Geoffrey Cowan pictures a day when two heads of state meet on the Rancho Mirage estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg to solve a problem. The president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands looks to the late couple’s Declaration of Trust and his own discussions with for guidance, but notes that the lofty concept they envisioned for Sunnylands as a sort of “Camp David West” has taken on a life of its own.
“[The Annenbergs] were the kind of philanthropists who believed in leadership. They hired people they trusted and gave them the freedom to make [their assigned project] better than they dreamed it could be. It’s our responsibility, opportunity, and challenge working with the trustees to turn this into something that achieves the goals of the Declaration of Trust,” Cowan says.
Although she lives in New York, Leonore’s daughter Elizabeth Kabler is very much in touch with plans for Sunnylands. She and eight other descendants comprise the foundation’s board of trustees. “As family members, we need to create the next step on our own,” she says. “My mother and stepfather set it up, they did a lot of work, and we will continue it. I view being involved with the Sunnylands trust as a gift and a privilege.” Kabler plans to participate herself in a retreat on adolescent addiction. “Through the graciousness of my mother and the Annenberg Foundation, I was able to open a licensed nonprofit outpatient clinic for adolescents and young adults [the Center for Living] here in New York,” she points out.
“We have been around the country talking with very high-level people who have been part of retreats on how a retreat center can effectively function,” Cowan says. “What was widely agreed is that there are a lot of retreat facilities for networking and making relationships. But I think the special function of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands will be that many or most or even all of our meetings will be ones that actually have some kind of an outcome.”
To that end, Sunnylands officials have convened “Meetings That Make a Difference,” both on-site and at off-site venues like Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, to glean the experience and advice of retreat experts. Attending most of those meetings was Cinny Kennard, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and senior adviser to the president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust. In April, Kennard interviewed former Secretary of State George Shultz, who often visited Sunnylands with President Reagan and is now a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution. Shultz explained the appeal of the Annenberg estate as a place for substantive dialog:
“There are certain places around the world that I’ve been to that have a kind of magical quality to them — their beauty of one kind or another. They have an atmosphere of peace and tranquility; and they encourage you to have candid, directed, quiet talk. Sunnylands, among all these places, is outstanding because it has such natural beauty; it has such serenity at the same time, so it’s a place that you like to sit and talk. I’ve sat in the sort of reception room at Sunnylands with groups of people on many occasions, and you sit there an hour or two hours talking. You almost forget about time and focus on what it is you’re discussing. So I think Sunnylands will turn out to be a really great place for high-level discussions in the future, just as it’s been in the past.”
The Declaration of Trust, signed by the Annenbergs in 2001, directs the purposes for which the property may be used as a retreat. The foundation board and program committee have further established guidelines for size, privacy, tranquility, quality, style, hosts/partners, and topics, as well as geographic areas of focus: the Pacific Rim, Americas, and California.
The number of participants could range from two to 22 (the number of guest rooms on the estate). Cowan estimates Sunnylands could host 10 to 12 retreats a year.
“Some people would say location is a disadvantage because it’s not in the [Capital] Beltway, but it is an advantage, especially for the Pacific Rim,” he says. “We are the only retreat center of our kind on the West Coast.”
“Having a place on the West Coast would be very, very good,” Shultz told Kennard. “There are all sorts of subjects that are of tremendous importance for our country that deserve discretion in a direct, candid, quiet way so that we make progress outside the arena of all of the partisan sniping that seems to go on in Washington these days. You can almost get the same people in a different setting and say to them, ‘Relax pal. Take it easy. Don’t get too excited. Just focus on the problems. What can we do to solve them? That’s what we’re here for.’ And Sunnylands is conducive to that kind of talk.”
Kabler thinks the Pacific Rim and the Americas could become cornerstones for Sunnylands. “There’s a chance to carve out some really interesting space in our world and help try to make a difference,” she says.
In January, the Palm Springs International Film Festival tested the center as a meeting venue when it hosted 17 filmmakers from around the world whose films addressed social and cultural issues. According to the festival’s executive director, Darryl Macdonald, the goal was to answer this question: How can we create a more responsible cinema that allows socially relevant filmmaking to thrive?
“Given the background of the place itself and the fact that the Annenbergs were involved in so much history in terms of politics and bringing the world together for dialog had huge import for us at the festival,” Macdonald says.
Sunnylands staffers will give the property its “shakedown cruise” by participating in a pre-opening retreat to gauge the success of various elements of the venue as a meeting place and fine-tune any aspects that may fall short of the high standards established in writing and in theory. The first real retreat, scheduled for early 2012, will be a meeting of Supreme Court justices, including Sandra Day O’Connor and at least two sitting justices, on civics education — a longtime passion of the Annenbergs.
Cowan has been talking with several political and industrial icons. “With Warren Buffett, we discussed having a meeting of pledgers — billionaires who agree to give away half their wealth,” he says. “We have had a range of conversations with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton.” He’s also been talking with the White House.
