Today’s Page One obituaries for Walter H. Annenberg in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post barely scrape the festering keratosis that was his career in crime, journalism, and politics. “Media Tycoon Gave Fortunes to Others,” soft-pedals the Los Angeles Times. “Walter Annenberg, Philanthropist and Publisher, Dies at 94,” intones the New York Times. “Publisher, Philanthropist Walter Annenberg Dies,” echoes the Post.
I’d prefer the headline, “Billionaire Son of Mobster, Enemy of Journalism, and Nixon Toady Exits for Hell—Forced To Leave Picassos and van Goghs at Metropolitan Museum.”
The dailies concede that the bedrock upon which Walter built his fortune was cleared by a tax-evading father, Moses; that the son dodged a trip to the slammer with Dad via a plea bargain; that Walter punished his political and personal enemies with his publishing empire; and that he ingratiated himself with his soul mate, the odious Richard Nixon. But in skimming only the surface scum of his life, these obituaries neglect the fetid undercurrents and tidal filth of his complete life. The ugly arc of Annenberg’s life rivals that of fellow press baron William Randolph Hearst or even his fictional stand-in, Charles Foster Kane. It’s a life that proves that you can earn polite notices in death no matter how you lived if you give away a billion dollars to the right places before you croak.
(In the time-honored tradition of obituary writing, I’ve plundered the archives for this Annenberg appreciation. I lean especially hard on a June 1993 piece I wrote after Annenberg bought his way onto Page One of America’s top dailies by giving hundreds of millions of dollars away. One of the many luxuries of the rich is that if they go philanthropic at the right time, they can read their obituary before they die—obits that are usually more flattering than their real obits.)
Walter Annenberg was born of a congenital criminal, a rascal who never saw a business proposition that he couldn’t improve with a bit of violence. Moses “Moe” Annenberg developed these talents in 1900 in Chicago when he worked as a circulation manager for the monstrous William Randolph Hearst, back when circulation wars were fought with clubs and torches. At Hearst’s behest, Moe and his gang cracked the heads of rival newsboys, burned uncooperative newsstands, and toppled competitors’ delivery vans. When Marshall Field’s department store canceled an ad in Hearst’s Evening American, Moe’s brother Max led 60 drivers and newsboys to the store, where they terrorized shoppers and employees by surrounding it and chanting, “Marshall Field’s closed! Marshall Field’s closed!” The store reordered its ad, reports John Cooney’s The Annenbergs: The Salvaging of a Tainted Dynasty, a detailed 1982 dual biography of Walter and Moses. In Moe and Max’s defense, it should be said that the competition used the same tactics to move newspapers.
When Hearst needed circulation help with the New York Daily Mirror, Moe enlisted Lucky Luciano, the numbers and loan-sharking gangster. “I used to think of the Mirror as my paper,” Luciano said. “I always thought of Annenberg as my sort of guy.”
In the early ‘20s, Moe purchased the Daily Racing Form and became the major owner of the General News Bureau, a race wire that provided horse race results to newspapers and bookies. With what biographer Cooney calls “methods of strong-arm tactics and bribes” to politicians and police, Moses expanded his business in city after city by ruthlessly destroying the local race-wire competition. “The hoods on his payroll might intimidate a racing publication one day, a man with wires to bookies the next,” Cooney writes. Moe’s boys literally made Blanie Shields an offer he couldn’t refuse. When the small-time race-wire operator in Covington, Ky., declined to sell his business, they sabotaged Shields’ office and told him that he would be “bumped off.”
In his drive for domination, Moe double-crossed his racketeering wire partners by going into business against them. That put him on the Capone-mob hit parade, so he moved himself and his family to Miami, protected by gangster Meyer Lansky. As the Racing Form and the wire thrived, Moe expanded his publications empire by buying the Philadelphia Inquirer, which he turned into his personal anti-New-Deal political sheet.
