The king of the Rat Pack called it home. And his desert playground is still hot stuff, says Valerie James

Why Palm Springs?

There had been a film colony here since the 1930s, and Sinatra's first house was just around the corner from the homes of Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Cary Grant. All the Hollywood stars' contracts required them to stay within 200 miles of their studio, and the attractions of Palm Springs were, and are, the clear desert air, low humidity, and approximately 350 days of sunshine a year. Sinatra and his young family arrived in Palm Springs in the late 1940s, when it was largely undeveloped. Now it comprises a sprawl of desert communities: Palm Springs itself, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, LaQuinta, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage, but back then it was the perfect hideaway for a star and his family.

That's Frank Junior, Tina and Nancy?

Yes, they all grew up here, and Nancy spent much of her teenage years around the pool of the Caliente Tropics Resort, while the Rat Pack met and partied in a private cellar room, under the restaurant. Today it's a newly restored motel with a curiously Polynesian theme, and a stringent anti-smoking policy. Elvis Presley, too, slept here.

Then it was "Change Partners" time?

Yes, while dancing to the tune. It was in ChiChi Club (never "the" ChiChi) now part of the defunct Desert Fashion Plaza. Frank was dancing with Lana Turner, and Howard Hughes was dancing with Ava Gardner. The band leader said: "Change partners," they did, and the rest was divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage, divorce, marriage, and history.

So tell me more about the Rat Pack

The Rat Pack wasn't actually a Frank Sinatra creation. It was a group, formed by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, dedicated to "drinking, fun, staying up late and not caring about what others thought", and it was only after Bogart's death that Sinatra became the leader of the pack. Members included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and various temporary and honorary members. Their playground was Palm Springs, and places such as the Biltmore Hotel, Ruby's Dunes, Ethel's Hideaway, Jilly's, and Pal Joey's.

Was there ever a serious side to all this "Makin' Whoopee"?

Sinatra and the Rat Pack worked for the election of John F Kennedy. By this time he had moved into his second home in Palm Springs, The Compound, on Frank Sinatra Drive in Rancho Mirage. It is impossible to see because it is behind high brick walls, and the road is a busy two-lane highway. But behind the walls is a two-and-a-half acre plot, adjacent to the 17th hole of the Tamarisk Country Club. Here Sinatra had his main house, five guesthouses, a cinema, a barber shop and sauna, two pools, tennis courts and a studio, where he liked to paint. The guesthouses are named after his songs – "New York, New York", "High Hopes", "The Tender Trap", "Send in the Clowns", "Chicago" and "My Way". The latest was added in 1962, in preparation for a visit by JFK, but the president was put off by gossip about Sinatra's mob connections and never came. The helicopter pad, also created for JFK's visit, was then turned into a flower garden, and subsequently Sinatra became a friend and supporter of the Reagans.

He changed romantic allegiance, too

Yes. After Ava came Mia Farrow and then Barbara Marx, ex-wife of Zeppo Marx, and now Sinatra's widow. His children don't appear to be huge admirers of Barbara, but she lasted from 1976 until his death in 1998, and in the meantime Frank exchanged the Rat Pack lifestyle for the charitable work that the American rich seem to find obligatory. His Palm Springs beneficiaries included Desert Hospital, Temple Isaiah, Palm Springs Desert Museum, St Francis of Assisi church, and Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center. Everywhere you go in Palm Springs, you hear of the individual kindnesses and generosity of this most complex man. Sinatra is buried in a family plot at the Desert Memorial Park alongside his parents.

So he got old and respectable. I'd rather have a bit more hell-raising

The Rat Pack Room at Mayo's on El Paseo, in Palm Desert, is a good place to sample the atmosphere the Rat Pack created and the kind of place where they hung out. Barbara Sinatra still eats here from time to time. Here you can imagine the man slumped against the bar, trilby on the back of his head, requesting one for my baby, and one more for the road.

How do I get there?

For information on resorts and hotels, including the Caliente Tropics Resort, contact the Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Authority (001 760 770 9000, American Airlines (020-7365 3436) offers return flights to Palm Springs via Los Angeles and Chicago from £484.