December 12, 2004
Palm Springs, Calif., possesses a slightly tarnished glory, last polished to full luster back in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was a glamorous desert escape for Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood.
In fact, the town defines itself by it: Major streets are named after visitors turned-locals Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore, and there’s even a Lawrence Welk Desert Oasis family vacation resort in neighboring Cathedral City.
So it’s not difficult to find the metaphor in the promotional materials for the Parker Palm Springs, the 131-room Meridien resort that used to be Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and the Merv Griffin Givenchy Resort & Spa but was recently renovated into a concept hotel by New York-based designer Jonathan Adler:
"Imagine, if you will, that you are about to spend the weekend at your great-aunt’s. She is an extremely elegant lady of somewhat indeterminate age. She is beautiful both in spite of, and because of, the fact that she has avoided Botox and face lifts. You can tell that in her day she was a stunner. . . . She is fun, but not in an in-your-face way. At first, some of your friends don’t really appreciate her and cannot make sense of her contrasts, but after a while her charms come through to everyone."
So, you see, the Parker is not posited as a hotel; no, you’re staying at your aunt’s estate. The Parker takes this J. Peterman-esque conceit and runs with it. Guests don’t check in at the front desk — in fact, there IS no front desk, since who would demand relatives sign a ledger?
Because my own aunts are partial to drinking cans of beer in the living room, not glasses of pastis on a pétanque court, I have decided to spend a weekend with my newfound Aunt Parker and see how she compares. I can already see her falling in love with me and writing me into her will. . . .
But first I have to clean up my car. I can’t imagine pulling up to my aunt’s estate with CDs scattered on the passenger seat and a Biggie-size soda cup and Wendy’s fries spilling out of a bag in the back. That would make a bad first impression, indeed.
It turns out I make a bad first impression anyway: By bypassing the porte-cochere and parking the car myself, I already have violated procedure. The whole Parker experience is designed to begin at valet parking, where slender young bellmen in black turtlenecks and salmon-colored pants unload the luggage and eager young women usher you into the lobby. (I suspect the women are eager because they are spared the salmon pants and instead wear white, a Palm Springs year-round staple.) They disappear into the ether — because there is no front desk — and return with paperwork and room keys, then escort you to your room.
Since I amble up on foot, the valets pay me no attention beyond perfunctory greetings, leaving me to walk into the lobby and up to the first big counter I see, where one man and one woman in pink jackets are waiting to be of help to someone, and declare as such as I walk up.
"I’m here to check in," I announce brightly.
"Oh," she says, voice falling. "We don’t do that here." The concierge, as it turns out, leads me back to the front door and tells me to wait until someone meets me with my paperwork.
In the interim, I examine two suits of armor and a 25-foot chandelier made entirely of what appear to be oversize wavy Lucite chain links. My aunt has eclectic taste. The lobby lounge in back of the building has a fire pit, woven bamboo chairs hanging from the ceiling and modular couches. It reminds me of a Shag painting, and I want to move in immediately.
My room is decorated in the same style: A king-size bed with white geometric canopystyle frame; a wicker settee with leopard-print benchpad; a low red armchair and puffy cognac leatherish footstool; a brunch-size table with two leather armchairs; five lamps; and two dressers side by side. The top right drawer of one dresser is pulled out a little bit, which I investigate eagerly, hoping to find a lagniappe of some sort; instead, it turns out the drawer just stubbornly slides out to that point of its own accord. I pretend it is haunted by the ghost of my aunt’s first husband, the Commodore, who, according to the hotel Web site, died in an accident aboard his schooner.
When I open the plantation shutters, I see the window is framed in bougainvillea and my view is . . . the Canyon Sands condominium complex across the street. When I open the windows, I can hear two neighborhood dogs perform an incessant canine version of "Dueling Banjos." I wonder if my aunt is the sort of woman who would raise hell with her neighbors if I called the front desk. Oh, that’s right: There isn’t one. I turn on the TV instead to mask the noise and perform a more thorough inspection of the room.
