Category: History

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.

A 9-hole golf course, and this broad greensward, surround Walter’s house. Tickets to tour Walter’s house cost $55 per adult, and must be reserved on the 15th day of the prior month, on a first-come, first-served basis. And they’re all snapped up within an hour or two of going on sale.

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.

The driveway leading to the front door of Walter’s house. The fountain is called the “Mayan Column,” and complements the house’s Mayan-style architecture.

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.

This peacock sculpture fronts a room where President Barack Obama dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in June 2013. Their two-day meeting at Walter’s home resulted in an agreement to work together to control hydrofluorocarbon emissions. They also discussed issues related to cybersecurity and North Korea. Photos aren’t allowed inside the house, so this was the best I could do, to get a picture of the room.

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’s swimming pool and golf course beckon, below the magnificent backdrop of the San Jacinto mountains. Sunnylands was one of President Obama’s favorite vacation destinations. Even today, as a former president, he frequently visits to play golf.

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.

President Nixon being served cake on his 61st birthday, on 1/9/74. Walter is at the far left, seated next to First Lady Pat Nixon.

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.

This cantilevered portico at the front door of Annenberg’s house provides a clue to the interior design. Exterior elements flow seamlessly into the interior. The recessed square designs in the portico’s ceiling are also found in the interior ceiling.

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.

This labyrinth in the Visitor Center gardens reminds me of the labyrinthine nature of politics that no doubt manifested frequently at Sunnylands.

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.

A reflecting pool and serried barrel cacti in the garden. After Leonore’s death in 2009, a Visitor Center was constructed. Sunnylands was opened to the public in 2012, with free admission to the Visitor Center and gardens, along with relatively expensive and hard-to-obtain tours of the Annenberg’s house.

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.

This man-made lake adds an exotic touch to the desert home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg.


Solvang, Part Three: Thor’s Curse

This is the final part of a three-part series about the town of Solvang, California, and Isla Vista, one of its neighboring towns. For the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Thor’s Curse

In the last installation, we were introduced to the small college town of Isla Vista, the site of four debauched murders of hitchhiking women by a necrophiliac named Thor Christiansen. Thor was a Danish immigrant from the neighboring town of Solvang.

Solvang is a tourist-trap town, built to resemble an authentic village from Denmark. Its name means “sunny field,” in Danish.

One of Thor’s victims was a young woman named Patricia Laney, who had volunteered with organizations in Isla Vista, that sought to protect women from violence. After her bloody death, she became a symbol for these organizations. But was this enough to protect women, or anybody else, from an untimely demise in Isla Vista?

No, sadly, it wasn’t. The violence committed by Thor seems to have cursed Isla Vista to more violence.

In 2001 the community made national news again, when a crazed motorist named David Attias, who was the son of television director Dan Attias, barreled down Sabado Tarde Street in Isla Vista at 65 miles per hour. He purposely mowed down a group of five pedestrians, killing four, including two women. A fifth victim was critically injured, and succumbed15 years later to health issues related to his injuries.

After David struck the pedestrians, he jumped out of his car and taunted a gathering crowd, proclaiming, “I am the Angel of Death!”

Like Thor Christiansen, Attias also plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But unlike Thor, he succeeded. Psychiatrists bought it, and he was sentenced to 60 years in the Patton State Hospital mental institution.

However, he was conditionally released in 2012, by a court order. So perhaps he’s no longer an angel of death. Who am I to judge? I’m no psychiatrist. But even if his 10 years in the bughouse rendered him safe to be on our streets, Thor’s curse was not scrubbed from the blood-stained avenues of Isla Vista. Because Attias’ vehicular homicides would not be the last tragic headline screaming from this community.

In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Isla Vista, and seriously injured 14 others. Like David Attias, he too was the son of a mogul in the entertainment industry—his father being the British filmmaker, Peter Rodger. What is it about the children of show business bigwigs? Are they inspired by the wild car chases and bloody murder scenes their parents conjure up for public consumption?

Elliot was autistic, and had been frequently bullied while growing up. He was enrolled at Santa Barbara City College, and shared an apartment with two other college student roommates. And he was jealous of his roommates, as well as most other men, because they were successful at attracting women, while he wasn’t.

On Friday, May 23, 2014, he lay in wait for his roommates, and stabbed them to death, one-by-one, as they separately entered their apartment. That same day a visitor showed up, and he was also stabbed to death. Then Elliot went out and got himself a cup of coffee, as if this excitement hadn’t been enough stimulation for him.

