tundNewsweek published this story under the headline of “The Sunny World of Palm Springs” on March 28, 1977. In light of recent events involving President Donald Trump and his 17-day working vacation at his golf club, Newsweek is republishing the story.
The little white golf ball plunked into a cup on the lush greens of the Indian Wells Country Club one recent noon-time. “Nice shot!” shouted retired sportsman Gerald Ford, 63, to his close fiend Fred Wilson a millionaire insurance executive. Then the foursome, which included two other wealthy insurance men from the Midwest, knocked off for char-broiled hamburgers delivered to their golf carts mid-course.
Gerald Ford is only nine weeks removed from the White House, but it might as well be light-years. The lush life of Palm Springs, a blooming oasis in the California desert, is one most Americans would die for. And the ex-president, operating out of a leased $375,000 hill-side home, spends his days lowering his golf score (now in the mid-80s) and finding partners who can match his relentless enthusiasm. “I can’t take it every day,” jokes former ambassador to Belgium Leonard K. Firestone another Ford friend and soon-to-be neighbor.
Palm Spring has been a winter vacation spot for every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the fact that Jerry and Betty Ford have retired there is hardly surprising. While he can commute among the area’s 37 golf courses, she is free to let the hot, dry climate soothe her chronic arthritis. And since the town has long catered to celebrities, the Fords are expected to fit in easily. Nor should they have difficulty finding friends. Their neighbors, like them, are mostly older, conservative, sports-minded—and uniformly successful.
Showplace: What Palm Springs offers its 28,000 people is near-perfect weather, plenty of privacy and a leisurely pace. Only 100 miles east of Los Angeles—15 minutes by chartered Learjet—the desert city grew up around a mineral spring used by the Agua Caliente Indians and flourished in the ’30s when it was discovered by the Hollywood celebrities. Today, the resort is a 20-mile strip of fairways, tennis courts, condominiums and showplace homes sprawling near the San Jacinto Mountains. The chain of affluent communities ranges south through Rancho Mirage, where Ford will live, and Indian Wells, the self-pro-claimed “richest little city in America” (the less fortunate are clustered just southeast of Palm Springs in unzoned Cathedral City, a tacky maze of greasy gas stations and mobile-home lots). A high percentage of the residents are retired or semiretired, having made their fortunes elsewhere. Couples scoot around on bikes or ride horses in the desert; city buses are Equipped with carpeting, stereo music and air conditioning.
Even the urban problems that arise in Palm Springs have a prosperous quality. The recent energy crisis prompted a state order requiring swimming-pool heaters to be turned off to save natural gas. Exempted from the order—on the dubious ground that they are therapeutic—are the popular Jacuzzi whirlpool baths. Palm Springs appealed the whole order on the even more dubious theory that the Jacuzzi therapy requires a dip in a warm pool. The smog that once caused Frank Sinatra to consider moving elsewhere is actually a problem only about ten days a year. Crime consists mostly of hotel and residential burglaries.
Money is the town’s common denominator, but there are some sharp social distinctions. In the background are the quiet industrialists who, in the words of one observer, “make the town go.” They are old money by Palm Springs standards, people like the William Clay Fords, the Howard Huntingtons of the Southern Pacific Railroad fortune, and the Walter Annenbergs, whose wealth comes from publishing. The Annenbergs’ 160-acre estate, “Sunnylands,” is the town’s showcase: it has its own private nine-hole golf course.
Glitter: The second tier is new money businessmen such as James Wither-spoon, who owns 202 Midwestern discount centers, and Joey Hrudka, who at 32 sold his Cleveland auto-parts-manufacturing company for $18 million, moved to Palm Springs and plunked down $3 million for a house. Then there are women like Mrs. Jeanine Levitt, widow of Levit-town co-founder Alfred Levitt. Mrs. Levitt, who once hired her own press agent, is a fixture in the fur-and diamond-wearing dinner-party set.
The show-business crowd accounts for Palm Springs’s glittery reputation. Elvis Presley, Kirk Douglas and Liberace have homes in Palm Springs; William Powell, Howard Hawks and Red Skelton are in residence year-round. Bod Hope was once honorary mayor and Frank Sinatra live in a $1.8 million estate that includes two pools, a plush private screening room and a heliport that local officials no longer let him use. Servicing all three groups—and occasionally socializing with them—are the working rich: men such as dressmaker Beau James, interior designer Steve Chase and Melvyn Haber a Brooklyn emigre who made his first fortune in the auto-novelty business and now runs the hottest restaurant in town—Melvyn’s—frequented by Darryl Zanuck, Willie Shoemaker, Sonny Bono and even Sinatra himself.
Most palm Springers socialize within the limits of their sets; fund-raising for charity is one of the few activities in which there is intermingling. The widely supported Palm Springs Desert Museum reflects the disparate parts of Palm Springs: it boasts an Annenberg Art Wing, a Walt Disney Gallery and a Sinatra Sculpture Court. Social discrimination—mostly along religious lines—is evident at the clubs. The Thunderbird Country Club, where the Fords are building their home, is almost exclusively gentile. The Tamarisk Country Club was founded as an alternative by show-business luminaries like Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers. It remains largely Jewish, but retains a minority membership of non-Jewish celebrities (including Sinatra, Dean Martin and Danny Thomas). Sometimes the discrimination becomes ludicrous. Lucille Ball, for example, lives on the Thunderbird grounds with her husband Gary Morton, who is Jewish. She is eligible for club membership. He has been given to understand that he is not.
Jerry Ford is welcome on all the courses—but he will have more than golf to occupy his time in the coming months. Both he and Betty will keep busy writing their respective memoirs and working on the plans for their new house, which will be ready in January. It is estimated to cost $620,000, and it is described by the architectural firm of Welton Becket Associates as “simple and unpretentious.”
But that’s by Palm Springs standards. The 15-room structure will include an enclosed pool area, semidetached guest quarters and a master bedroom suite consisting of a bedroom, a sitting room, a study, two large dressing rooms and an exercise room for Ford’s fitness program. And it will sit a alongside the thirteen fairway of the Thunderbird golf course—the lure that brought Gerald Ford to Palm Springs in the first place.