The two photographic prints in my room are of women with helmet hair. One of them is younger, drinking a glass of riesling. The goblet obscures most of her face, but her eyes are fixed on the camera. The second woman is older but still impeccably turned out, with the same windproof hairstyle. She looks like Lady Bird Johnson, if Lady Bird had stolen Jackie O’s giant sunglasses. I decide these are snapshots of Aunt Parker — first as a young woman, then entering middle age — and then promptly begin hiding all my stuff in the closet so as not to interfere with the decor of the room.
I don’t even put my toiletries on the bathroom counter, lest they distract from the impressive display of amenities: Soaps by Hermès and L’Occitane; sunblock by Peter Thomas Roth; Penhaligon Quercus shampoo and conditioner; and Molton Brown bath and shower gel. The QTips and Blistex also on the tray look like poor relations out of place at a family reunion. The counter is tiled with 3 /4-inch marble, just like the walls and bath and floor. There are six bath towels — SIX! — rolled just so and placed on the seat of a ladderback chair that I covet. The tallest part of the commode — at Aunt Parker’s, I imagine they call it a "commode" — doesn’t even come up to my knees. I am entranced by the bowl itself and flush for no good reason than to examine how the design works. Then I feel bad for wasting water in the desert and distract myself by opening and smelling the amenities.
I tour the grounds by wandering along the gravel walkways, past the pétanque and croquet lawns, three pools, the fire pit . . . and past several villas, which I can tell are much larger than my own room and have private courtyards. Each wooden door is labeled with a name: Ian, Lola, Jake and what I assume are the twins, Joey and Zoe. I can’t help but feel like the less popular nephew — like the Blistex in the land of L’Occitane — and every time I walk by the villas, I feel myself becoming sullen and resentful. Stupid Lola. Stupid Jake. Stupid twins.
As the Petulant Nephew, I decide I don’t want to eat at Norma’s, the on-site diner/ restaurant that serves breakfast all day (and other dishes, as well, for lunch and dinner), and instead disappear for a Saturday night on the town. (Another more upper-end restaurant, Mister Parker’s, is open Tuesday through Saturday only.) When I return well after 1 a.m., the temperature has dropped into the high 40s and a valet stands shivering in the wind and rain (which won’t let up until the day I leave, turning the croquet lawn into a wading pool and rendering several of the gravel walkways impassable).
When I enter my room, it’s evident the maids have performed turndown service: The Frette bedspread is gone, and sumptuous flokati rugs have materialized on each side of the bed, so that bare feet don’t have to spend too much time on the sisal carpet. My bed has a down comforter and a featherbed underneath, so I know I’ll sleep warmly even with the bedroom windows open.
One of windows is missing a screen, so while I brush my teeth with (ahem!) nonamenity toothpaste, I think about the Alfred Hitchcock movie "To Catch a Thief" and try to imagine the poor burglar who picks my room, only to discover the most expensive item I brought is a $45 pair of tennis shoes. He, too, would notice the top right drawer is slightly ajar and naturally be drawn to it, I decide, which is precisely why I don’t put my wallet there. I fall asleep thinking that maybe he could be happy with one of the lamps. . . .
The next morning I take a yoga class at the Palm Springs Yacht Club, the resort spa ostensibly named after the dearly departed commodore. Since I’m the only person who signed up, Elsa, a spry grayhaired woman, leads me in a private class in a small room apparently designed for massage or facials — the bed has been pushed against one wall. We begin with some qi gong and other movements designed to start energy flowing. Elsa also gives posture tips.
"There’s a reason that figures on an anatomical chart are always seen with their wrists pointing forward," Elsa declares. "Do you know what it is?" My guess: So viewers can see the veins and arteries. No, she answers, it’s because standing with the wrists turned slightly forward, instead of inward, opens up the shoulders. (At random points during the weekend, I will suddenly remember this advice and reorient my hands accordingly, even though it makes me feel like I’m imitating a portrait of a benevolent Christ.)
Elsa’s delivery is a little hypnotic, especially at the end of the class when I’m flat on my back and she’s saying, "It’s very exhausting to try to live in the past and the future at the same time, yes? We cannot do it — we can only live in the now. Your past is what brings you to the now, and what you do now-now-now is what takes you to the future." I suspect Tony Robbins is in disguise as a very flexible and affable Northern European woman, and while I consider this possibility I miss part of her sentence that includes the phrase "I had the pleasure of working with Miss Lauren Bacall." It was either for a week and a half recently, or a week and a half ago. "She was delightful," Elsa/Tony says. I wonder if the actress is now walking around with her wrists turned slightly forward, too.
