“She just said to me, ‘We can’t let that collection leave Los Angeles,’” recalls Govan. Her $23 million gift, which he calls “herculean” and typical of Annenberg’s preference for “the very big gesture,” covered the costs of acquiring the Vernon trove, endowing its upkeep and building a study room for the public to digitally access all 3,500 prints.
Annenberg sits on boards at top cultural institutions all over town—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Huntington Library, the Geffen Playhouse and the California African American Museum—and she supports numerous others. “She has very eclectic taste,” says Deborah Borda of the L.A. Phil, to which Annenberg donated $5 million for children’s education in 2004. “Musically she loves everything from Pink Martinito Beethoven’s Ninth. There’s no pretense. She enjoys what she enjoys and can do anything she wants—and does. But it’s never for appearances.”
Indeed, as Annenberg notes with some pride, she’s not just a patron of the “crème de la crème.” Annenberg grants have also paid to build a handicapped-accessible tree house in Torrance, California; transform actress Marion Davies’s former beach house in Santa Monica into a public space; and help open the Wattstar Theatre and Education Center, the first commercial cineplex in L.A.’s impoverished Watts neighborhood in 40 years. (Her top political causes have included women’s and children’s services, education, gay and lesbian rights, and animal welfare.)
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says that he has watched Annenberg become a significant figure on the city’s broader cultural scene during the 10 years he’s known her: “She’s someone who has quietly transformed Los Angeles into a world-class center of the arts, but she’s not looking for a press conference.”
And, unlike some donors who expect a bang for their buck, Annenberg’s not looking for a photo-ready party, either. As Govan delicately puts it, she is “a bit impatient with the niceties” that to some might constitute the privileges of board membership, such as attending galas while dressed in couture and jewels.
“It’s a socially accepted way of showing off your peacock feathers of wealth,” huffs Annenberg, practically rolling her eyes. “I don’t knock it, but do I participate? No. I loathe it.”
When LACMA suggested it would like to honor her Vernon donation with a splashy dinner, she said not to bother—a simple cocktail reception would suit her fine. “In New York this would’ve probably been a major black-tie affair,” says Annenberg. “It would be a way to launch myself socially by attracting people who feel like, ‘Gee, if I were as skinny as Mercedes Bass, my life would be perfect.’”