That evening, at 8:30 pm, he sat in his car in the parking lot of his apartment building, working away on his laptop computer. At 9:18 pm, he uploaded a misogynistic manifesto. In it he threatened to punish women for not being attracted to him. He claimed he was the “perfect guy,” and “supreme gentleman,” and complained that women threw themselves at “obnoxious men,” and that he didn’t see why they weren’t attracted to him, instead.

Then this incel drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house and knocked repeatedly on their door. No one would open it, so in frustration he shot three nearby women, killing two of them. Then he hopped back in his car and raced through the streets of Isla Vista.

He encountered a man at a delicatessen and ended him with seven bullets. This would be his final murder. But he continued his rampageous attack upon the streets of Isla Vista, aiming his car at pedestrians on Embarcadero del Norte, and striking and injuring one person. He fired his gun out the car window at two people, but missed them. Then he shot and wounded a couple entering a pizzeria, as well as a female on a bicycle.

Embarcadero del Norte street, in Isla Vista. Photo by Nandaro. CC BY-SA 3.0.

He raced ahead, patrolling for more victims, shooting at and missing one woman. Then a cop caught up with him. They exchanged fire and two bystanders were wounded in the blizzard of bullets.

But he managed to get away and resumed his drive-by rampage through the embattled streets of Isla Vista. On Sabado Tarde Street—the same street where David Attias committed his mayhem 13 years earlier—Elliot shot and wounded five people, and rammed two skateboarders and two cyclists with his car.

Charging up Sabado Tarde, he encountered three sheriff’s deputies. A gunfight ensued, and Elliot was struck in the hip. But that coffee he drank must have been heavily laced with caffeine, because he was able to speed away like a wild man. Turning down several streets, he took aim on a cyclist, and struck him. But then he crashed his car over a sidewalk.

Elliot Rodger’s driver’s license photo.

His vehicle now disabled, he couldn’t escape the pursuing deputies. So he took aim on one last victim. Himself. One bullet to his head finished the denouement of his life. At 9:35 pm, just 17 minutes after he had uploaded his misogynistic manifesto and initiated his street terror, Elliot Rodger slumped dead in his car. He was found beside three pistols, several knives, six empty ten-round magazines, and 548 rounds of unspent ammunition.

Once again, Isla Vista made national headlines, inspiring outcries against gun violence and violence directed at women. Politicians got involved, the NRA was blamed, and legislation was proposed. Four months later, California passed a red flag law, enabling judges to seize guns from people seen as a danger to themselves or to others.

Perhaps it’s a good law, or perhaps not. Red flag laws have their critics, and this law doesn’t address the fact that three of Elliot’s six murder victims were knifed to death, and that he injured many others with his car.

Isla Vista’s population is a mere 15,500. So it’s strange it would have so much high-profile violence in its past. And it all began with a young man from nearby Solvang, named Thor Christiansen. It’s as if Thor cursed the poor town with violence.

But as for Solvang, it has moved on from the dark shadow Thor cast upon this otherwise “sunny field.” Today its charming Danish architecture continues to be a huge tourist attraction, with the serial killer long forgotten.

On the other hand, Thor’s curse may still carry potency, so you might want to exercise special caution when visiting Solvang’s neighbor, Isla Vista. And if you decide to visit Solvang itself, and your car breaks down on the highway, be forewarned. You might want to think twice before hitchhiking into town.

Solvang, Part Two: Hitchhiking Isla Vista

This is Part Two of a three-part series about the town of Solvang, California, and Isla Vista, one of its neighboring towns. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!

Hitchhiking Isla Vista

Yesterday I introduced you to the town of Solvang, California, which was established by Danish immigrants. Today I’ll tell you about Solvang’s most famous citizen—a young stripling named Thor Nis Christiansen. And I’ll also introduce you to a neighboring town of Solvang, that Thor frequented—the community of Isla Vista.

Thor was born in Denmark in 1957, and immigrated to the United States when he was five years old. His family eventually ended up in Solvang, where his father, Nis, ran a restaurant.

He was a smart kid, and excelled in school. But in his junior year of high school, he lost interest in his studies, dropped out, and got a job as a gas station attendant. He also put on some weight, expanding up to 275 pounds.

Thor likely attended this elementary school in Solvang, before entering high school.

