In The Frame: Meet Nelda Linsk

“Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places” is how legendary photographer Slim Aarons described his work. This sentiment is epitomised in ‘Poolside Gossip’ (pictured above), arguably his most iconic image. Taken at the Kaufmann House, the photograph captures the fabled allure of Palm Springs in the 60s and 70s – an epoch that inspired the latest Cutler and Gross collection.

Nelda Linsk, a protagonist in ‘Poolside Gossip’ and former owner of the Kaufmann House, shared with Cutler and Gross the story behind the lens and reflected on this inimitable era.

'Poolside Gossip' by Slim Aarons

At 11am one January morning in 1970, Linsk received a phone call from Slim Aarons, “I’m in the desert and want to do some pool shots [at the Kaufmann House]. Can you call some friends over?”

Linsk phoned Helen Kaptur and actress Lita Baron, and together the three women formed an iconic triptych. Speaking over the phone from California, Linsk recalls, “Slim arrived with a tripod and a camera, that’s it. No hairdressers, no assistants, nothing. It was all so casual, clicking the camera while we were drinking champagne.”

Helen Kaptur and Nelda Linsk photographed by Slim Aarons.
Helen Kaptur (left) and Nelda Linsk (right). Photograph by Slim Aarons, 1970.

The resulting image was called ‘Poolside Gossip’. With its sun-drenched hues, architectural geometry, and mountainous backdrop, the photograph is celebrated as a symbol of Desert Modernism and provided a snapshot into the languorous allure of Palm Springs.   

"Barbara and Frank Sinatra were dear friends of ours" - Nelda Linsk
The Kaufmann Desert House

Nelda and her husband art dealer Joseph Linsk first arrived in Palm Springs in 1963, escaping from New York’s cold, wintry chill. They initially stayed at the Racquet Club, a star-studded haunt where the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Kirk Douglas would while away the hours in the pool, playing tennis, and dancing late into the night.

Whilst renting actress Claudette Colbert’s property, the couple saw Julius Shulman’s photographs of the Kaufmann Desert House. Juxtaposing stark geometry with desert climes, it was an arresting sight. The Kaufmann House was designed by architect Richard Neutra in 1946 and helped pioneer the concept of ‘indoor-outdoor living’ – a central tenant of the Modernist aesthetic. Framed by steel, expansive glass walls slide open to reveal the San Jacinto mountains above, while a turquoise pool glistens below. According to architectural historian Thomas Hines, “The pool was laid and completed first, and Neutra enjoyed critiquing the rest of the construction while splashing and floating in the water.”

Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1947. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).
Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1989. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

The Kaufmann House had been on the market for several years, so Nelda and Joseph decided to take a look. She recalls seeing it for the first time, “I saw that beautiful stone wall and aluminium slats and thought ‘this is our house’. It hadn’t been lived in for so long – the pool was full of debris; the drapes were falling off the rods – but it had the bones that we loved.”

Arthur Elrod's Colour Palette

The couple commissioned celebrated designer Arthur Elrod to revamp the interiors. “He used a lot of yellow in our house” says Linsk, “I had a yellow lacquered desk in the master bedroom that was so spectacular, and a bright yellow silk chaise longue, and there was yellow in the outdoor furniture too.” To reflect this colour palette, Linsk chose to wear a canary-coloured Anne Klein two-piece when Slim Aarons called. Does she still have the outfit now? “No…” she exclaims, laughing, “but I still have the sandals!”

Photograph by Julius Shulman, 1949. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).
"All the celebrities in LA came to Palm Springs, every weekend the Racquet Club would be jumping." - Nelda Linsk

Captured in ‘Poolside Gossip’, Nelda Linsk and Helen Kaptur are the picture of glamour, hair voluminously coiffed, oversized sunglasses close to hand, chatting on sun loungers. “Helen showed up in that beautiful white lace outfit and I wanted to slap her she looked so gorgeous,” Linsk chuckles softly, “I said, ‘you can’t come into this house looking that good!’”

Did Linsk have any idea the image would become iconic? “Oh heavens no. If I had known then what I know now, I would’ve asked Slim for the original!” During a book signing in New York, the photographer phoned Linsk and asked her why the image was so famous. Linsk recalls replying, “Slim, because I’m in it!” she laughs in her Texas lilt. “But really,” Linsk continues, “I think it’s famous because people want to be in that photo, in the pool, with the sun and mountains.”

Nelda Linsk pictured at an event in 2022.
Nelda Linsk pictured at an event at Grace Home in Palm Springs, 2022.

‘Poolside Gossip’ immortalised the relaxed, moneyed allure of Palm Springs in the 60s and 70s. A two-hour drive from Hollywood, the Californian plot was the perfect hideaway for the glitterati; close enough to the LA studios, far enough from the paparazzi’s clicking cameras. “All the celebrities in LA came to Palm Springs, every weekend the Racquet Club would be jumping,” Linsk recollects, “They loved coming to the desert because they had their privacy.”

When probed about the parties and people she crossed paths with, Linsk reels off a list of names that reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, “R. J. Wagner, Jill St. John, Cary Grant, Eva Gabor, President and Betty Ford – oh they were all there. Of course, Barbara and Frank [Sinatra] were dear friends of ours, parties at theirs were always so special.” Linsk recalls the Sinatra’s surprise wedding “at the Annenberg’s place. That was so exciting because Frank and Barbara had to arrive by golf cart to avoid being seen! Barbara was in her apricot chiffon gown; it was a beautiful day.”

Kirk Douglas photographed at the Racquet Club, 1952.
Barbara and Frank Sinatra cutting their wedding cake, 1976.

I’m curious to find out whether Linsk had a favourite dinner party guest: “Oh, that’s a tough question…” she replies, taking a long pause before sharing another round of spectacular anecdotes, “Truman Capote was always very interesting. Frank [Sinatra] was a great gas, he was full of stories. My husband and Barbara [Sinatra] had the same birthday so every year we’d celebrate together with a party at the Kaufmann House and a jazz band. Dolores and Bob Hope [the legendary entertainer] always hosted Easter parties up in their Southridge house; they’d have a beautiful table out on the lawn, it was so breath-taking. Those were the days!”

The Bob Hope House, photographed by Julius Shulman, 2007. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).
A Golden Epoch

Towards the end of the call, I ask Linsk where she would go if she could reverse the clock to a particular time or place, “The Racquet Club, for sure. Whether you’d been out to a gala, a dinner, or playing tennis, everyone would end up at the Club for a nightcap. We’d be up on the dance floor in our [tennis] whites alongside people in black tie. It was hysterical!”

And with that, I thank Nelda for her time and reluctantly put down the phone, sensing that there are many more memories of elaborate parties and glittering names to discover. Slim Aarons’s image may be frozen in time, but Nelda Linsk and the legend of Palm Springs in the 60s remain as dazzling and captivating as ever.

Interview by Cutler and Gross Editor

Join Nelda Linsk and Shawn Waldron, curator for Getty Images, in conversation on 23rd February 2024 during Modernism Week in Palm Springs. Tickets available here.

Desert Playground Collection
Discover Cutler and Gross glasses and Cutler and Gross sunglasses

The latest curation of Cutler and Gross glasses and Cutler and Gross sunglasses pay homage to the allure of Palm Springs in the 60s. The inimitable frames reflect the cinematic grandeur of Hollywood and draw inspiration from the Modernist architecture of this bygone era.

Available online and in-store now.

Shop The Desert Playground Collection