Welcome to the Purple Room, where Frank Sinatra used to host at the front, and got beat up in the back!” announces compere and singer Michael Holmes by way of greeting to the 130-strong audience at the fabled supperclub in downtown Palm Springs, where Frank himself, alongside Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and more, once crooned, drank and danced. Stories of their behaviour are legion – and legendary.
Holmes joins me at the bar, where I’ve come to soak up the atmosphere as part of an unofficial tour of all things Sinatra, in honour of what would have been his centenary, and launches straight into a stream of gossip. “There,” he enthuses, “is where Frank proposed to his fourth wife, Barbara. Everybody cheered when she said yes! And once, he was attacked in the bathroom after he hit on another guy’s girl – he got his bodyguard to sort the guy out, though.” Hopefully the two incidents didn’t occur on the same night – but with Sinatra, you never know.
He sounds – to put it mildly – like a right character, and tall tales and anecdotes about his activities abound in the small, charming desert town in the Coachella Valley (population: 45,000), and which he made a second home from his base in LA for around ten years, from 1947. A two-hour drive from the urban sprawl, it proved a relaxing escape for Frank and his celebrity friends – from Dean Martin to Marilyn Monroe.
You can see the outside of the Twin Palms Estate, the elegant, mid-century modern home he had built as part of a Rich and Famous tour, operated by star-spotter Ken Huskey ($40/£26, www.thebestofthebesttours.com), or, if you’ve got a spare $150/£98, you can be shown around inside the 4,500 square feet, four-bedroom, seven-bathroom property, complete with piano-shaped swimming pool in the yard as part of an architecture tour (www.themoderntour.com). The story goes that during one particularly vicious argument with second wife Ava Gardner, he hurled a champagne bottle at her head; and one of the bathroom sinks still bears the chip from where it landed.
Clearly, Frank had a bit of a temper, which is underscored by an account of an evening he spent in one of his favourite hangouts, Melvyn’s Restaurant. White-haired, seventy-something owner and raconteur Melvyn Haber, a proper Palm Springs personality who props up the bar he’s had for four decades almost nightly to chat to his clientele, tells me of the time Frank got fed up waiting for a barman to mix his drink, and petulantly threw it against the wall when it finally came. “He tipped the guy $100, though!” laughs Melvyn.
Frank also liked to play pranks, evidently – again – thinking that a hefty tip would solve any problem. I head to Johnny Costa’s, another Palm Springs institution, owned and run by the man who used to be the singer’s personal chef. His son, Vince, tells of the evening his father was in the kitchen, and saw a waiter head out laden with plates of food, only to hear a crash shortly afterwards. “Frank had stuck his foot out and tripped him up! Once the waiter saw who it was, he couldn’t stay angry, and he got a huge tip out of it.” I stay for dinner, and wolf down a delicious plate of clam linguine, Frank’s favourite dish, in the buzzing, lively atmosphere. No waiters are harmed during my meal.
Beyond Sinatra-stalking, there is much else to do out in the desert.
Hitch a ride on the Aerial Tramway (www.pstramway.com), a revolving cable car that lifts you up the San Jacinto mountain to more than 8,500ft above sea level, offering stunning views over the town and surrounding plains. See the scenery from ground level with a dusty hack through Indian Canyon on horseback (www.smoketreestables.com) or spot desert flora and fauna, from wildcats to giraffes, at The Living Desert zoo and gardens (www.livingdesert.org).
Or you could always visit Francis Albert Sinatra himself. Born in New Jersey on 12 December 1915, he died on May 14, 1998. He’s buried not far from Palm Springs, in Cathedral City, laid to rest with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his pocket. His gravestone reads: “The Best is Yet to Come”. He’s probably pranking people in heaven now. Happy birthday, Ol’ Blue Eyes.