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Palm Springs' image in book creates uproar

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Robert julian's little neighborhood is on the southwest side of Palm Springs, where the San Jacinto Mountains begin to rise from the desert floor like the spires of a great cathedral.

Warm Sands is an older neighborhood, a mix of vintage ranches and glassy contemporaries. There are cactuses and fruit trees, a health food shop, the oldest hardware store in town and -- displayed prominently on one corner lot -- a 5-foot-tall sculpture of a phallus.

Subtlety is not always a hallmark of Palm Springs' gay community. But then, unlike in many towns, it doesn't have to be. As many as half of Palm Springs' 40,000-or-so adult residents are gay; it has become, some locals contend, the gayest city in America.

When Julian arrived in 2006 with his partner, architect Patrick McGrew, he found a community so entrenched that it had its own diversity. Down the street from his house, one boutique was marketed to drag queens and another to "bears," a subculture of gay men who are typically masculine, stocky and hairy.

In Warm Sands alone there were 11 "clothing optional" gay resorts. City Hall paused to care only when tallying up the half-million dollars in occupancy tax revenue the resorts generated each year.

"I fell in love with it immediately," Julian said.

There was one thing missing, Julian decided. He set out to write a book that would do for Palm Springs what "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" did for Savannah, Ga. -- tell its story with an eye toward intrigue and a whiff of scandal.

"It was never meant to be taken personally," Julian said.

But it would be.

The old Hollywood types who declared Palm Springs their "backyard" passed on long ago. Today's glitterati, by and large, are drawn elsewhere in the valley: to Palm Desert's El Paseo, the "Rodeo Drive of the Desert;" to the Bentley dealer in Rancho Mirage.

The increasingly gay community filling the void in Palm Springs represents a remarkable reinvention. Its success has required a complicated two-step.

On one hand, the gay community has been folded into the mainstream through political and commercial success. There have been two consecutive gay mayors; there is a gay majority on the City Council. There are scores of gay-owned businesses, many aimed at older gay couples who have settled here.

On the other hand, the city remains a frisky and playful place. One publication has rated resorts according to their "sexual temperature."

It is a balancing act, conducted with one guiding principle: Do not judge.

"What's the old quote?" asked Scott Brassart, 42, a local writer and former editor at Alyson Books, which publishes works of interest to the gay community. " 'I don't care what you do; just don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.' That's the attitude here."

Robert julian had been many things over the course of his life: Realtor, writer, stage actor. By 2006, after 31 years in San Francisco, he was eager for a fresh start. The desert, he knew, was a fine place for reinvention.

"There was a certain serenity to it," said Julian, who was born Robert Stone but has adopted his middle name as his last.

He dived in, working tirelessly to get a 16-foot-high, looping modern sculpture called "Jungle Red" installed at the entrance to Warm Sands -- a piece of roadway that previously, he said, "had a certain prison yard je ne sais quoi."

Julian was named to the city's public art commission. He was cast in one-act plays that were the inaugural performances at the Thorny Theater, a gay theater. He became a junior celebrity; a few people even recognized him in the grocery store.

And he began taking notes.

Julian thought he had a story to tell. Gays his age, he believes, are part of a grand social experiment. Because they entered adulthood as the gay rights movement was getting underway, many of them were among the first gays who were never in the closet. Now they are starting to retire -- many of them in Palm Springs.

"We are different from the generation of gay men who are 10 years older than us, or 10 years younger," Julian said. "Here, I find myself approaching senior-citizenhood and being a reluctant pioneer yet again. There is no gay man older than me that I feel I would like to emulate spiritually, physically, intellectually. Once again I find myself making it up as I go along."

"Postcards From Palm Springs," Julian's memoir, circulated through town this winter. The book begins innocently enough.

There is mention of Julian's Lhasa apso, Little Bill, who is so pampered that he gets half a baked potato each night with his dinner.

There is a devastating account of Julian's childhood in Detroit -- in particular, the day his late father strangled a rabbit Julian wanted to keep as a pet in an effort to "make a man out of him."

And there are ruminations on being an aging gay man. He was 55 when he wrote the book, "the age at which successful heterosexual men are hitting their stride in their respective professions, cuddling grandchildren and booking vacations with a second or third wife."

"For a gay man, it is well past the age of invisibility," he wrote. "Fifty-five in the gay world is the equivalent of 75 in the straight world."

Those were not the passages that ruffled the feathers of Palm Springs. It was the depiction, scattered through the book, of Palm Springs as an outpost of aging men with Peter Pan complexes and sexual hyper-drives -- men who, as he writes, "put the sex in sexagenarian."

On Page 133, he drops by a pool party at a resort staffed by young escorts who are soon cavorting in a hot tub, "surrounded by overweight middle-aged men holding cameras."

On Page 190, he peers through a crack in the wall outside Bacchanal, a resort in his neighborhood, and sees a "middle-aged man in a leather vest gently using a leather whip" on another man.

There are depictions of naked tourists hanging around the pool, naked locals at the gym, a naked exhibitionist who flashes him one evening while he's walking Little Bill.

Critics don't necessarily contest any of the anecdotes. But they say they paint a grossly distorted image of Palm Springs.

"For the love of God, the whole thing is just ludicrous. You don't come out here because it's going to be a carnival. It's just a nice place to live," said Jim Strait, 54, who moved to town four years ago.

Strait is one of the leading directors at the Thorny Theater, and cast Julian in the theater's initial production. He is referred to, not by name, as "rotund" in the book. That's not what upset him, he said.

"By the time the witching hour comes, most of the locals are home watching TV," Strait said.

"If you're looking for this stuff you can find it -- but you can also find it in Peoria. When you're having a party here, it's a potluck. It's 'Bring a covered dish.' "

There's even a description of the alleged sexual predilections of one man -- too graphic to be reprinted here -- who, the book points out, is the frequent companion of Ron Oden, Palm Springs' first gay mayor.

"What?" Oden said when told about the passage, adding that he and the companion were never romantically involved. "I can't believe he did that. I'll have some reading to do this weekend."

Julian reserves his most eloquent barbs for Arch Brown, the 71-year-old founder of the Thorny Theater. Julian gives Brown a new name in the book -- but it's a small town, Brown points out, and there's only one gay theater.

In the book, the theater founder has a "fundamentally lecherous bent," and Julian writes that his home looked "like the remains of an Arkansas trailer park just after the tornado."

Brown dismissed Julian from the theater company after publication of the book -- a decision that Julian publicized in a news release.

"Wipe the streets with him, as far as I'm concerned," Brown said.

Julian seems whipsawed by the response to his book. In some moments, he seems taken aback. One friend told him he might have to move. Julian thinks it was a joke but he sounds uncertain. In the next moment, Julian is defiant and unrepentant.

"When you talk about things that people don't like to talk about, it can make people crazy," he said one recent afternoon while sitting under a wide umbrella and sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice next to his pool.

"The job of a writer is to tell the truth. And I did."

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