The Coachella Valley’s association with celebrities began in the early 20th century, when noted writers, artists and photographers began to settle in the fledgling town of Palm Springs—and formed what became an informal artists’ colony.
Some these luminaries came to the desert to improve their health, hoping the dry air would be beneficial for various respiratory ailments. Many of them, through various media, went on to extol the merits and health advantages of Palm Springs, thus giving worldwide fame to the village of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.
Most of these early California literary greats knew each other beyond Palm Springs. Author George Wharton James hired the first resident artist of Palm Springs, Carl Eytel, to illustrate his book The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (1906). The book has more than 300 of Eytel’s sketches.
James, originally from England, was also a friend of Palm Springs neighbor and fellow countryman J. Smeaton Chase, author of California Desert Trails (1916). James also corresponded with noted author Jack London, California historian/journalist Charles Lummis, and famed naturalist John Muir.
The ubiquitous artist Carl Eytel, originally from Germany, often journeyed into the desert with Edmund C. Jaeger, an author considered the dean of American desert naturalists. Jaeger (1887-1983) published numerous books about desert flora and fauna from 1919 until 1977. Eytel also illustrated Jaeger’s first book.
Others in the colony included top cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton, who worked for publisher William Randolph Hearst before Swinnerton contracted tuberculosis; and famed desert artist John W. Hilton, whose work was featured in more than 100 national shows. Swinnerton and Hilton (whose biography was titled The Man Who Captured Sunshine) often went on desert sketching trips together.
The colony also included photographers, including Stephen H. Willard, considered the finest scenic photographer of the era; Fred Payne Clatworthy, who took the first color photographs for National Geographic magazine; and Edward S. Curtis, whose photos of the American Indians earned the praise of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Perhaps the most internationally famous artist to call Palm Springs home during that period was Gordon Coutts (1868-1937). Coutts was a Scotsman, born in Aberdeen. He studied art in Glasgow, London and Paris, and became best known for Moroccan figures, desert scenes and nudes.
He lived in Sydney, Australia, for several years, where he was a painting instructor at the Government Art School. He was highly regarded in Australia, where he often painted portraits of celebrities; many of his finest works hang in Melbourne and Sydney museums. Some found their way into important American collections. He was a friend of Winston Churchill, and painted a portrait of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
The flamboyant red-headed artist traveled the world, leaving his strict Presbyterian home at an early age, because his parents wouldn’t let him paint on Sundays. He’d already been married and divorced when he met and married model Gertrude Russell, 30 years his junior. They traveled together and settled for several years in Tangier, Morocco, where he painted Arab sheiks and other celebrities. Coutts loved Morocco, and would have remained, but they visited Palm Springs, liked it—and returned to live here in 1914. Coutts had bronchial problems he hoped would improve.
In 1924, Gordon and Gertrude Coutts moved to Palm Springs and built their own Moorish castle, “Dar Marroc,” at 257 S. Patencio Drive. With towers, Moorish arches and domes, keyhole-shaped windows, huge doors, tiled fountains and courtyards dripping with bougainvillea, oleander, palms, olive trees and citrus trees, the Dar Marroc was like a little bit of Tangier dropped onto the Palm Springs landscape. The villagers referred to it as “Coutts Castle.” At Dar Marroc, the Coutts hosted numerous dignitaries and artists, including Grant Wood (painter of “American Gothic”) and Sir John Lavery, England’s great portrait artist.
Gordon Coutts became one of Palm Springs’ most revered and well-liked residents before passing away following a lingering illness in 1937. Clatworthy was among his pallbearers.
Today, the Dar Marroc has been transformed into the Korakia Pensione, a 29-room hotel. G. Douglas Smith, who also owned neighboring properties, purchased the land and began developing the Korakia in 1989. The Korakia has continued to attract artists and writers, including noted abstract painter Brice Marden, Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Thurman, and John Irving. Mexico’s famous writer Octavio Paz even reserved a room at the restful inn.
Coutts’ daughter Jeane, in talking about her father and the early days of Palm Springs, noted: “Before the movie colony took over, Palm Springs was an art colony, like Taos.”
Sources for this article include Palm Springs Confidential, by Howard Johns, Barricade Books, 2004; Palm Springs; The First 100 Years, by Mayor Frank M. Bogert, Palm Springs Heritage Association, 2003; Palm Springs Legends, by Greg Niemann, Sunbelt Publications, 2006; and Palm Springs Public Library archives.