THE MAN IS SHOWING YOU AROUND the house, and he's perfectly nice but you wish he'd just leave. You've come here to commune with the owner of the house and it's a communion for two--three's a crowd. You've got just 24 hours, a mere 1,440 minutes, and every minute spent with this man, this property manager, is a minute wasted. Now he's leading you into the kitchen, pointing out the microwave.
Microwave? Is he serious?
Finally he hands you the keys and says he'll be back this time tomorrow. "Enjoy," he says, and you watch him drive away, the big electric gate closing slowly behind him, and all at once it's still and silent in the house, except for the voice of Frank Sinatra. Not the Sinatra piped into every room via the hidden master stereo, which the property manager has switched on for your benefit, but the real Sinatra: You hear the haunting echo of his speaking voice, because this was Sinatra's house, his home, and for one shining "night and day," you're the guest of his ghost.
Twin Palms, the four-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot mini-mansion where Sinatra lived from 1947 until about 1954, sits plainly and unassumingly a mile from busy downtown Palm Springs, right off one of the city's main drags. Back when Palm Springs was a drowsy desert village, Sinatra commissioned the house to be built as the primary residence for his family, and he wanted it built fast. Workers using floodlights labored around the clock.
But not long after moving day, Sinatra had a change of heart. A sea change. He met Ava Gardner, the love of his life, and promptly left his wife Nancy, who begrudgingly granted him a divorce. Twin Palms soon became the setting for one of the 20th century's great romances, the amphitheater in which Sinatra and Gardner conducted their operatic affair. "Maybe it's the air, maybe it's the altitude, maybe it's just the place's goddamn karma," Gardner wrote in her 1990 autobiography, "but Frank's establishment in Palm Springs, the only house we really could ever call our own, has seen some pretty amazing occurrences."
Amazing was Gardner's catchall word for the intense violence and passion that defined her off-and-on saga with Sinatra. After half a dozen tumultuous years, the two were finally forced to conclude that they couldn't live together. Sinatra sold Twin Palms and bought a bigger place on the other side of town, which came to be known as The Compound. Twin Palms changed hands several times in the next five decades, and eventually fell into disrepair, its roof caving in. Recently, however, the house underwent a full and careful restoration, and today Twin Palms belongs to three New Yorkers who gladly rent it to the curious and the Sinatra-besotted for $2,150 a night in season.
DESPITE ITS SIZE, THE HOUSE IS COZY, AND cheery, its rooms glittering with direct sunlight and fluttering with the reflected light off the pool. In fact, every window looks onto the pool, the sliding glass wall leads out to the pool, the house bends around the pool, and you quickly understand that the pool was the architect's focus, the turquoise nexus around which Twin Palms was meant to revolve. Shaped like a piano and heated in the winter to 90 degrees, the pool is where Sinatra liked to hang, drink, talk, entertain, and where his legendary friends sometimes entertained him in unexpected ways. Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo staged a watery make-out session here one night.
So the first thing you do is sit by the pool. You ease into one of the low-slung chairs, close your eyes and lift your face to the winter sun. Sinatra sings "Oh! Look At Me Now," while a few feet away, the two parallel palms for which the house was named sway in the breeze, their fronds making a soft shushing noise. Sinatra can't be shushed, however. He's in a full-throated roar. His voice comes toward you in gusts, and when you open your eyes you can't say for sure what is causing the ripples on the pool's surface, Sinatra or the breeze. All at once the music doesn't seem to have a source, doesn't seem piped into the rooms, but seems to wander from room to room of its own accord. The music makes Sinatra's absence feel temporary, momentary, as if he's just stepped out, run to the corner for another bottle of Jack, but he'll be back any second, and when he comes through the door he'll see you and growl: "What the hell are you doing in my house? Where's Ava?"
An hour passes. The sun wafts downward like a feather on the wind. The temperature dips below 60 and you become aware of the first long shadows falling across the lawn. You put on a sweater and check your watch. Just 21 hours left.