Walter H. Annenberg, the publisher and philanthropist who founded TV Guide in 1953 when only 9% of U.S. households had television sets and built the weekly magazine into a household staple that made him one of the wealthiest men in America, died Tuesday. He was 94.
Annenberg, who amassed an impressive collection of art and shared his millions with educational, medical and art institutions, died at his home in Wynnewood, a suburb of Philadelphia, of complications from pneumonia. He also maintained a 205-acre estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
His wife, Leonore, known as Lee, was with him when he died, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who announced his death.
The founder of Seventeen magazine as well as TV Guide, Annenberg also had published the Philadelphia Inquirer. He founded the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn in 1958 and the Annenberg School for Communication at USC in 1971 and donated nearly $300 million to each. The largest single donor in USC history, he also created the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC in 1993 to mesh and promote communication technologies.
Geoffrey Cowan, dean of USC’s Annenberg School, said the philanthropist’s “vision of communication as a tool for public good shall continue to inspire and motivate students and faculty ... for generations to come.”
USC President Steven B. Sample called Annenberg “a pioneer, a visionary, an exemplary philanthropist and, above all, an extraordinary human being” and praised his “devotion to the ideals of promoting greater human understanding through education and communication....”
Annenberg, former ambassador to Britain and courtier to presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower on, was praised by former First Lady Nancy Reagan on Tuesday as “an individual who had a generous heart and a lifelong compassion for the young people of our nation. He gave of himself as a statesman, a philanthropist, a patriot.”
“Walter Annenberg’s legacy is not the fortune he amassed,” she said in a prepared statement, “but the unprecedented gifts he bestowed on the youth of our country. Walter Annenberg accomplished what no government program ever could. His life was spent with meaning and purpose--through his singular efforts in the arts, education and in charitable circles from coast to coast.”
President Bush issued a statement Tuesday calling Annenberg “a shining example of generosity, patriotism and dedication to serving others.”
“As a business leader and an innovator, he understood the media’s impact on American culture and encouraged television to be a positive influence on society,” Bush said. “Mr. Annenberg firmly believed that strong education was the key to a quality citizenry, and his commitment to education reform has benefited innumerable lives through research, support for scholarships and greater accessibility to educational programming through public television.”
Annenberg held many titles and won many awards during his long life--including the Medal of Freedom, presented to him by President Reagan in 1986--but the most important to him was that of U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he served from 1969 to 1974. The coveted diplomatic position, which was bestowed by President Nixon, symbolized what the son of a poor Jewish immigrant had sought throughout his life--acceptance by the powerful.
“This man has given me the greatest honor of my life,” Annenberg said of his friend shortly after Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. “For that I shall be always grateful to him.”
Julie Nixon Eisenhower, daughter of the late president, said Tuesday that the family and the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace would remember Annenberg most “for his extraordinary friendship.”
“At the lowest point in my father’s life, in the months following his resignation,” she said in a statement issued by the library, “Walter Annenberg called or wrote almost weekly, reminding his old friend ... that there were still ways he could serve his country. Annenberg’s loyalty, optimism and adherence to the credo ‘Never give up’ inspired my father and so many others whose lives Walter influenced.”
Annenberg returned to the White House in 1993, where President Clinton announced that the billionaire had donated $500 million to advance elementary and secondary education in the nation’s schools.
Matched by private and federal funds, that grant provided an eventual $1 billion for five-year projects at 18 school districts in large cities and rural areas from New York to Los Angeles.
Richard Colvin, deputy director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University, said Tuesday that most of the projects, including that in Los Angeles, focused on teacher development. In Los Angeles, he said, the Annenberg funding supported the pairing of elementary, middle and high schools with university experts to improve teacher skills and raise standards for student achievement. In other cities, notably New York and Minneapolis, funds were used to improve arts education by hiring hundreds of teachers of art, dance and music.
Earlier in 1993, Annenberg had donated $365 million in a single day--$120 million each to USC and Penn; $100 million to the Peddie School, a prep school he had attended; and $25 million to Harvard University.
Walter Hubert Annenberg, whose personal net worth was listed as $4 billion by Forbes, which ranked him 39th in its 2002 edition of the 400 Richest People in America, was born March 13, 1908, in Milwaukee, the only son among the nine children of Sadie and Moses Annenberg.
The extraordinary rise to riches of father and son was chronicled in a 1999 book, “Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg,” by Time and Fortune magazine writer Christopher Ogden.
Annenberg’s father, the most influential person in Walter’s life, had emigrated from an East Prussian village to Chicago as a child. As a youngster, the senior Annenberg peddled groceries, tended bar and swept stables.
