Restoring the Name
Walter was an incurable stutterer, and this alone could have doomed him to obscurity in the long shadow cast by his parents. His father, Moses, had made a fortune in the publishing business as owner of the Daily Racing Form. Then in 1936, his dad purchased The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is currently the third oldest surviving newspaper in the United States.
His parents’ wealth enabled Walter to attend the prestigious Wharton School of Business. But he felt impatient to succeed as a businessman and stock investor, so he said, “T-t-to h-h-hhhell with Whar-Wharton,” and dropped out. Why, he belonged to a distinguished and wealthy family! His father was a great success! Surely he could succeed without all that Wharton education! Success was in his genes, after all.
But family fortunes come, and family fortunes go. In 1939, Moses was indicted for income tax evasion. He was fined $8 million, which at the time was the largest single tax fraud penalty in history. But even worse, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
The family name had been ruined, and their publishing empire began to crumble. Then, like the trials of Job, matters deteriorated further. Moses fell ill with a brain tumor. He was released from prison in 1942, and died six weeks later, at age 65.
By this time the family’s publishing businesses were floundering in oceans of red ink. Walter had seven sisters, but he was Moses’ only son. It was left to him to take over the helm. This 34-year-old dropout, who had stuttered all his life, now had to fill his father’s great shoes. He had to reach deep inside and dredge up what business skills he’d managed to hone, to try to salvage the family’s empire.
But in spite of being a dropout and stutterer, he proved a master! He truly had an instinct for business, and under his direction he raised negative Profit & Loss statements into positive numbers, transforming red ink into solid black. And this success left him feeling hungry. He purchased more print media, as well as some radio and television stations. He even created new publications, such as Seventeen magazine.
In 1947 he formed Triangle Publications, and brought all the family’s publishing businesses under its umbrella. And in 1952 he created TV Guide magazine, which everyone predicted would fail. With its surprising success, he proved himself a visionary in the publishing industry.
But Walter wasn’t all about money. He also had his causes. He got political, and campaigned for the Marshall Plan after World War II ended. In 1949, he used The Philadelphia Inquirer to rid the City of Brotherly Love of corruption in its government. And in the 1950s, he attacked the madness of McCarthyism.
But still, money was never far from his mind. In 1966, he used the Inquirer for both political and personal gain. Walter was the largest individual stockholder in the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he stood to make a windfall if it merged with the New York Central Railroad.
But the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Milton Shapp, vowed to stop the merger. One day, in a press conference, a reporter for the Inquirer asked Shapp if he had ever been a patient in a mental hospital. Shapp simply and honestly answered, “No.” The next day, the front page headline of the Inquirer proclaimed, “Shapp Denies Mental Institution Stay.” Shapp lost the election and blamed the Inquirer.
In the 1960s, Walter moved west and built the largest house in Riverside County, California. It was a 25,000 square-foot opulence with a pink roof, attached guest quarters, three guest cottages, a private 9-hole golf course, and 13 man-made lakes. He adorned the walls of the main house with original paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, Wyeth, and Monet.
Walter dubbed his huge estate, “Sunnylands,” and was determined to make it the “Camp David of the West.” And he largely succeeded, as it became a magnet for U.S. presidents and other political leaders. During the lifetimes of Walter and his wife, Leonore, this 200-acre estate that glittered in the desert of Rancho Mirage, California, hosted eight current and former presidents. These were Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama.
It also hosted the refugee family of the Shah of Iran, who had fled the Islamic Revolution. Other foreign dignitaries included Chinese President Xi Jinping, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, and occasional visits by Prince Charles. Royalty from the entertainment world frequented the estate too, including George Burns, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gregory Peck, Mary Martin, and Truman Capote.
And this only scratches the surface of the many luminaries who have tossed away their cares and relaxed at Sunnylands. Even today, long after Walter’s death, his estate is used by prominent VIPs for meetings and retreats.
Walter was a good friend of President Richard Nixon, and Nixon reciprocated this friendship by appointing him ambassador to the United Kingdom. He distinguished himself in that capacity from 1969 to October 1974, stepping down two months after Nixon’s resignation.
Nixon often visited Sunnylands during his presidency. In fact he wrote his State of the Union address in January 1974, while a guest at Walter’s estate. And on September 8th, 1974, Tricky Dick was Walter’s guest when President Ford announced to the nation his decision to grant Nixon “a full, free and absolute pardon.”
Ronald Reagan was also a regular guest at Walter’s estate, and celebrated New Year’s Eve with Walter and his wife, 18 times between 1974 and 1993, including all eight years that he was president.
During those years, Sunnylands was more commonly known as the Annenberg Estate; Annenberg being Walter’s last name. Walter had striven for many years to rehabilitate his family’s name, and Sunnylands did much to dissolve the tarnish.
Beginning in 1969, Walter began selling off the assets of Triangle Publications, while devoting himself more and more to philanthropy. The first to go was The Philadelphia Inquirer, to appease Milton Shapp, who complained of a smear campaign against him. A year later, Shapp was finally elected governor.
Radio and TV stations were gradually divested. Finally, in 1988, the remaining assets of Triangle Publications were sold to Rupert Murdoch for 2.83 billion dollars. This was one of the largest financial transactions ever, at that time.
In 1989, Walter used his billions from the Murdoch transaction to establish the Annenberg Foundation. This philanthropic giant lumbers on to this day, funding non-profit organizations throughout the United States and world.
Walter succumbed to pneumonia in 2002, at age 94. His wife, Leonore, carried on with the family’s philanthropy until her death in 2009. Now his 84-year-old daughter, Wallis, presides over the Annenberg Foundation.
It’s estimated that during Walter’s lifetime, he donated over $2 billion to various non-profits. His family name blazes across school buildings, libraries, theaters, and hospitals across the U.S.A. And this name bears witness to his generosity.
But more importantly, this name, that was once uttered in contempt by Americans, is now highly regarded by most anyone familiar with it, no matter their political persuasion. A name restored to honor by the hard work and caring heart of Moses’ loyal son, Walter Annenberg.