My weekend with Marilyn…in Palm Springs

Driving in Palm Springs

Coming from Australia, there are many aspects of American culture I feel at home with. But one thing that’s hard to make a comparison with is the overall urban environment. Take Palm Springs: a charming and unusual town I visited because of the mind-blowing TEDActive conference I blogged about last week. It’s a desert city with a bit of high-end glamour to it. When I was driving down a street called El Paseo in Palm Desert, I must have passed at least twenty antique stores as well as designer boutiques. Although I’d read about it in guidebooks, after spending a sunny Saturday afternoon there, I came away both mystified and entranced because we don’t have anything remotely like Palm Springs here.

Mischief Cards & Gifts in Palm Springs

One of the first things I saw when I got into town after a short drive from the airport in my hire car was a store called ‘Mischief cards & gifts’. There was a big rainbow flag hanging off the door. Okay, so this was a rainbow flag-waving gay-friendly sort of town. Got it.

A few hours later I popped into a wonderful store down the other end of town called Just Fabulous, which I spent a happy half hour browsing in, wishing I didn’t have so much luggage so I could buy one of the cool designer clocks. Going through their cards for sale, I was kicking myself that I hadn’t thought to find a ‘Groom & Groom’ card for friends who had recently married and had opted for a generic ‘Congratulations!’ card instead. Looking at all the stuff in the store and encountering the staff and other customers, it finally hit me: this wasn’t just any old gay town, this was a gay baby boomer town! For the rest of the afternoon in Palm Springs I started to see gay men, baby boomers and retirees everywhere.

Palm Springs was a short plane ride from San Francisco, and a scenic plane journey. In the bright sunlight I looked out the window and was mesmerised by the undulating rocky landscapes, the likes of which I’d never seen before.

My original plan that Saturday was to check out Joshua Tree National Park before hunkering down at the resort in La Quinta for the TEDActive conference. But I started to feel that it was going to be a huge rush. I’ve travelled enough to know that it’s far better to go with what you’re feeling rather than be too prescriptive, because then you’re in the right headspace to enjoy. There’s always the fear-of-missing-out feeling to contend with, but if you haven’t been before, you don’t really know what you’re missing out on anyway.

Psychic Fair at Crystal Fantasy in Palm Springs

So I stuck with Palm Springs, and I’m so glad I went with what I was feeling that day because I had a luxurious afternoon by myself in town, wandering around, hoeing into an excellent burger at famous local joint Tyler’s Burgers and even getting a tarot card reading at a local psychic fair for fun. It was warm in the afternoon sun, so I strolled through to the far end of town, checking out local artwork at different places along the main strip before eventually ending up where all the black people were congregating – but I’ll get to that in my next post.

The banners proclaimed it was Modernist Week, and I somehow ended up missing a lot of the Modernist architecture of the town. Too bad I hadn’t done my research, because it would have been interesting to see one or two examples up close. At any rate, there was one thing in town that was impossible for me to miss, and it was apropos of nothing: a huge statue of Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe in Palm Springs

Another difference with Australia: we mostly have large statues of silly things like bananas, prawns, gumboots, pineapples –  we’re wary of giving our people the over-sized honour. I wondered whether this statue of Marilyn was more than just a kitsch tourist attraction – Palm Springs’ old Hollywood connection or was there more to it?

It turns out that Marilyn was discovered in Palm Springs, so there actually was a local connection. However, the statue will only be there until June 2013 so it’s a temporary fixture.

I might have left the statue of the blonde goddess at that and thought nothing more of it, but the other day I learned something from The Atlantic that made me reconsider it. When I was at LAX on the way home, I picked up a copy of The Atlantic magazine. It’s a great publication, like so many of other magazines in America, and I’m in love with the long-form journalism you find within.

On the bus to work the other morning I read an article about Marilyn Monroe in The Atlantic called ‘Inventing Marilyn‘ and it was a revelation. I knew nothing of the Marilyn Myth, let alone what she represented, and only had the vaguest notion that ‘Candle in the wind’ by Elton John had played a pivotal role in constructing her status as an icon. There was a particular passage in the article I loved, because for me it also had a resonance with Palm Springs – an invented place with hot days and cold nights – and America – an invented country. Of course, all countries are invented, but America is particularly good at mythologising its villians and heroes, and creating vibrant, rainbow-coloured cities in the desert.

[The song] celebrates the aching ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

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