About 20 miles southwest of Solvang, along the Pacific Coast, ponders the college town of Isla Vista, California. Isla Vista is 11 miles west of the city of Santa Barbara, and most of the town’s 15,500 residents are students. Some attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while others seek their higher education at Santa Barbara City College.

In the 1970s, Isla Vista had a deficient public transportation system, prompting some who did not own cars to resort to hitchhiking. And on November 20, 1976, 18-year-old Thor Christiansen was cruising the streets of Isla Vista, when he stopped to pick up a hitchhiker named Jacqueline Ann Rook.

Jacqueline was 21. She was thin, and had long, straight hair. Thor liked the way she looked, and soon after he picked her up, he shot her in the head with a .22 caliber pistol. He then drove her 15 miles west to Refugio Canyon, and dragged her body to a secluded spot. There, he disrobed her and had his way with her corpse.

A few weeks later, on December 6, 1976, 19-year-old Mary Ann Sarris was hitchhiking in Isla Vista. She too was thin, with long, lanky hair. And she wore similar clothing to Jacqueline’s. Thor picked her up, and a few minutes later blasted her in the head. Then he drove her 200 miles southeast to Los Alamos Canyon, near Los Angeles, where this sick necrophiliac stripped and raped her body.

These two murders seemed to satisfy Thor for awhile. But a few years later, on January 18, 1979, he craved another thrill. This time his victim was 21-year-old Patricia Marie Laney, and like his first two victims, she had a thin build, long, hanging hair, and similar-looking clothing. After putting a hole in her head, Thor drove her to Jacqueline’s resting place in Refugio Canyon, where her corpse was violated.

Three months later, in April 1979, 22-year-old Laura Sue Benjamin, with her thin build, long, straight hair, and familiar clothing, stuck her thumb out and attracted Thor, who happened to be driving by. After unloading a bullet into her head, he drove her body to Big Tujunga Dam, north of Los Angeles, and satisfied his perversions.

That same month, on April 18, 1979, Christiansen offered a ride to 24-year-old Lydia Preston. Within minutes, he pointed his .22 caliber pistol at her ear, and fired. But by some miracle, the bullet did not penetrate through her skull. She managed to jump out of his car and scramble to safety. She found her way to a hospital, where the bullet was removed. Against the longest of odds, Lydia survived.

This was a big break for the cops. The first body they’d found was that of Mary Ann Sarris, in May 1977, near L.A. It took nearly two years to find the next corpse, which was Patricia Marie Laney on January 19, 1979, the day after she’d been shot in the head. And then the next day, they found Christiansen’s first victim, Jacqueline Rook, in the same area as Patricia’s body.

By this time, they knew they had a serial killer on their hands. They dubbed the killings the “look-alike murders,” due to the similarities in body build, hair style and length, and clothing. They found Laura Sue Benjamin’s similar-looking body four months later, in May 1979, and added her to the tally of unsolved look-alike killings.

Detectives had interviewed over 115 persons over a two-year period, before Lydia Preston lived to tell her harrowing tale. But her tale gave them some invaluable clues, as they progressed with their investigation.

And then three months after she told her tale to the cops, their serial-murder case was blessed by yet another strange miracle. On July 11, 1979, Lydia spotted her would-be murderer in a bar in Hollywood. The odds of this happening were astronomical! She called the cops, and soon they were able to track Thor down and arrest him.

Thor’s mugshot.

He plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But psychiatrists didn’t buy it, so that plea didn’t work out for him. On April 16, 1980, he was found guilty of first-degree murder for the death of Laura Sue Benjamin. Then, on May 14, 1980, he gave up trying to convince the law that he was insane, and plead guilty to the remaining three counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

But on March 30, 1981, while Thor was walking in the exercise yard of Folsom State Prison, he was shivved in the chest and killed. He had served less than a year of his life sentence. Nobody snitched, and his killer was never identified.

Ironically, Thor’s third victim, Patricia Laney, had worked as a volunteer with organizations in Isla Vista, that advocated against violence to women. After her murder, she became a symbol for these groups. And since the 1970s, the community of Isla Vista has held an annual juggling festival in Patricia Laney’s memory. So in this way, you could say Thor inadvertently promoted women’s rights, by killing this woman.

But was it enough? Did the people of Isla Vista, and its anti-violence organizations succeed in their efforts to protect women? Or to protect anyone? We’ll find out in the next installation.


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