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How an Author Grew to Love the Immutable Glory of Palm Springs

The travel journalist behind a lauded new biography of artist Peter Beard shares his personal vision of America's kitsch-laden, modernist mecca.

November 25, 2023 By CHRIS WALLACE
A view of Rose Avenue in Vista Las Palmas. Photo: Chris Wallace

From mid-October through the holidays, the entire Indio valley is a paradise. The desert air is so thin and clear that the four separate mountain ranges surrounding the area are almost alarmingly vivid. Like a cardboard cutout, my dad likes to say. Pops has lived in an apartment in the grand old neighborhood of Vista Las Palmas for about a decade, long enough to bemoan the changes: first a kind of West Coast spring break destination, then a playground for Hollywood folks, and now a nosebleed-expensive resort.

Before he moved there and when I still lived in LA—before there was even an Ace Hotel in Palm Springs—I used to stay at a tiny, four-unit converted apartment complex built around a kidney-shaped pool from which the mountains seemed to shoot straight up, where I could imagine myself in a Slim Aarons photo. At the time, of course, there were martinis and steaks and dancing around the white piano at the classic Rat Pack-y establishment, Melvyn’s. There were long lunches at the Parker hotel, and longer afternoon snoozes by its pool. There were always bagels at Sherman’s and Reubens at Rick’s. All of which are still there, still possible and still great. 

From left: Author Chris Wallace; his father’s car parked outside of Tyler’s Burgers. Photos: Chris Wallace

Since early 2021, when I got a book deal to write a biography of the late photographer Peter Beard, I have been traveling pretty much full time—first, in researching the book, and subsequently writing travel stories for magazines, taking photographs to accompany them, as well as occasionally consulting for fashion and hospitality brands. On the road, I’m almost always alone, pursuing a project, whether commissioned or on spec, but totally unaccompanied and so free to follow my whims wherever they take me. This is me at my best, the best version of myself: open, interested, engaged, alive in a way that I rarely am in another context. There’s nothing I love better in the world. 

When I have, as I did on my birthday recently, tried to take a solo vacation, I’m all out of sorts. Sitting on a chaise longue, no matter where, without someone beside you is just . . . strange. Traveling somewhere beautiful to be with friends or loved ones, that is a special treat. And it was no hardship to visit my dad in Palm Springs. 

Palm Springs as seen from the Museum Trail. Photo: Chris Wallace

Recently though, when I’ve visited Pops we’ve tended to stay home, partly because he is one of the world’s greatest home cooks. We like a drink, too, and pre-Uber that did not lend itself to much moving around. Now, I’m starting to migrate a bit more, driving my dad’s early ’80s Mercedes, past the sort-of-new ruins of Spanish colonial architecture crumbling into the dust, to the gym, to the pot store, to Taco Asado.

Funny: gyms and pot stores, which could be said to be the better part of the California economy, are all—if not exactly awful in their design—eerily uniform. And each for seemingly different reasons. Something about hiding something on one hand (the still illicit-feeling commerce of cannabis), perhaps, and exposing (bodies and brutalist equipment, hygiene?) on another? I can’t figure it out. The aesthetic culture behind these two industries, at any rate—cannabis and fitness—are just so woefully out of date. One note. Monotone. Remember when Adam Kimmel was going to redesign and creative-direct all the world’s WeWorks? When will we have creative directors get involved in gyms? Where is the Parker hotel of pot shops, the Marc Jacobs of gyms? Which, speaking of, a Rick Owens–designed line of fitness equipment would be a sensation. Though I’ll say that I absolutely love the culture of my gym there, which I will not name-check, but has walls covered in vintage bodybuilder posters, and everyone kinda looks like Robin Williams training to be an Avenger in neon spandex . . . and sometimes high heels.

“A perfect home in Vista Las Palmas for a perfect Thunderbird,” says Wallace. Photo: Chris Wallace

On this most recent visit, I went back to my old haunts and found that several seem to be going under the knife (it is Palm Springs!). The old Elvis honeymoon house in Las Palmas, for one. Maybe it’ll end up great—better than before. The hike up to Tahquitz Falls by the Skyview sign, though, is still perfect in every way. As is the Museum Trail, through the legs of the giant Marilyn Monroe statue, and out the back of the parking lot. 

“The Museum Trail is always so much steeper than I remember,” says Wallace. “The views, though, are so special.” Photo: Chris Wallace

One of my favorite excursions was out to meet a couple of friends, both producers, in their fabulous postwar architectural home, to talk about the potential for a movie of my recent biography of Peter Beard. I have to think they are humoring me. So on the drive home I rewarded myself with one of my favorite hamburgers—which for some reason I think of as a California cuisine—at Tyler’s Burgers, in the former bus station–turned-marketplace that seems to have a whole new lease on life. The Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza across the street, dedicated to the native people of the valley, was set to open a week later. A few other favorites are the Albert Frey house (which is now a museum), and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens (giraffes! In Rancho Mirage!). I have always loved Korakia Pensione to stay (and would love to stay at The Colony). I love the Moroccan rugs at Soukie Modern, and the natural wine shop called hyphen. 

The author finds the architecture and landscaping in Vista Las Palmas, a neighborhood in Palm Springs to be utterly unique. Photo: Chris Wallace

Maybe I, too, have become one of those fuddy-duddies moaning about the changes to things I love while yearning for changes in parts of them at the same time. My pops once wrote a book about the gay history of Palm Springs called “A City Comes Out,” and it’s a fun, sassy read. But maybe the best part about it, especially the parts pertaining to the city—and about nonfiction books in general—is that we can find in them, everywhere evident, the history that is still alive with us. Even if they’re cardboard cutouts.

Chris Wallace is a writer and photographer based in New York, and the author of  “Twentieth-Century Man: The Wild Life of Peter Beard” (Ecco). He was previously the U.S. Editor of Mr. Porter, and the Executive Editor of Interview.

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