The elder Annenberg, called Moe, set the first stones for the foundation of the family fortune when he joined the Hearst organization during the newspaper chain’s circulation wars with the Chicago Tribune. Offering clever promotional plans, he climbed rapidly, and by 1920 he was moved to New York as general circulation manager of all Hearst publications.
Young Walter moved with his family to Long Island and enrolled at the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. Deaf in one ear and with a speech impediment, which he eventually overcame, Walter was somewhat shy and withdrawn as a boy. But he participated in football, basketball and track in high school, and the school yearbook prophetically described him as the “best businessman” in his class of 1927.
He attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out after one year to join his father’s business as a bookkeeping assistant.
Independently of Hearst, Moses Annenberg had gained control of the daily Racing Form and the Morning Telegraph, the two most widely read horse-racing publications. The Telegraph folded in 1972, but the Racing Form remained a staunch money-maker in the Annenbergs’ Triangle Publications and was fondly referred to by Walter as “the old brown cow that always gives milk.”
In 1936, Moses Annenberg bought the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was to become his son’s base of operations for more than three decades.
In 1939, when Walter was a vice president of Triangle, his father was indicted for income tax evasion and bribery--an incident that had a searing effect on the son. Walter was also indicted on charges of “aiding and abetting,” but those counts were later dropped.
Moses Annenberg was sentenced July 1, 1940, to three years in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa. He paid $9.5 million in back taxes and interest, stripping the family of much of its wealth, and served two years in prison. Released in June 1942, he died the next month of a brain tumor.
The indictment and prosecution were considered at least partly politically motivated. Annenberg had made the Inquirer a champion of conservative Republicans in his circulation war with the Philadelphia Record, and New Dealers by several accounts wanted to punish the publisher.
But Walter Annenberg took the incident as a personal badge of shame, and also as an inspiration for his lifelong attempt to assuage the blot on the family honor.
After his father’s death, Walter Annenberg stepped into the presidency of Triangle, the family holding company that then owned the Inquirer, the Daily Racing Form and the Morning Telegraph and little else.
From the outset, he demonstrated a genius for creating or acquiring media that an eager public would accept as essential to its leisure pursuits, much like his father’s Racing Form. His first was the magazine Seventeen for young girls, which he founded in 1944 with his sister Enid Haupt as editor. The first issue sold 400,000 copies.
In 1945, Walter bought one of Philadelphia’s leading radio stations and two years later made it a television station. He continued to buy radio and television stations in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Fresno.
Within a year of his 1953 creation of TV Guide, circulation was 1 1/2 million and ad revenue was $750,000. The guide quickly became the country’s largest-selling weekly magazine. It had a circulation of about 17 million in 1988, when Annenberg sold Triangle to Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion.
David Sendler, Annenberg’s editor of TV Guide for 14 years, said Tuesday that he could sum up his former publisher by relating one thing: “He would call me frequently and end the conversation by saying, ‘Dave, remember: quality, quality, quality.’ And he meant it.
“He understood the magazine was more than bread-and-butter profiles and also involved serious journalism,” Sendler said.
Annenberg’s mother referred to the successful Seventeen and phenomenal TV Guide as “Walter’s epiphanies.” With their creation, the son had clearly stepped far beyond the shadow of the father.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Annenberg made money with the Inquirer, but won no accolades there for good journalism.
Long after Annenberg sold the Inquirer to Knight Newspapers in 1969, Mike Mallowe wrote in Philadelphia Magazine: “Walter, as editor and publisher, spent ... 27 years solidifying his reputation as an ogre who savaged the integrity of reporters; belittled their professional skills; ignored their news judgment; and jeopardized their credibility in a series of self-centered, petty crusades.”
In those days, Annenberg forbade mention of his diverse enemies--from television star Dinah Shore to the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team--in his papers or broadcasts.
In 1961, Annenberg expanded his horizons westward, building Sunnylands, a 205-acre retreat for himself and presidents in the secluded desert playground of Rancho Mirage.
With his typical business expertise, he briefly owned the company that controlled water rights to his sand pile, and tapped wells for a nine-hole golf course, swimming pool and private lake, and the 25,000-square-foot mansion he created.
At Sunnylands, where Annenberg spent four or five months a year, he maintained what biographer John Cooney described as “a lifestyle reminiscent of a Renaissance Venetian doge. It is impossible not to be awed by such a display of wealth as well as by the man who can wear such an immense home with ease.”
Nixon became the first head of state to seek refuge in the compound. Soon followed Presidents Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and not only the prince of Wales, but also the queen of England.
“It didn’t really matter, of course, what [an] establishment happened to represent,” Mallowe wrote, “just as long as Walter Annenberg was a fully accredited and accepted member of it.”