Walter Annenberg, writes Cooney, was shielded from his father’s illegal enterprises and connections. Although he held titles in his father’s businesses, he mostly busied himself with Hollywood starlets and the playgirls of Miami and New York. The publicity created by Moe Annenberg’s scummy enterprises was plain for all to see. If Walter didn’t know, he would have to be stupid, which he was not. If he knew and still worked for the old man … you make the moral call.
Moe’s bribery, blackmail, and mobstering career ended when he was indicted for tax evasion in 1939. Walter, a company VP, was indicted on charges of “aiding and abetting.” Moe pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay the $9.5 million in back taxes and fines. Prosecutors offered to dismiss Walter’s charges if Moe went directly to jail, which he did. Moe served two years and died 39 days after his release.
Assuming control of his father’s shattered company, Annenberg launched the phenomenally successful Seventeen magazine in the ‘40s and TV Guide in the ‘50s and acquired several radio and TV stations. Annenberg habitually turned his head to the right to obscure the disfigured ear he had been born with. His politics usually followed his ear after his second marriage, to Leonore Cohn Rosenstiel. Like his father, he used the Inquirer and his media empire as his bully pulpit, punishing enemies real and imagined. After purchasing the Philadelphia Daily News, Annenberg practically turned over local police coverage in the city to Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, a brutalist who rose to mayor in large part thanks to Annenberg. Rizzo returned the favor by providing extraordinary protection when the Teamsters and Newspaper Guild struck the Inquirer. Annenberg also waged a smear campaign against Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, using his two dailies, two radio stations, and three Pennsylvania TV stations. In one example, reported in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer obit, an Inquirer reporter got Shapp to deny that he’d ever been in a mental hospital and then printed the denial on Page One. The media war subsided only when Shapp asked the FCC to revoke Annenberg’s broadcast licenses. And in the mid-’70s, he sicced TV Guide on the liberal media culture. TV Guide may be the only publication to become more liberal after Rupert Murdoch purchased it.
“Annenberg became an oddity in Philadelphia,” Cooney writes. “His name was associated with numerous good works, and he was often the first prominent citizen anyone seeking charitable donations approached, but the whimsical use of his paper on occasion to punish those who offended him made many people uneasy.” The kindest thing he ever did for Philadelphia was to sell the Inquirer to John Knight, who turned it into a real newspaper.
President Richard Nixon rewarded Annenberg for his anti-communism and pro-Vietnam-War views by appointing him ambassador to Great Britain, where he attacked U.S. student radicals in his first speech. Ambassador Annenberg, as he thereafter preferred to be called, returned to the States and expanded both his media properties and burgeoning art collection. He also entertained the flow of human sewage that visited him at his own Xanadu, a mansion set on 250 acres (complete with its own golf course) in Palm Springs. There at “Sunnylands,” he hosted the disgraced Nixon (“Life is 99 rounds,” he told Dick), the detestable Frank Sinatra, and offered refuge for his political soul mate, the shah of Iran. Talk about guilt by association.
By the late ‘70s, the racketeer’s son launched the rehabilitation of his reputation with philanthropy. He gave $150 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1981 and went on a giving binge after selling his media properties to Murdoch in 1988 for $3.2 billion. He pledged his $1 billion collection of Cézannes, Monets, van Goghs, Gauguins, and others to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (postponing delivery, of course, until his death; meanwhile he collected tax breaks). He also donated hundreds of millions to various educational foundations and projects.
The light from Annenberg’s philanthropy will continue to burn brightly at the various Annenberg organizations: Annenberg Center for Health Sciences; Annenberg Center for Communication (University of Southern California); Annenberg School for Communication (University of Southern California); Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania); Annenberg Foundation; Annenberg/CPB Projects; and Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Some may find justice in this finale: That Annenberg’s billions are being spent to still the wretched wake he churned with his life and his media empire. The less charitable of us will nod, smile, and mutter that there’s no rap you can’t beat if you’re willing to empty the purse.