environment of tolerance.

First, a few words about the book.

Building a community is about people… the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the politicians, the artists, the educators, and even the criminals. Put them all in a pot, mix them up over generations, and, for better or worse, you have a community. All this applies even more intensely in the evolution of Palm Springs into a world-famous gay and lesbian paradise, because many of the people who shaped the place — even if only by their presence — were, because of their Hollywood connections, among the best-known celebrities in the world in their time.

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Silent film star William Haines

Palm Springs's early days unfolded in a time when "gay" was something completely different, and not something an uninitiated American public associated with Hollywood, where agents and publicists very much forced stars like Rock Hudson into marriages of convenience. If there existed a glass closet, it was fogged up.
Here, Wallace explains how public scandals, starting with the gay-flavored controversy that brought down famous actor William Haines (pictured with Anita Page, a woman he definitely didn't desire), created Hollywood codes and reinforced the closet:

In much of America, the part that people occasionally dismiss today as “fly-over” country—places like Wichita, Omaha, and other cities, towns, and wide places in the road where the only entertainment may have been a weekend screening of the latest movie—most people had never heard the word “homosexual.” And the term “gay” (derived from the French “gai” meaning high-spirited or merry) in its homosexual meaning didn’t become part of the vernacular until the late 1960s, although it had been in use as self-reference among homosexuals since the 1920s. Those millions of ticket buyers in America and the rest of the world were the last people that the studios wanted to learn that the latest matinee idol preferred men as sexual partners rather than women, and that the hottest leading lady liked ladies.

Then a major gay scandal exploded. In 1933 William Haines, a name unfamiliar to most people these days but at that time one of the most popular actors in the country, was caught having sex with a man and was immediately fired.

This was just the latest of a growing list of Hollywood scandals, including the 1923 death of another leading man, Wallace Reid, by a drug overdose, the arrest and trials of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for bringing about the death of a popular Hollywood starlet (he was acquitted after three trials but his career was ruined), and the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a famous director rumored to be having a clandestine gay relationship with his chauffeur as well as a straight relationship with Mary Miles Minter, one of the most famous silent stars.

The industry reacted by installing a self-censor and then, in 1934, a production code. Eventually it realized it had to do more; it toughened the code and required all films to obtain a certificate of approval before release. Among the casualties of such censorship was the double bed…it was sleeping solo on the silver screen from then on for more than a generation, and of course any reference to homosexuality as well as the ridicule of religion was expressly banned. The new rule would precipitate the end of the career of Mae West, famous for her sexual double entendres, and would radically change the films.

The newly toughened censorship bureau (it was formally known as the Production Code Administration but everyone called it the Breen Code after its head, a notoriously conservative and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic named Joseph Breen). The tighter rules also demanded that the studios make sure their stars never strayed from the (literally) straight and narrow path by forcing them to insert morality clauses into their contracts.

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Tab Hunter hanging in an inner-tube

Throughout Wallace's work, we see male stars being forced to butch up for the camera and marrying for the press. Palm Springs was, for many of them, their only escape.

It was the sexual freedom that was the most popular draw of Palm Springs and some of the adjoining communities, and it still is for many. Privacy, as was noted earlier, was provided by the ubiquitous walls surrounding many of the community’s homes and resorts, yet the place was still close enough to the studios that a star could show up for a movie or television production call in a couple of hours.

So for the publicly homophobic Liberace (who once sued a British newspaper for saying he was gay while at the same time cavorting with bevies of young male beauties behind the walls of a succession of homes) and hundreds of closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual actors, actresses, and their friends, a trek to the desert was the ideal solution to having your fame as well as enjoying it. On at least one occasion in the mid-1950s, Tab Hunter and his then boyfriend, Tony Perkins, hid out together at the Desert Inn, where Hunter was often photographed by the fan magazines, provocatively posed on the diving board or in the pool, to satisfy the fantasy of millions of female teens.

Much of the book also focuses on Rock Hudson and his relationship with George Nader. Here, a very small excerpt that shows that even closeted movie stars can make a family of their own in Palm Springs:

After Hudson and Gates divorced, he was seen in the company of several good-looking young men. One of them was his friend George Nader, who became the life partner of the actor’s secretary, Mark Miller. Nader had a weekend place in Bermuda Dunes, some 25 miles southeast of Palm Springs, and occasionally took Hudson water-skiing at the Salton Sea. So close were Hudson, Nader, and Miller that Hudson’s biographer, Sara Davidson, described the couple as "Rock’s family for most of his adult life."

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