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Actor William Powell’s Palm Springs: Exploring His Low-Key Life in the Desert

William Powell at the Raquet Club
William Powell at the Raquet Club

I admit I’m a William Powell super fan.

He had me in the first moments of the 1936 film “My Man Godfrey” where he played a scraggly “lost man”- turned-butler opposite his equally charming ex wife and best friend Carole Lombard. With his penetrating blue eyes, intelligent yet suave manner, perfect comedic timing and physical chops honed during an earlier career in silent films, Powell came to epitomize all that made the Golden Era of Hollywood golden.

He had it all. And by the mid-1930s, audiences had already fallen in love with him during his iconic turn as detective Nick Charles in the 1934 film “The Thin Man” opposite screen great Myrna Loy. (aka the famous Nick and Nora).

But for me his most mind blowing performance came in My Man Godfrey, one of the best films ever made. If you love old movies there are few as good as that one. And Powell, in the leading role of Godfrey “Smith” Parke, holds down a fantastic ensemble cast.

Shot in just under six weeks from April to May 1936 on a sound stage at Universal Studios – and released later that year – Godfrey is one of the most tightly written and tightly acted screenplays ever made, epitomizing and setting the standard for screwball comedies of the era.

So when I learned that my favorite actor spent most of his long life in Palm Springs, one of my favorite places on the planet, I was determined to create a little tour of “William Powell’s Palm Springs.”

It wasn’t super easy.

Powell was a very private man and there is little known about his life off the screen – except that he had some very famous girlfriends and wives.

He didn’t give interviews about his favorite restaurants or movie theaters. He wasn’t a huge perma-party presence in the desert like, say, Frank Sinatra. There were no entourages or scandals. And the biographies about him aren’t very informative due to the fact that he shied away from interviews and could even be quite testy as he grew older.

But he lived in the desert a long, long time. Decades in fact. And he outlived just about everyone from his era, making it to age 91.

At the height of his career he was not just one of the best actors around but one of the world’s biggest – and richest- movie stars. An unlikely heart-throb, lacking the matinee idol looks of his friend Clark Gable, Powell made the most of his intellectual charms, courting some of the biggest female actresses of the era, including the aforementioned Lombard and later the adorable Jean Harlow, who died of kidney failure at age 26 when she was involved in a love affair with the much-older Powell.

Three years after Lombard died – and Powell famously paid for her funeral – he met and soon married wife No. 3, actress Dianna Lewis, who he affectionately called “Mousie” due to her diminutive size.

The couple soon decamped to a relatively modest home in Palm Springs’ Old Las Palmas neighborhood, where they rode bicycles on dirt roads and were fixtures at the nearby Racquet Club, an exclusive private tennis club owned by actors Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell. (They stayed in that house, which now bears a historic places landmark, until his death in 1984 at age 91).

The Racquet Club was known as a home away from home to many Hollywood stars who desired not only a place to swim and play tennis but also a venue to cavort and dance away from the pressures of Los Angeles. And it was the perfect place to party because Hollywood studios often required their stars to stay within three hours of movie sets even on their days off in case they were required on the set for re-shoots.

Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood spent time at the Racquet Club. In fact, Marilyn Monroe, who starred with Powell in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was allegedly “discovered” by the pool there in 1949.

Powell wasn’t the only star who ended up staying in Palm Springs and became integral to the local community.

William and Carole Lombard in 1931's Ladies Man

William and Carole Lombard in 1931’s Ladies Man

Sinatra stayed and built two homes in the desert – one for second wife Ava Gardner in Palm Springs and, later, a “compound” in Rancho Mirage. Sound and screen legends Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Claudette Colbert, Phil Harris, Bill Goetz, and Bill Perlberg also stayed and built Blue Skies Village, a trailer park located in Rancho Mirage.

When the stars needed household items, from small hardware items to elegant chandeliers, Alan Ladd’s Hardware on S. Palm Canyon Dr. was the go-to place in town.

Gene Autry had the Melody Ranch (now the Parker Palm Springs) and Desi Arnaz’s owned the Indian Wells Hotel, and Bonita Granville’s L’Horizon remains an amazing mid-centry modern landmark to this day. William Holden co-owned El Mirador Hotel (now Desert Regional Hospital) with Ray Ryan.

But it was William Powell who really made the desert his permanent and forever home during his lengthy life.

William Powell, born on July 29, 1892, and started out in Broadway plays before heading west to Tinseltown, where he made a name for himself playing mostly shady characters in silent films of the 1920s.

Before he ever said a word on film – always with perfect diction – he had captivated audiences with his impeccable comedic timing and magnetic pre-talkie presence.

William Powell and wife Mousie in Palm Springs

William Powell and wife Mousie in Palm Springs

However, there was more to Powell’s life than just the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In his later years, he found solace in the tranquil oasis of Palm Springs, California.

In the 1940s, William Powell discovered the allure of Palm Springs and decided to make it his home.

He had survived the death of his fiancé, Jean Harlow, and was about to experience another stunning loss when ex-wife and still-close-friend Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash. The death of his only son to suicide was just around the corner.

Nestled amidst the stunning desert landscape, Powell’s residence became a haven where he could escape the pressures of his Hollywood career and a life marked with many losses.

His home, located at 383 W. Vereda Norte, was a sanctuary for Powell and his wife, Harriet “Mousie” Wilson. Mousy, a former actress herself, shared Powell’s love for Palm Springs and the serenity it offered.

