LOS ANGELES – The Honorable Leonore Annenberg, a major patron of the arts and education and the billionaire widow of publishing magnate and Ambassador to the Court of St. James Walter Annenberg, has died at age 91.
Mrs. Annenberg, who served briefly as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of protocol, died early on March 12th, 2009, of natural causes at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an Annenberg family spokeswoman and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
In a written statement, former first lady Nancy Reagan called Mrs. Annenberg “a dear and longtime friend” and praised the Annenbergs’ “unparalleled” philanthropy that “left an indelible print on education in the United States.”
When Ronald Reagan appointed Mrs. Annenberg to the protocol post in 1981, it was as if she had spent her first 63 years preparing for a role in which attention to etiquette and diplomatic detail play such an important part.
What she called her only other “meaningful job” didn’t come with a salary but took her to London, where Mr. Annenberg served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974. She delighted in mingling with the royal family, entertaining and refurbishing the ambassador’s mansion.
Mrs. Annenberg became an equal partner in the family’s charitable legacy over the course of her long marriage and assumed control of the Annenberg Foundation upon the death of her husband in October 2002. Since its creation in 1989, the foundation has given away $4.2 billion to cultural, educational and medical institutions.
Mr. Annenberg owned a communications empire that included TV Guide. In 1988 he sold his Triangle publishing company to Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion. The Annenbergs endowed schools of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.
In the early 1950s, the Annenbergs began building a renowned collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces that was worth an estimated $1 billion when they pledged it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991.
During her lifetime, Mrs. Annenberg sat on the boards of the nation’s most prestigious philanthropies devoted to the arts and education.
In addition to her daughters, Diane Deshong of Beverly Hills and Elizabeth Kabler of New York, and stepdaughter Wallis Annenberg of Los Angeles, Mrs. Annenberg is survived by a sister, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. In her capacity as chairman and president of the Annenberg Foundation after her husband Walter’s death in 2002, Leonore Annenberg, known as Lee, gave away billions of dollars to cultural and medical institutions.
While in London in the early 1970s, Walter and Mrs. Annenberg were generous benefactors – notably to the British Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Lee Annenberg founded the American Friends of Covent Garden in London. As a couple, his frankness and her grace complemented each other, and Lord Charteris recalled: “He was honourable and straightforward, and Lee was such a splendid character, that before very long he was the most respected Ambassador at the Court of St James.” But though born to wealth, Lee Annenberg was not always blessed with happiness.
She was born Leonore Cohn in New York on February 20 1918, the elder daughter of Max Cohn, a textile merchant whose business was failing, and of Clara Henle, his wife, whose family had emigrated from Berlin. Lee was the niece of Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, who brought her up from the aged of 11 onwards – her mother having died when Lee was seven, leaving her father unable to cope. Harry Cohn was one of the legendary Hollywood producers.
Lee Annenberg went to school in Pasadena and traveled through Europe with her sister. Soon after graduating from Stanford University in 1940, and in the teeth of opposition from Harry Cohn, she married her first husband, Belden Katleman, from a family in real estate who owned a national chain of parking lots. He was reputed to have had mob ties in Las Vegas. Their marriage, which produced a daughter, dissolved in 1946.
Subsequently, Lee married Lewis Rosenstiel, a multi-millionaire three decades her elder who had founded the Schenley liquor distillery (the second largest in the United States after Seagram). She moved into his 1,500-acre estate at Greenwich, Connecticut, and gave birth to a second daughter. But the marriage ended in a bitter divorce, Lee citing extreme mental cruelty and leaving the marital home with only the clothes she was wearing.
In 1951 Leonore married her third husband, Walter Annenberg, which proved a close and enduring alliance. He had inherited a failing publishing empire, out of which he made a great success and a great fortune. As publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer he became a close friend of Senator Richard Nixon. The Annenbergs invested in great works of art, Walter urging: “Never buy four C-plus paintings when you can buy one A.”
They soon owned Van Goghs and Monets, and became prominent socially. They lived on an estate in Pennsylvania, and owned a 400-acre winter estate, Sunnylands, at Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs. It became a retreat for the rich and famous. When he saw it, the Prince of Wales said: “You gave up this to come to London?” The Reagans, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope also came to visit. Ex-President Nixon headed there after his resignation in 1974. There was also a ski lodge in Sun Valley and a magnificent apartment in New York.
In 1969, after Nixon became President, he appointed Walter Annenberg US Ambassador to Britain. Lee set about renovating the Ambassador’s residence, Winfield House in Regent’s Park, spending $5 million on it in six months, and filling it with post-Impressionist paintings.
The Annenbergs were great supporters of Ronald Reagan, and it was Walter who helped forge his friendship with Margaret Thatcher. They supported President Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, and after his election Reagan appointed Mrs. Annenberg chief of protocol of the United States (with ambassadorial status), in which role she advised the president and others and formally welcomed foreign dignitaries on their arrival in America.
Following a dispute over who should organize the presidential attendance at Anwar Sadat’s funeral, Mrs. Annenberg resigned her post as U.S. Chief of Protocol in order to spend more time with her family. For the rest of their lives, the Annenbergs were philanthropists supporting numerous worthy causes. In 1989 Walter founded the Annenberg Foundation, which created the Annenberg Challenge, a $500 million contribution to a five-year program of educational reform.
The Annenberg Foundation has now given away some $4.2 billion, and after Walter Annenberg’s death at the age of 94, Lee succeeded him as chairman and president.
Leonore Annenberg was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the board of trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a managing director of Metropolitan Opera. She was also associated with numerous similar enterprises, such as the University of Pennsylvania, the Richard Nixon Library, and the Royal Academy in England. In 2001, Mrs. Annenberg was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.
Mrs. Annenberg entertained the Queen and the Prince of Wales at her home, and in 2007 she attended President Bush’s dinner for the Queen in Washington. In 2004 she was awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the British Empire).
A kind and gentle woman, it was said that her porcelain skin was never touched by the sun and that she wore “a meringue of blonde hair impervious to the elements”. She was never known to “dress down”.