After such exertion, my now-now-now involves paying an additional $4 to partake of the spa itself, which is divided into separate, clothingoptional sides for men and women. I am one of only two men on my side (not counting the attendant), which pretty much gives me free rein when it comes to the steam room, the sauna and the bodytemperature indoor swimming pool. The white terrycloth robe in my locker is amazing — proportioned to fit a grown man, with the cowl built into the lapel — and I silently chastise myself for not having used the exact duplicate hanging on a hook in my marble bathroom. Since the amenities in the men’s showers aren’t the same caliber as the ones in my room, I return and shower there. Between the flushing and the long showers, I will drain this desert dry, I think. It’s a good thing it’s still raining outside.
It’s then I realize how pervasive Adler’s designs are in the room: It starts with the tag on the shower curtain ("Happy Home by Jonathan Adler") and continues with the ceramic soap tray, tissue holder and wastebasket, and then the sunburst-style mirror hanging from a hook on the bathroom’s side wall. Soon I’m looking at the undersides of everything in the room and finding Adler’s stamp on it: The resin side table next to the armchair, the horse lamp, even the wool felt wall hanging that looks like a Zuni fetish version of the Partridge Family logo. I’m pretty sure that if I could upturn the canopy bed frame to find a tag, it’d have his name on it, too. My aunt of indeterminate age is actually a young man? I have visions of Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" — "Aunt Parker, what have you done?" — and decide to cut back on the length of tomorrow’s shower, just in case.
After the brief foray into label-whoredom, I check out the publications on the side table, apparently my nongender-specific aunt’s recommended reading. I try browsing a 1980 reproduction of "Thonet Bentwood & Other Furniture," a 1904 illustrated catalog written in German, but phrases like "Halbfauteuil nennen wir einen kleinen Fauteiuil" scare me directly into the Sotheby’s art and jewelry sales catalogs and — hello! — book club editions of novels like "Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth and "Once is Not Enough" by Jacqueline Susann.
I settle for "Scruples" by Judith Krantz, the story of a young woman who earns her megamillions the oldfashioned way — by sleeping with a rich 60-year-old man and living off the interest income after he dies of a stroke. It feels very decadent — indeed, very "Scruples" — to be reading while nestled under the goosedown in a 550-square-foot bedroom, until I realize that in the first chapters of the book the author has denigrated gays, Jews and badly dressed Palm Springs women — three groups that, when taken en masse, pretty much make up the population of Palm Springs. It saddens me that apparently Aunt Parker is bigoted — and kind of snobby. I close the book before anyone starts in on blacks or the disabled and I have to take my aunt’s pictures off the wall.
As I’m packing my things the next morning, the only thing I cart home from the luxe bathroom amenities is the lowly Blistex: I’ve been so keen on lavishing myself with the Molton Brown that there’s hardly any left, and everything else would look ludicrous next to my real sink.
I find the bill slipped under the door. Since everything is charged to the room on a credit card, there’s no need to check out — I will just leave the key cards in the room . . . if only I could figure out how my bags get to my car from here. Is there such a thing as a return-trip bellman? In less than 48 hours, the concept of carrying my own luggage apparently became unimaginable.
I manage to survive the walk back to the lobby and hand the valet my parking stub; he helps stow the bags in the trunk, then helpfully points out there’s a free chilled bottle of water for the trip home. He doesn’t point out the crisp, beribboned envelope I find on the passenger seat. It even has my name on it — ah, I think, Aunt Parker is wishing me a fond farewell. How sweet!
Not quite: It’s another copy of the bill, apparently just in case I racked up some charges in the walk from my hotel room and the car. And then I realize that it wouldn’t matter if my car was dirty or I came home late: Try as she may, my aunt can’t hide the fact she’s a businesswoman at heart.
In fact, as long as my money’s good, I bet I could even stay in Jake’s room next time.