Powell was an avid tennis enthusiast, and the Palm Springs Racquet Club became a favorite destination for him. Located at 2799-2501 N Indian Canyon Drive, the club provided an opportunity for Powell to indulge in his passion for the sport and socialize with fellow tennis enthusiasts including some of the biggest movie stars of the time.

Unfortunately, the original Palm Springs Raquet Club was demolished to make way for new developments. But the memories of Powell and other famous tennis aficionados still linger in the air, reminding us of the vibrant past of this historic spot.

So without further adieu let’s take a look at what is left of “William Powell’s Palm Springs” as we visit some of the more notable locations associated with this Hollywood great.

For this, you might want to hop in your convertible because we are going to start out in Palm Springs and wind you way out to Cathedral City.

1. Ruins of the Palm Springs Racquet Club – 2799-2501 N. Indian Canyon Drive

William Powell at the Raquet Club

William Powell with wife “Mousie” on his lap and screen legend Ginger Rogers on his left – court side at the Palm Springs Racquet Club

Established in 1934 by actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy, the Racquet Club initially consisted of a snack bar and two tennis courts, according to the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation.

It quickly became popular among the nearby movie colony residents, with notable visitors including Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, and Lana Turner. Over the years, the club expanded its facilities, adding a swimming pool in 1935 and enlarging the dining room in 1937 and 1951. To accommodate more visitors, 35 cottages were built along Netcher’s Creek in 1946, with additional cottages added in 1956.

In 2014, a significant portion of the historic Racquet Club was damaged in a suspicious fire.

The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation had previously identified the Racquet Club as an endangered historic property, ranking it second on their list of properties potentially at risk of fire or neglect in a letter addressed to the mayor of Palm Springs on October 10, 2013. The foundation also highlighted the city’s lax enforcement of the Vacant Building ordinance, which contributed to the conditions leading to these fires.

2. William Powell’s Home in Las Palmas – 383 W. Vereda Norte

Powell’s well-known and diverse romantic entanglements included many famous blonde actresses from the 1930s. Therefore, it was surprising when he had a whirlwind courtship and married someone as seemingly unassuming as Diana Lewis. The news of their marriage shocked Hollywood, as few people were aware of their acquaintance and even fewer suspected a deeper connection.

After their marriage, the couple quickly moved to Palm Springs and decided to spend the rest of their lives there. Following the recommendation of their friend and neighbor, the renowned actor Adolphe Menjou, they purchased a small cottage in Las Palmas on Vereda Norte in 1941, according to the Desert Sun newspaper. They seamlessly integrated into the local community. While Lombard chose to embrace her role as Mrs. Powell and leave her acting career behind, she fully immersed herself in Palm Springs life. Over the next five decades, she became the unofficial queen of the desert, hosting social events and actively engaging in philanthropy.

From the Desert Sun:

“Ambling up the driveway toward the house at 383 W. Vereda Norte was a strange-looking man in tennis shoes holding a cardboard shirt box. His presence alarmed the housekeeper, who ran to Mrs. William Powell, Diana Lewis, to alert her to the intruder. Lewis had to laugh as she instantly understood the visitor was none other than her friend Howard Hughes, the eccentric millionaire businessman, movie producer and pilot.”

 

William powell in palm springs

William Powell in Palm Springs

 

3. William Powell’s Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame – 134 S. Palm Canyon Dfive

William Powell's star

William Powell’s Star

To honor Powell’s contribution to the world of cinema, a star bearing his name can be found on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame. Located on Palm Canyon Drive, this iconic stretch celebrates the achievements of various celebrities who have left an indelible mark on Palm Springs and the entertainment industry.

4. Gravesite of William Powell at Desert Memorial – 31-705 Da Vall Drive, Cathedral City.

William powell grave at Desert Memorial

William Powell’s grave at Desert Memorial

William Powell’s final resting place can be found at Desert Memorial Park, located at 31705 Da Vall Dr, Cathedral City. Here, at site B-10, #20, you can pay their respects to this Hollywood legend who brought joy to millions through his memorable performances.

5. Site of the Historic Desert Inn and other Nearby Nightclubs – 590 S. Palm Canyon Drive

In addition to his Palm Springs retreat and tennis club, Powell, like other stars of his era, would likely have frequented the historic Desert Inn. Located at 590 S Palm Canyon Dr, this landmark hotel was a popular destination for Hollywood stars during the 1940s and 1950s. Powell on occasion would certainly have enjoyed the vibrant nightlife scene at various nearby nightclubs in Palm Springs during that era, such as the Chi Chi Club and the Doll House.

William Powell and Mousie

William Powell and Mousie

William Powell’s Best Movies

– “The Thin Man” (1934) – Co-starring Myrna Loy, this classic detective comedy follows the adventures of Nick and Nora Charles as they solve a murder mystery.

– “My Man Godfrey” (1936) – Powell stars opposite Carole Lombard in this screwball comedy about a socialite who hires a “forgotten man” as her family’s butler.

– “Life with Father” (1947) – Powell portrays the eccentric father in this heartwarming family comedy set in the late 19th century.

– “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) – In this biographical musical film, Powell plays the role of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the renowned theatrical producer.

– “Libeled Lady” (1936) – Powell joins forces with Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy in this screwball comedy about a newspaper scandal.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Richard Sherman

    October 26, 2023 at 4:55 pm

    The name ofwoman that Mr. Powell married was Diana Lewis, aka “Mousie”
    due to her diminutive size. Have never heard the name of Harriet Wilson
    (?) attached to Mr. Powell. Would be interested to learn who was Ms. Wilson.

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