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Annenberg, Walter H.

Walter H. Annenberg

Walter H. Annenberg (1908–2002), through canny anticipation of new trends in the publishing world, became one of the richest individuals in the United States. In his later years he became equally notable for giving away vast amounts of his money to educational programs, cultural institutions, and political campaigns.

Annenberg's life was not untouched by controversy. As publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper in the 1950s and 1960s, he used the paper to settle personal scores and to advance his own financial agenda. Eager to be respected by society's upper crust, he did not always get his wish; a stint as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain began disastrously in 1969. But Annenberg's relationship with his British hosts improved as he opened his checkbook to fund worthwhile projects in that country, and by the time of his death, his unparalleled generosity had earned him admiration from virtually all quarters.

Born into Immigrant Family

Walter Hubert Annenberg was born into a family of German Jewish immigrants on March 13, 1908, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Moses Annenberg, had arrived in the United States without money or even shoes, but had gotten a job at the Chicago American newspaper and worked his way up through the organization run by publisher William Randolph Hearst. The elder Annenberg had some extralegal enterprises on the side, including a telegraph service that transmitted horse race results to bookmakers, and the adolescent Walter was once sent out to deliver an unmarked package containing $400,000 in cash. He attended Peddie School, near Trenton, New Jersey, which was one of the few prep schools open to Jews at the time. His business acumen showed up as he managed the school's senior prom financially and left it in the black.

Enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, Annenberg found himself more interested in the booming stock market than in classes; his father had given him a present of $10,000 after a winning evening at the poker table, and between 1927 and 1929 he turned it into a $2 million fortune. Annenberg dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and joined his father's newspaper circulation business as assistant bookkeeper. The truncation of his academic career did not stop Annenberg from endowing a new school of communications at Penn in 1962. In the late 1920s he lived the high life and flirted with numerous women, including talented dancer Ginger Rogers, but married Canadian-born Veronica Dunkelman. The pair had two children, Wallis and Roger; Annenberg's son suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in 1962.

The stock market crash of 1929 turned Annenberg's $2 million into a $400,000 debt, which his father paid off. Annenberg applied himself to the family business, which was growing rapidly with the acquisition of the Daily Racing Form newspaper and, in 1936, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Both father and son were staunch Republicans who opposed the New Deal social programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the senior Annenberg used the Inquirer as a platform for his conservative philosophies. That, some said, drew the ire of federal tax investigators. Both Moses and Walter Annenberg, who by 1939 had be-come vice president of his father's Triangle Publications, were charged with tax evasion in 1940.

Moses Annenberg pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors that would keep his son out of prison. He was sentenced to three years in prison but released after two when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Walter Annenberg, the only son among what has been variously reported as eight, nine, or ten siblings, took over the family business. After his father's death in 1942, Walter Annenberg would always display prominently in his various offices a plaque bearing a prayer that read (according to the Inquirer), "Cause my works on Earth to reflect honor on my father's memory." Like his father, Walter Annenberg would sometimes be criticized for using his journalistic properties to attack political opponents and other enemies; at one point the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team ran afoul of Annenberg, and the Inquirer was forbidden to even print the name of the popular NBA franchise.

Founded Seventeen Magazine

It was not long before Walter Annenberg emerged in his own right as an acute judge of trends. Noticing the growing buying power of young female consumers, he realized that this market segment was underserved by the publishing industry and in 1944 founded Seventeen magazine, naming his sister Enid Haupt as editor. Seventeen became one of American publishing's great success stories from the beginning, with huge ad sales in the first issue and sales that soon topped one million copies per issue. Annenberg continued to expand his empire with the purchase of radio and television stations in the northeastern United States.

His second stroke of genius in sensing the market for a new publication came in 1952, when he purchased a series of local television magazines and formed the magazine TV Guide, with national editorial content and local television schedules for large markets. TV Guide became the bible of the "boob tube." by the mid-1970s it was selling between 15 and 20 million copies a week—one of every five magazines sold in the United States, according to one estimate. Numerical estimates of Annenberg's wealth are fluid. His profits from TV Guide alone were estimated at $500,000 to $1 million a week, and Forbes magazine eventually ranked him as one of the 100 richest individuals in the world. In Rancho Mirage, California, he built an estate called Sunnylands that had a 2,000-square-foot master bedroom for Annenberg and his second wife, Lee, and an 18-hole golf course with private greenskeepers. On the walls hung Annenberg's growing collection of masterworks of Impressionist painting. His first foray into art philanthropy came in 1962, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was engaged in redecorating the White House; Annenberg contributed the so-called Thumb Portrait of Benjamin Franklin to the White House collection. The bowling alley in the White House was also paid for by Annenberg.

