Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs Estate
The Historic Estate
Sunnylands, a 200-acre estate in Rancho Mirage, California, was the winter home of Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Sunnylands — designed by A. Quincy Jones, a pioneer of midcentury modern architecture, and completed in 1966. The 25,000-square-foot house, with interiors by William Haines and Ted Graber, is surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds featuring 12 stocked fishing lakes and a private golf course designed by the legendary Dick Wilson.
At one time, the house was the largest in Riverside County, California. The property itself is the largest single residential estate around the area and includes the main house, guest quarters, servant quarters, a private 18-hole golf course, and 12 man-made lakes. So large a property was it that Palm Springs residents initially rebelled against approval. Inside the main house is a significant art collection acquired by the Annenbergs. Largely hidden from public view, a pink-brick wall surrounds the estate, next to hundreds of eucalyptus and olive trees and thick belts of oleander.
Annenberg Estate Vs. Sinatra Compound
I ended my previous post — “Frank Sinatra House: Twin Palms — By E. Stewart Williams” — with an aerial view of Sinatra’s large Rancho Mirage “Compound,” a complex sprawling enough to rival a hotel facility. Clearly, Sinatra’s was a large and expensive property affordable by only a select few. But… to appreciate the immensity of the Annenberg’s “Sunnylands” estate, another aerial shot will reveal “real” wealth, grandeur, and power:
Sunnylands: An Oasis Within A Desert Oasis
Sunnylands: Playground For The Rich, Famous, and Heads Of State
In the latter part of the 20th century, the name Annenberg epitomized glittering parties, elegant Sunday brunches, and holiday fetes attended by the top echelon of the entertainment and political worlds. Limousines, often accompanied by Secret Service detail, snaked up the drive beyond the pink wall framing the Annenberg estate, known as Sunnylands.
Here the couple hosted U.S. presidents(Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton and W. Bush), other national and international political leaders (including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, even in the late 1970s, the family of the Shah of Iran was invited to seek refuge at Sunnylands) as well as legendary figures from the worlds of entertainment, business, philanthropy, and education (such as Frank Sinatra [who was married there], Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.).
The property required such privacy for world leaders that it earned restricted air space status, protected by the U.S. Air Force.
In March 1990, the city of Rancho Mirage declared Sunnylands a historic site in recognition of an official dinner hosted at the estate by President George H.W. Bush in honor of Japan’s Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
A Personal History
After Ambassador Walter Annenberg’s death in 2002 and Mrs. Annenberg’s death in March 2009, ownership transferred into a family trust and limited, guided public tours of the sprawling facilities will be offered after completion of an education and peace center on the property. The Annenbergs left a $250 million trust to maintain the property well into the future. Both Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg are interred on the property.
Long before Walter was Richard Nixon’s ambassador to Britain and Leonore held the ambassador-ranked title Chief of Protocol in Ronald Reagan’s administration, they were two young people from wealthy families who dealt with the same difficulties faced by the not so wealthy. Walter wanted to make his mother and seven sisters proud after his father, Moses, went to prison for tax evasion and died shortly thereafter.
“One of [Walter’s] sayings was, ‘Adversity tests us from time to time, and it is inevitable that this testing continues during life,’” recalls Michael Comerford, who served as the Annenbergs’ butler and house manager for 40 years.
Walter took the reins of Triangle Publications, his father’s debt-ridden company, and turned it into a communications giant. TV Guide and Seventeen were two of his most successful publications.
But by the mid-1980s, there were dozens of teen magazines and a proliferation of gambling casinos, which led to a tighter market for Seventeen and a decreased interest in horse racing magazines. Annenberg sold much of Triangle to Rupert Murdoch in 1988 for a jaw-dropping $3 billion, then the most expensive deal in publishing history, with the plan to devote the rest of his life to education and philanthropy.
