Years before Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, and Stefanie Powers made it mandatory for all American college students to spend a weekend in Palm Springs, there was another weekend party at Rancho Mirage at a recently reopened hotel.
Featured as the best heated pool accommodation, refrigerated air conditioning throughout. Games room and terrace. Beautifully appointed. An intimate cocktail bar, the Whispering Waters Hotel had just been purchased and redecorated by a bunch of Hollywood glamors. Join the fun entertainment featuring top Hollywood, TV and movie stars … You’ll also enjoy Continental cuisine and cocktails in our newly redecorated dining and living room.
Among the famous television and image personalities on hand to celebrate at the Whispering Waters Hotel in November 1960 was Gardner McKay. McKay was new to acting. He joined the owners of established movie stars and some of the most beautiful faces on television, Dennis Weaver, Hugh OBrian and Lloyd Bridges for the weekend festivities.
Completely unknown, McKay burst onto the scene a year ago on the cover of Life Magazine with a headline that read: What About Him Girls? The new challenger of American beauty. McKay was extremely handsome but had more to him than a pretty face.
McKay came from a patrician family on the East Coast and grew up in Paris, attended Cornell University, dropped out after two years and took up photography and sculpture, earning money in the modeling. He meets Richard Avedon, who invites him to return to Paris for a photoshoot with model Suzy Parker in 1956. Avedon’s footage leads to an article in Town and Country magazine, which earned him an agent and a trip to Hollywood. . His good looks have earned him a small role in the movie Raintree County starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and he has appeared in episodes of The Thin Man television series.
He was discovered by Dominick Dunne in a cafe reading a book of poetry. It was 1959 and Dunne was the co-executive producer of a television series titled Adventures in Paradise, created by the late James Michener based on his writings on boating in the South Pacific Islands. Dunne described his discovery to the director of Fox Television as a little Gary Cooper, a little Cary Grant, a little bit of Ty Power and a lot of Errol Flynn. nobody, absolutely nobody, but his attitude declared that he was someone. I dropped my Fox business card on his table and said, if you’re interested in discussing a TV series, give me a call.
Betting on McKays to stop the pulchritude, they gave him the part. At 6ft, 5in tall, it didn’t hurt that he looked a lot like a dashing sea captain and actually knew how to navigate.
The early reviews were scathing, but Dunne recalled that the reviews didn’t matter. Critics said Gardner was made of wood, and he was, but that didn’t matter either… The camera took him, and he took the camera. People loved his appearance, so every week we found a reason for him to take his t-shirt off… It might not sound racy now, considering what’s going on, but Gardner McKay stripped down to the waistline, showing the hair below the belly button was as racy as it gets back then, and girls and gays in droves tune in to watch it.
And they watched him, despite reviews joking about his acting, calling him serious or stiff, in what would be repeated so often that he would now be classified as a meme. He was terribly handsome. Additionally, the shows featured exotic landscapes and premises, like the episode Sink or Swim, where a dastardly crime is interspersed with fun, mellow scenes of outgoing ladies modeling swimwear. It was in Tahiti after all. There was something for the imagination in every show. McKay has received more fan mail than everyone else in the studio combined. And most of the requests were for photos of him shirtless, which happened regularly on the show.
Dunne recalled: The commissioner’s buzz was that Gardner’s dressing room had been visited by all the starlets on the pitch, usually during lunch break … Gardner was a classy good goods guy, as they used to say. . Came the money. Avenue du Parc. Social register. Spoke French.
The series lasted three years. Then Gardner did a very interesting thing: he ended his acting career … the very next day he got a call from George Cukor, who … asked Gardner to play the romantic lead role opposite to Monroe. It was a lifelong dream of an actor, the great George Cukor, the legendary Marilyn Monroe, but it happened a day too late. Gardner had made up his mind. He declined the role. Cukor was flabbergasted.
McKay retired to the deserts of Libya and Egypt, sailed to South America, and returned to Paris. Adventures in Paradise has enjoyed even greater success in France. According to Dunne, he played three nights a week at six o’clock. There were complaints that French women were so fascinated by watching Gardner … that they stopped cooking dinner.
When McKay was almost 40, a newspaper man pointed out his eternal celibacy. He would have answered: Yes, I just have adventures. The list of beautiful women he was in love with is long: Julie Newmar, Ann-Margret, Joan Collins, Suzanne Pleshette, Connie Stevens, Barbara Bouchet, Dorothy Provine, Jo Morrow, Loretta Swit, Suzy Parker, Tuesday Weld and many more others. .
McKay, the athlete, artist and actor, would go on to become a leading author, writing numerous plays and novels. He has won awards, served as a book critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and taught writing at UCLA, USC, and the University of Alaska. And he was finally going to get married and retire to Hawaii.
McKay has come across many people who have made the desert a large part of their lives. He starred in the television series “The Thin Man”; original star William Powell has lived in Palm Springs for years. Fox movie studio mogul Darryl Zanuck held court in his home here. McKay entertained the locals with Dennis Weaver, Hugh OBrian, Chuck Connors and Lloyd Bridges at the Whispering Waters Hotel in Rancho Mirage on this important first weekend. And he was seriously dating Connie Stevens, whose name would become synonymous with the breakout movie that sparked the spring break craze in college.
Ironically, Gardner McKay’s name and the idea of walking away to a romantic festive outpost is the refrain of a 1983 song, We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About by the Last Arrived in the Wilderness, Jimmy Buffett.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected].
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