In 1969 Annenberg sold the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News for $55 million, accepting an appointment from President Richard Nixon as ambassador to Britain. Some questioned Annenberg's fitness for the plum post; he had no diplomatic experience, and suggestions surfaced in the press that he had bought the job with campaign contributions. It was true that Annenberg and Nixon were friends, but his political contributions to Nixon began only with the ill-fated re-election campaign of 1972. Annenberg was also close to other conservative politicians and helped bankroll Ronald Reagan's ascent through the Republican party ranks to the presidency in 1980.

Annenberg's tenure as ambassador to Britain got off to a rocky start when he mangled the English language in response to a question from Queen Elizabeth II about how he was settling in; Annenberg replied (according to Grace Glueck of the New York Times), "We're in the embassy residence, subject, of course, to some of the discomfiture as a result of a need for, uh, elements of refurbishment and rehabilitation." The merriment that followed in British newspapers was unfair to a degree; Annenberg had been born with a slight speech impediment and was never comfortable in public speaking situations. He eventually won over his British hosts with contributions to the National Gallery art museum and by overseeing what even British style mavens conceded was a well-done restoration of Winfield House, the American embassy residence. He was given an honorary knighthood by the queen in 1976, who visited Annenberg's California estate while on a trip to the United States in 1984.

Founded Educational Institute

By that time Annenberg had begun to amass the impressive track record of philanthropy that made admirers out of even those who had tangled with him in the past. The Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania was followed by one at the University of Southern California, and in 1976 he created the Annenberg Institute in Philadelphia, with a 180,000-volume library devoted to the origins of Western culture in the ancient Middle East. Occasionally Annenberg's largesse resulted in controversy; New York's city government resisted and finally killed an Annenberg-financed expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that would have encroached on Central Park. The controversy did not stop Annenberg from naming the Metropolitan, after intense jockeying among several museums, as the recipient of his remarkable art collection after his death.

In 1988 Annenberg sold Triangle Publications to Australian-born media magnate Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion; financially astute well into old age, he negotiated a price that even Murdoch admitted was too high. (Annenberg continued to report to work daily at his office until 1999, when he was 91 years old.) After the sale, his gift-giving accelerated. According to the Inquirer, he often answered interviewers who asked after his well-being with "Grateful. Grateful that I'm still around and I'm comfortable and I'm able to help people." On a single day in 1993 he disbursed gifts of $365 million to Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, and Peddie, his prep school. Two of his largest individual gifts went to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($60 million in 1991) to support student math and science programming, and to the United Negro College Fund ($50 million in 1990), at the time the largest gift ever given to any historically black educational institution. A strong supporter of civil rights, Annenberg cut his support for conservative Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo after Rizzo made racially-based campaign appeals.

It was not only educational institutions that benefited from Annenberg's largesse. A $2 million Annenberg gift endowed a new Pennsylvania Hospital institute devoted to hip replacement surgery, and named it after physician Richard H. Rothman, who had performed such surgery on Annenberg himself. In 2001 he gave the Philadelphia Museum of Art $20 million, its largest gift ever, and a total of $29 million went to the Philadelphia Orchestra, much of it to renovate the aging Academy of Music building. With Annenberg funds the Philadelphia Zoo acquired a new baby elephant. He continued to support British causes long after his return to the United States, giving five million pounds to the National Gallery in 1988 and six million pounds to the British Museum the following year.

After Annenberg's death at his Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, estate on October 1, 2002, University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he "embodied the belief that those fortunate enough to acquire great wealth are obligated to use it for the good of society." Annenberg loved Impressionist art, he had told the Inquirer, because many of the artists who painted the works "were ridiculed, scorned, abused, denounced, and very few of them lived to see the tremendous respect they subsequently enjoyed." Annenberg himself endured his fair share of denunciation, but he emerged in the end with respect from all.


Cooney, John, The Annenbergs: The Salvaging of a Tainted Dynasty, Simon & Schuster, 1982.

Ogden, Christopher, Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg, Little, Brown, 1999.


Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 2, 2002.

Economist, October 12, 2002.

Forbes, October 21, 1991; January 17, 1994.

Irish Times, October 5, 2002.

New York Times, October 2, 2002.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2, 2002; October 5, 2002.


"Walter Annenberg," Museum of Broadcast Communications, (February 13, 2006).

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