Leonore Cohn Annenberg was 7 when her mother died, and her father couldn’t adequately care for her and her younger sister. In Legacy, Ogden quotes her as saying, “My father gave us away. Nobody knew what to do with us, and we had no place to go.” Their uncle, Harry Cohn (head of Columbia Pictures) sent the girls to boarding school. Later, they lived in the Cohn house, where Leonore learned from her Aunt Rose how to dress with style and entertain VIPs. These traits served her well as U.S. chief of protocol (“the first paying job I’ve ever had,” she told The New York Times); she held the post 11 months.
Both Walter and Leonore were divorced (he once, she twice) before they married each other in 1951 and moved to Walter’s home, Inwood, near Philadelphia, Pa. Leonore (known as Lee to her friends) “was a California girl … born in New York but raised in Los Angeles,” Deshong says. “She loved being on the West Coast.”
So the Annenbergs purchased nearly 197 acres of undeveloped desert in 1963 and began building Sunnylands. (In 1967 and 1968, they purchased an additional 727 acres. Approximately 400 acres across the street from the walled estate were subsequently sold; in 1995 and 2001, they donated 4- and 2.5-acre parcels, respectively, to the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert.)
“It was so large at the time that people in Rancho Mirage didn’t want it here,” says Gloria Greer, society editor for Palm Springs Life. “They were afraid it would look like a supermarket!” Opinions softened as the Annenbergs became gracious hosts during the winter. Desert residents coveted invitations to sway on the marble dance floor to the strains of big-name bands.
“They were absolute partners and had such incredible respect for each other,” says Betty Barker, a Palm Desert resident and longtime friend of the couple, especially Leonore. “Most people knew Lee was beautiful and had money, but they didn’t know how brilliant she was.” Mrs. Annenberg was a graduate of Stanford University at a time when there were very few women attending Stanfords.
“Most of all, the Annenbergs loved their country,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She recalls Walter once stating, “My country has been good to me. I must be good to my country.”
Leonore loved the meetings that she hosted at Sunnylands at which Supreme Court Justices O’Connor, Breyer, and Kennedy provided her with guidance for her Sunnylands Trust project designed to teach high school students the Constitution.The Annenbergs’ generous philanthropic endeavors also made headlines.
Some of Walter Annenberg’s most important contributions were to education. He founded the journalism school at USC and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1990, he donated $50 million to the United Negro College Fund. And in 1993, he attended a White House ceremony at which President Clinton announced the ambassador’s $500 million matching-grant program that ultimately funded 2,400 public schools serving more than 1.5 million students. The ambassador thought that if you didn’t educate the grade school mind, then by high school, you’d lose them to gangs and drugs.
Many friends noticed the special bond between the Annenbergs. When Walter was in a wheelchair at a party, Leonore took his hand and danced around his chair while the music played. On his 90th birthday, with 80 guests present, Walter Annenberg raised his glass and made this toast to his wife, “The best thing I have done in my life is to marry you, Lee.”
It is said that they never raised their voices with each other. Walter and Lee were truly a team.
Drive along Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra Drives and the petal pink concrete block wall that marks two sides of Sunnylands’ perimeter lends an air of mystery to this grand estate, named after Moses Annenberg’s summer place in the Poconos, where, it is said, Walter liked to fish with his father. It’s possible that Sunnylands represented a familial bond to Walter, and it certainly became the stable home a young Leonore craved following her mother’s death.
Pink oleanders originally provided privacy for the estate. The pink wall, one of the most-asked-about elements at Sunnylands, was a 1990s addition when the oleanders began to die from blight. Leonore asked that the wall match the pink tile roof of the house, and the quintessential California girl told friends the color reminded her of the desert sunrises and sunsets.
What people don’t know is that they had the greatest greenhouses in the Coachella Valleys. They were acres in size and air conditioned fully in the summer, producing thousands of orchids. When one arrived at Sunnylands for the season, the orchids in the house had all been bred and raised on site.