Because her father doubted the wisdom of putting excess cash in young hands, she and her elder brother, Roger, had a more frugal upbringing than the children of her more lavish aunts. In 1960 she dropped out of Columbia University to marry a Princeton-educated neurosurgeon named Seth Weingarten, and during their 15 years of marriage they lived in New Haven, Connecticut; New York; and Roswell, New Mexico, where he served for two years as an Air Force captain. The couple had four children—the first son, Roger, was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic—but the marriage later turned “turbulent,” according to Christopher Ogden’s biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg. Wallis’s excesses during the time included drugs and drinking, and she indulged in extramarital dalliances. The couple divorced in the mid-Seventies. Wallis, who, according to Ogden, dried out at the Betty Ford clinic and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, went to work in the L.A. office of TV Guide.
At the time of her father’s death, Annenberg became a steward of the foundation’s $2 billion share of Walter Annenberg’s estate. The foundation’s five trustees include Leonore, Wallis and her sons Gregory and Charles Annenberg Weingarten, and her daughter, Lauren Bon, an artist whose large-scale outdoor artwork Not a Cornfield was funded by a foundation grant. After Annenberg took over, the foundation’s center of gravity slowly shifted from Radnor, Pennsylvania, near her father’s primary residence, to L.A., where the younger family members convene for monthly board meetings. Together they review grant proposals—some 5,200 to date—with managing director Leonard Aube, while Leonore continues to support her favored cultural institutions and oversees the building of a visitors center at Sunnylands, the palatial estate near Palm Springs where the Annenbergs hosted three presidents and Queen Elizabeth II. Asked how she gets along with her stepmother, whom Annenberg refers to as “Mrs. Annenberg,” she offers only a crisp “Oh, very well. Thank you.”
While steeped in her father’s philanthropic philosophy, Annenberg has put her own stamp on the foundation, running it less as a one-person show and more like a family corporation. She’s not a major art collector in her own right—she has a few photographs by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams—and prefers investing in public venues. In addition to the Vernon gift to LACMA, the Annenberg Foundation is building a 10,000-square-foot photography center downstairs from its offices.
“She’s allowing herself to be eccentric and to follow her passions,” says Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “That’s unusual at a major foundation today. They’re so professionalized that you usually don’t see one individual’s influence.”
Annenberg likes to speak of finding her philanthropic “niche,” but with $2 billion in foundation assets under her control, what she really has is a world-class platform to act upon. “[My father] used to say that I would be sitting on a butter tub,” she recalls, “that I would be in a wonderful position. I told him, ‘Dad, that’s the only thing that I really want from your legacy.’” Legacies can also be a burden, however, and one can’t help but wonder if Annenberg enjoys the responsibility that comes with the family name.