La Quinta Resort: A Retreat Worthy of Celebrities

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The La Quinta Resort & Spa was, and still is, a retreat for Hollywood celebrities. Greta Garbo was married on the grounds, Frank Capra lived there, and golfer Arnold Palmer and ice skater Dorothy Hamill still frequent the resort.

Photography by the authors

We are making our fourth visit to the La Quinta Resort in the Greater Palm Springs area, but this stay is the first time we’ve had the luxury of taking the historical tour with Thomas Soule, the resort’s marketing coordinator.

The original gate of the resort now hangs above the fireplace in the lobby. The huge ficus that towers above a side door was originally a house plant in the lobby until someone thought it wise to relocate it outside. “It has grown with the resort,” says Souole.

The La Quinta Resort & Spa (now a member of the Waldorf Astoria group) wants us to know it has 535 fireplaces, 53 hot tubs, 41 pools, 23 tennis courts, 7 restaurants, and 5 golf courses. Plus, the resort is “a place with a history of famous guests—and of treating guests famously.”

La Quinta really has 41 pools so most rooms have one by their front door. Go online to see the variety of rooms. Book early in winter but there’s less rush and better prices in low season (summer)

The resort is named either because it was the fifth stop in the mission trail from Mexico up the coast of California or because the original developer Walter H. Morgan based it on the Spanish for “a country retreat” after he’d enjoyed a stay in one as a guest of a wealthy friend in Mexico.

At the restaurant TWENTY6 you can order Eggs Benedict from the menu and read a historical reference to how, in 1894, Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street broker with a hangover, “invented” (helped by the Waldorf chef) the egg dish that still carries his name.

Morgan bought 1,400 acres from the local Cahuilla Indians and opened his retreat at the end of 1926 (hence the name of one of his 3 restaurants: TWENTY6). The resort soon dominated the area and as the city grew, it took its name from the hotel. Only one other city in California has been so named after its hotel: The Beverly Hills.

One floor above TWENTY6 sits La Quinta’s Mexican restaurant, the Adobe Grill, with a lot of happy, helpful people.

The La Quinta resort opened the first golf course in the valley with a fee for a round of golf of $1! The Robb Report, the upscale magazine for those with expensive tastes, has called La Quinta “America’s ultimate golfing destination.”

La Quinta developer Walter H. Morgan built this house for himself and his family. Ginger Rogers was married under this shade tree. Dorothy Arzner gave up 2 years of premed studies to become Paramount’s famous first woman director. (Her autograph photographed on a poster at the La Quinta Museum, courtesy of the museum.) One of the resort’s patios where Hollywood guests gathered hoping to chat and, unless they wanted privacy, to be celebrated.

Morgan publicized his resort as a retreat for Hollywood celebrities and, oddly enough, the Great Depression made those luminaries even more legendary because the overwhelmed public sought escape in the movies during those hard times.

Hollywood surely came—more for the privacy than the narcissistic “to see and be seen.” Ginger Rogers married French actor Jacques Bergerac by a landscaped fountain under a shade tree in 1953.

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) gave up premed after 2 years at the University of Southern California to become “the only woman director during the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system.” The first woman to direct a Paramount studios talkie movie, she later explained: “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball and threw it right out the window.” She later taught film at the University of California, Los Angeles, where Francis Ford Coppola was one of her students.

The cottage Greta Garbo occupied for a long time is left as a tourist attraction. Across her courtyard is her kitchen, which is open to the public for visitors who want to imagine her making Swedish meatballs.

Greta Garbo came here with her costar John Gilbert, the man she “left standing at the altar in 1927, when she got cold feet about marrying him.” Garbo lived here in La Casa, one of her homes for 26 years.

Frank Capra’s cottage and his Royal typewriter

A 2-minute walk from Garbo’s home is the cottage that finally became the home for screenwriter and director Frank Capra. Nominated 6 times for Academy Awards and winning 3 within 5 years for best director, Capra’s film It Happened One Night was the first to win all 5 top Oscars—best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay, and best movie in 1934.

Although the public, with its cynicism after World War II, lost interest in his films there is now a nostalgia for Capra whose life as a poor Italian immigrant to a celebrated Hollywood director reads like a movie of the American Dream. John Cassavetes, referring to Capra’s feel-good patriotic films, once said “Maybe there really wasn't an America, it was only Frank Capra.”

The first page and last of a favorite Michael Anderson movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

The cottages around Capra’s were built to be blessed twice: once by being named after Catholic saints and again by having the woodwork painted blue so the native Cahuilla Indians would see the respect for their religion.

“The blue kept the evil spirits away,” Soule explains.

Capra’s cottage, Number 136 San Anselmo, can be booked for a stay and would-be screenwriters can sit in front of Capra’s Royal typewriter, pick up the original copy of the screenplay It’s A Wonderful Life and dream the impossible.

Not much has otherwise changed at La Quinta’s front door. As in all upscale resorts a spa has been added.

The city is still popular with celebrities like Ice skater Dorothy Hamill and late media mogul Merv Griffin, golfers Arnold Palmer and Fred Couples, singers Jack Jones and, until recently, Captain and Tennille.

Shield’s Date Farm has been a fixture in La Quinta since 1924. It has a simple café that serves up a great lunch. The farm at the tourist shop location is really a 17-acre area that, in October 2013, accepted 23 statues from a biblical garden in Canada “that chronologized Jesus Christ’s life.” Tourists of other religions may feel it’s a bit too much in their face.

As we leave the resort we realize, with almost insufferable hedonistic pleasure, that the next time we come to La Quinta resort it truly will be our own quinta visit!

John Reynolds, an Anderson relative, stands proudly by Chapelli’s, his Italian restaurant that has pleased customers for 14 years. He is relaxed because he doesn’t open until 5 p.m. At the La Quinta Museum, Carlyn Cummings, a “museum page.” stands beside a Clara Bow poster that, bottom right on the poster, shows the autograph of director Arzner. Mural 32 feet long by Andre Blanche. Diorama of a Cahuilla village created in 1962 by C. N. Peters.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.