Twentynine Palms Historical Society
29 Palms, California
James (Jimmy) Cagney Home
Aficionados of "Classical" old black and white movies will be well acquainted with a Hollywood icon, James Cagney. Best know for his portrayal on the silver screen of a tough guy. He began his long career in vaudeville as a dancer and comedian. One of the most popular films made by Warner Bros. was a singing and dancing part with Cagney playing the role of George M. Cohan in the 1942 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy." He was named by the American Film Institute as one of the movie industry's pre-eminent male stars of all time. He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild for two years and during World War II he toured Army hospitals in Europe.
In contrast to his cocky screen persona James Cagney was in fact a very quiet, unassuming person. He would escape the hurley-burly of Hollywood and the film crowd for the desert, not the high life of Palm Springs but the tranquillity of Twentynine Palms. His good friend, artist, John Hilton, who in 1951 was one of the founders of the Twentynine Palms Artists' Guild, had introduced him to the high desert.
Jimmy Cagney first came to the desert in the early 1950's and continued to visit into the late 70's when his health deteriorated. He sometimes came alone, sometimes with his wife, Billie, and sometimes accompanied by friends from Los Angeles. Hilton and Cagney would sketch and paint together in Hilton's studio. A photo of them engaged in this pursuit is on display at the Twentynine Palms Art Gallery.
The actor avoided the spotlight but still participated in local community life. He would attend screenings at the Underhill's movie theatre at the Plaza, and was a lifetime member of the Artists' Guild. He donated generously to help finance the building of an addition to increase the exhibit area of the gallery. He was also a staunch supporter of the local fire department who in 1969 named him honorary fire chief and presented him with a wallet badge with identification card. He, in return, even though he was in New York at the time, paid for steaks for the firemen's barbeque.
The Cagneys maintained a home in the desert. A magazine article once listed several homes owned by Cagney but omitted to mention the one that he considered to be his desert hide-away. Located on the north side of Campbell Hill, the two bedroom, one bath house remained in the family long after James Cagney's death in 1986. After being unoccupied for years, time, weather and vandals have taken their toll.
NOTE: For an excellent biography of Cagney see: Cagney at Lady Eve's Reel Life.
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