A week later Annenberg wears running shoes with her blazer and slacks as she passes through the side door of the former Beverly Hills Post Office, a stately 1933 building that was retired from government use 10 years ago. A sheet of
paper taped to the window identifies the building as the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, a promise based on the foundation’s $15 million gift. (She may disdain parties and the press, but clearly Annenberg is not averse to bestowing her name around town.) Ground will be broken next year on an edgy copper-clad 500-seat state-of-the-art auditorium designed by Zoltan Pali.
Annenberg settles herself into a worn wing chair and pulls a sheaf of talking points from her large Hermès bag. But the first question posed reveals one subject she hasn’t prepared herself to discuss: perhaps the most obvious, her father. “Well, this is a tough topic to talk about,” she says when asked to reflect on how his philanthropy informed her own philosophy of giving. A look of emotion briefly unsteadies her features. It might be annoyance at being caught off guard, or just a mixture of sadness and nostalgia, because after a brief pause she adds with a tepid stab at humor, “I didn’t know we were going to do this, or I would’ve read [his biography].”
The thumbnail is that Walter Annenberg, the only son (along with seven daughters) of publishing magnate Moses Annenberg, took the reins of the company at age 32 and grew it into a publishing juggernaut with TV Guide and Seventeen. Even before selling Triangle Publications to Rupert Murdoch in 1988 for $3 billion, the Ambassador, as he always liked to be known after his posting as Richard Nixon’s envoy to the Court of St. James’s, was a significant donor to numerous causes. In his final years, though, Walter entered the ranks of America’s most generous philanthropists, surpassed at the time only by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In 1991 Walter gave his art collection, assessed then at $1 billion and incalculably more valuable now, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1993 he wrote checks totaling $365 million to the Peddie School in New Jersey and the University of Pennsylvania, his alma maters; Harvard University, which his son, Roger, attended before committing suicide in 1962 at age 22; and the University of Southern California, a nod to the state where he and wife “Lee” spent half the year. Soon after he signed the last checks, Walter stood in the Roosevelt Room of the White House alongside President Bill Clinton to announce a gift of $500 million to improve public education.
“He gave on a grand scale,” says his daughter, laying aside her notes. “But one thing he did that left me quite touched was when President Kennedy was assassinated—there was a police officer involved by the name of Officer [J.D.] Tippit [who was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald following the assassination]. My father paid the mortgage on Officer Tippit’s house in Dallas, which was something that went without publicity or a mention in the paper. That impressed me. That’s what I thought I wanted for my philanthropy: Where could I make the impact? How could I effect change?”