When Queen Elizabeth II came to call in 1983, Annenberg hosted a small luncheon for 20, seated at two round tables in the pink marble-floored “inside-outside” house. The queen customarily sits to a host’s right, but for Annenberg she made an exception.
“She thoughtfully suggested that she sit on my left,” he said at the time, “because I have a hearing problem with my right ear.”
In his continuing quest for acceptance and respectability, Annenberg used philanthropy as well as hospitality, giving more than $2 billion to artistic, educational and political causes.
In 1981, he gave $150 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a “university of the air” study-at-home education program. White House intimates said the gift was a major reason behind Reagan’s decision to award Annenberg the Medal of Freedom “for his lifetime of achievement.”
Annenberg donated $50 million to the United Negro College Fund in 1990.
Some of his bequests, privately and through the nine family foundations he controlled, were without strings. Others had too many strings, and at least one designated recipient--the city of New York--said no thanks.
In 1976, Annenberg had offered New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a $40-million package including subsidies for 10 years and construction of a communications center. He envisioned it as a film-making center that could create a videocassette version of “The Golden Book of Knowledge.”
Many trustees, city councilmen and New Yorkers in general saw the proposal as Annenberg’s attempt to seize control of the Met. After a bitter public debate in which Annenberg wrote open letters to New Yorkers by means of full-page newspaper advertisements, the museum and the city rejected the gift.
“I wanted to do something for the public,” he said, still stung by the rejection years later, “and I still believe in that idea of making all of the world available to all peoples.”
Even England’s causes enjoyed Annenberg’s largess, as the ambassador with no diplomatic training sought to win over a hostile press and public. He contributed lavishly to the restoration of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a cause personally important to Queen Elizabeth, and to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the British Museum, Eton and the National Gallery. He also lent 32 of his fabled French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings for exhibit by London’s Tate Gallery.
Small wonder that Queen Elizabeth made him an honorary knight commander of the British Empire or that the London Daily Mail noted when Annenberg’s tour of duty ended: “Santa Claus Is Leaving.”
A large, imposing man who favored impeccably tailored, conservative clothes in his public business and social hours, Annenberg preferred a choir robe for his private moments. In 1978, he even wore it to sit for a portrait painted by his friend Andrew Wyeth.
“We [once] went to a service at Westminster Cathedral and admired the way the choir was dressed,” Annenberg said. “We found they had just got new robes from Whipple [a London manufacturer of church garments], so we went there and ordered a pair for ourselves. They are the most comfortable things in the world for wearing around the house.”
Annenberg was ridiculed throughout his life for malapropisms and awkward, arcane elocution that was believed to stem from overcompensation for his stuttering.
One area of Annenberg’s life in which nobody criticized him was his art collecting, begun at the urging of his sister Enid and continued with a passion for more than four decades. Unlike most wealthy collectors, Annenberg personally selected his purchases.
Discussing his 1989 purchase of a 1905 Picasso, “Au Lapin Agile,” for $40.7 million, he said: “I sold stock to buy the Picasso and these other things because they’re much better to look at than securities in a box.”
In 1991 he decided to donate 50 masterpieces to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he thought that they could be seen by the largest number of people.
A traveling exhibition of his collection that stopped at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1990 fueled hopes that Annenberg might give all or part of his holdings to the institution, but insiders knew that those hopes were farfetched. Although he had spent a great deal of time in Southern California, he had no formal relationship with the museum. Shortly after he announced the bequest of his collection to the Met, he gave LACMA $10 million, which was viewed as a consolation prize by many in the art community. The museum appointed him an honorary lifetime trustee in 1993.
Annenberg’s gift to LACMA went to the museum’s endowment and included an acquisition fund for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks. Among pieces purchased from the fund is “Paysages et Interieurs,” a 1899 painting by French artist Edouard Vuillard. In 2000 the Annenberg Foundation made an additional gift of $1 million to the Los Angeles museum to create the Wallis Annenberg Curatorial Fellowship.
The traveling exhibition was a rare public showing of one of the world’s most valuable collections in private hands.
“I can’t stand having them not here with me,” he once said of his reluctance to lend out the art even more. “Every day I pay each one a long visit.”
“This is my family,” he once said of the paintings and other objects. “I adore these things.”
Annenberg married Veronica Dunkelman in 1938, and the couple had one daughter, Wallis, and a son, Roger, who committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 22. The couple divorced in 1950.
In 1951, Annenberg married Leonore Cohn Rosensteil, a noted Beverly Hills hostess often on the list of best-dressed women. In addition to his wife, Annenberg is survived by Wallis, of Los Angeles; two sisters, Haupt of Greenwich, Conn., and Palm Beach, Fla., and Evelyn Hall of New York City and Palm Beach; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
A private family service will be held, and public services are being planned in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.