Get your Palm Springs culture fix by staying at The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn.
By Joseph Elliott
“There, where the mighty San Jacinto extended a mammoth finger outwards towards the natural hot springs that gave Palm Springs its name, was a place of entrancing beauty and charm,” begins Einstein Dreamt Here by Steve Vaught and Tracy Conrad. The spot, where desert willows grew, was “in pleasing contrast to the stark granite mountainside rising almost perpendicularly behind them [and]a haven in what could be an otherwise inhospitable wasteland.”
That spot has been even more of a haven since William and Nella Wilde Meade completed the Willows, subject of the new book, in 1925. It enjoyed a heyday when it was owned by attorney Samuel Untermyer and guests included Albert Einstein and silent-screen giant Marion Davies.
Guests at The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn, co-owned by Conrad since 1996, now run more to the likes of Cameron Diaz, Jessica Simpson and Jared Leto. But more important to lovers of the arts, there may be no better situated property in all of Palm Springs.
The Palm Springs Art Museum and its Annenberg Theater are on the same block; the museum’s Architecture and Design Center is minutes away on Palm Canyon Drive.
The Willlows predates the area’s midcentury marvels, offering Mediterranean-style terraces, balconies, mahogany woodwork, beamed ceilings, hand-forged ironwork, Spanish tiles, murals and a red-tile roof.
Rock steps wend up a hillside whose centerpiece is a 50-foot waterfall just outside the dining room, where Willows guests enjoy a three-course breakfast beneath a hand-painted ceiling that itself is nothing short of spectacular.
That hillside is the setting for a memorable anecdote in Einstein Dreamt Here. The physicist apparently spent a great deal of time in the hillside garden, soaking in “both the sun and the stunning
“Einstein created a sensation when he went ‘native’—taking off his shirt, a tad shocking at the time, to sun-bathe,” recounts the book. “But true to form, the scientist took it to its ultimate and logical conclusion.
“Showing up unexpectedly to get an ‘exclusive,’ Eleanor ‘Cissy’ Patterson, editor in chief of the Washington Herald, got one: She found Einstein completely naked on the rocky hillside. ‘Up I went in the blazing sun, round a big rock,’ she recounted. ‘I looked up—and bang! There was Einstein.’ She backed down the hillside.”
At the top of the steps is the O’Donnell house, aka Ojo del Desierto, featured in Diane Keaton’s California Romantica and the highest house in Palm Springs for 40 years. It’s the Willows’ special-events venue.
At Palm Springs Art Museum through Dec. 13 is the killer exhibition Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe, presenting some 110 contemporary high heels by the world’s iconic designers and 50 historical designs such as 19th-century Chinese slippers for bound feet.
The series Broadway’s Best—In the West! begins Nov. 14 in the Annenberg Theater.
The Architecture and Design Center is in a former bank building that is itself an example of Desert Modernism. Opening Oct. 10 in its Trina Turk Gallery is Seeing the Light: Illuminating Objects, with works by artists such as Frank Gehry, Beatrice Wood, Robert Wilson and Dale Chihuly.
One of the most accessible desert hikes—and not too grueling, at 2 miles round-trip—starts right at the museum parking lot: the Palm Springs Museum Trail. Carefully follow the white dots on the boulders.
Closest of all to the Willows—just opposite the driveway—is one of Palm Spring’s most venerated restaurants: Le Vallauris. Enjoy Cal-Med-French favorites —escargot, duck foie gras, veal sweetbreads, lobster ravioli, rack of lamb—inside or on the gorgeous patio.
Too far? Le Vallauris also handles the Willows’ room service.