Searching For Sinatra In Palm Springs

Frank Sinatra still seems to be everywhere in Greater Palm Springs, from the airwaves to the streets, although he died almost 25 years ago. In June I came to search for his grave in nearby Cathedral City, in a trip to the desert just before local businesses went on summer hiatus.

Musically and stylistically, it can seem it is still Frank Sinatra’s world, and we are just living in it. It’s hard to walk through an upscale hotel, airline club, bar or mall today without hearing his music.

A Sirius channel (moderated by daughter Nancy) is devoted to the man in the hat. Spotify has two Sinatra channels. May 13th was designated Frank Sinatra Day by the US Congress. And a fight between Sinatra and GODFATHER author Mario Puzo (Sinatra felt the book insulted Italians) inspired the recent Paramount+ series The Offer, about the making of the GODFATHER film.

A journey to Greater Palm Springs (Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella) can seem a nostalgic trip back to mid-20th Century America. The low-slung mid-century modern homes stand out in the bright sunlight. So do names on the streets and hospitals like Bob Hope, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Frank Sinatra Drive. Photos of Sinatra and other luminaries of the time can also be seen at the magnificent Annenberg estate, Sunnylands.

Sinatra was not native to Palm Springs, although he 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 he became 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 Digest recently featured his former Palm Desert estate Villa Maggio, named for his Oscar-winning FROM HERE TO ETERNITY character. It listed for $4.25 million.

To get close to the spirit of Sinatra, you can rent the singer’s original Palm Springs home, built in 1947. Rentals of The Sinatra House (for up to eight people) start at $2500 per week.

Sinatra originally lived there with wife Nancy. After his divorce, he and second wife Ava Gardner called it home. The house has a piano-shaped pool, and a crack in a bathroom sink from a champagne bottle Sinatra threw at Gardner. Known for his fiery temper, Sinatra called himself an “18karat manic depressive.” That tirade ended with him throwing her possessions on the driveway as he kicked Gardner and friend Lana Turner out.

When I drove to look for Sinatra’s grave, I expected heavy security, befitting someone supposedly “connected.” But Desert Memorial was quiet, green and empty. The cemetery has true Palm Springs visiting hours. It is only open from 7 am to 12 noon, closed for the broiling afternoons.

Considering his fame and wealth, Sinatra’s final resting place is not particularly imposing. There is no impressive mausoleum or heroic statue like rockstar Johnny Ramone built himself at Hollywood Forever. Instead, Sinatra’s headstone is a simple flat plaque, 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 which one it was, with dimes, pennies, and other change were scattered on the plaque. 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. Trying to call the kidnappers from a designated pay phone, the senior Sinatra ran out of dimes. A dramatized version of how Sinatra’s banker opened a bank vault for the singer and handed him a briefcase full of cash for the ransom, defying the FBI, is here.

After the kidnapping, Sinatra vowed he would always have change for a phone call. He was buried with a roll of dimes. He was also reportedly laid to rest with cherry-flavored Life Savers, Tootsie Rolls, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, and stuffed toys and a dog biscuit.

Frank’s original headstone, seen in many photographs, read “The Best Is Yet To Come/Francis Albert Sinatra/Beloved Husband & Father.” Sometime in 2020, that headstone disappeared and was replaced with another for Francis Albert Sinatra, Sleep Warm Papa.

The headstone switch 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 approved “The Best Is Yet To Come.”

But in a controversy unearthed (not literally) by Palm Springs Life, after Barbara Sinatra’s death in 2017, a new headstone was surreptitiously installed. Although it’s not clear who authorized it, the legend “Sleep Warm, Poppa” may point to Sinatra’s surviving daughters, Nancy and Tina.

Several Sinatra Palm Springs haunts are still in business, like Melvyn’s Restaurant & Lounge. Sinatra, an outrageous tipper, was known there for handing waiters $100 bills to ensure that his friends drinks were always topped off.

Sinatra called alcohol “gasoline” and it famously 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 is “Rat Pack” pals like Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.

The Rat Pack would also convene and occasionally perform at The Purple Room in Palm Spring, a bar and club. Still offering live performances, the club immortalizes Sinatra and Davis with giant pictures. 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 the great thrift stores in town, last stop for the possessions of the Greatest Generation. My wife got a pink sparkling evening dress. I found an original Aquascutum jacket.

Put some pennies on Sinatra’s grave or find an air-conditioned restaurant to raise a glass to his memory. Cruise the palm-lined streets and look at the mountains in the clear desert air, as Sinatra sings “Come Fly With Me.”

It’s easy to imagine you’re back in the jaunty days of the 1950’s. Just don’t close your eyes.

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