“One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a high-level state department official who said the kinds of meetings you want in a facility like this are not planned six months, a year, in advance. Big conferences are,” Cowan says. “Small meetings are planned two to three months in advance. The most important meeting we will have with the president, secretary of state, with world leaders, are ones that we cannot even anticipate yet. That category — the ‘Camp David West’ category — will be opportunities. They’ll happen as circumstances call for a meeting, where world events say, ‘Let’s have an important meeting.’”
“[I]n some respects, you can’t separate Sunnylands from Lee and Walter Annenberg. They were two wonderful people, and to me they still exist,” Shultz told Kennard. “I go over to that beautiful spot where they’re buried; and I look out over the horizon and I think of them, because their lives are inspiration. They did a lot themselves, they inspired a lot, and they had high standards, and they believed in holding people to those standards. So my memory of Sunnylands is eminently connected to my memory of Lee and Walter and of the great aspirations they have for our country.”
“One of the things we would like to do is preserve that kind of idyllic setting that my stepfather and mother created, which made people do their very best to excel,” Kabler says. “Excellence is the word.”
Education: An Annenberg Passion
Even those not on a retreat can benefit directly from them. Lectures, conversations, and salons may involve the subjects of and even participants in the retreats.
“What goes on at the center is meant to be a gift to the community and is meant to be open to as many people as possible,” says Janice Lyle, director of Sunnylands Center and Gardens.
Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, Sunnylands will offer free, guided tours of the center and gardens throughout the day, with focused garden tours led by a plant specialist on Fridays. “The tours will introduce people to the architecture, the aesthetics, and the history of the project and give them a little information about the current exhibition,” Lyle says. Those who wish to explore the grounds on their own can download a GPS-based app on their smart phone. Although its “video conversations” include the visitor center and sculptures therein, the app focuses largely on the gardens and plant identification.
“We didn’t want [plant] labels out there, because labeling things shifts a person’s attention and experience away from the purely visual to a reading kind of activity. We want people to experience the broader impact,” Lyle says. “Inasmuch as we want them to see the garden as art, we still have to provide them with the answer to, ‘What kind of plant is that?’”
On a weekly basis, the center will offer “studio activities” for groups. On the third Sunday of the month, family-geared, thematic events will include musicians, artists, and others with an expertise that fits the venue.
In addition to tours, planned programs, and an orientation film on the history of Sunnylands running every 30 minutes, visitors will find specially designed family activity carts. Each cart contains 20 boards that guests can take with them to a specific location and then return and select another board. For example, a board may have an embedded magnifying glass for studying ladybugs in the garden. “[The carts] are there for informal learning and informal engagement, providing a way for people to talk to each other while they’re looking at plants and sculpture,” Lyle explains.
Admission and activities at the center will be free, but there will be a $30 fee for the guided, 90-minute, electric shuttle tour of the residence and grounds. Limited to seven guests for each of 10 daily tours, residence tours require reservations.
In keeping with Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s commitment to education, Sunnylands officials are developing partnerships with College of the Desert to provide work experiences for grounds management students and with California State University, San Bernardino to use history and education
students as paid guides.
A Personal Treasury
A small group of people in a trailer filled with shelves, filing cabinets, and boxes became treasure hunters — or, rather, treasure discoverers — as they’ve sifted through documents, books, and photographs diligently saved by Walter and Leonore Annenberg.
“Frank [Lopez] is the most elbow-deep in the correspondence; and he will come out with a letter and a smile on his face and say, ‘Look what I found!’” relates Anne Rowe, director of collections and exhibitions for The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.
“There was one in a book that I found that was by [Richard] Nixon reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam War,” adds Lopez, library and archives consultant. Another letter that grabbed his attention was from First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy — four handwritten pages — thanking the Annenbergs for their 1962 White House gift of David Martin’s Portrait of Benjamin Franklin.
Lopez has had the pleasurable task of gathering, sorting, labeling, and entering into a database thousands upon thousands of the Annenbergs’ books, correspondence, and scrapbooks. The Nixon letter, which he found tucked into the former president’s book No More Vietnam, is one of 1,050 letters from or to Nixon — almost half of the 2,640 presidential letters in the Sunnylands archives, spanning all 10 presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through George W. Bush.
“They fostered a really great relationship with Nixon; and his letters were very analytical, intelligent, and thoughtful,” Lopez says. Ronald Reagan (also a close friend) accounts for the second-most letters (554) and Jimmy Carter the fewest (23).
Although the Annenbergs kept letters in scrapbooks and file folders, they framed and hung holiday cards from England’s royal house. “Mr. Annenberg always maintained annual correspondence with the Queen Mother to receive her holiday card,” Lopez says. “He made sure he was on the mailing list. It was an exciting thing for him to receive. I can tell by the correspondence. He even sent her a picture of the framed greeting cards.”
“We know about their philanthropy, but what has amazed me was the deep friendships they developed with people and how generous they were with their friends — generous and thoughtful,” Rowe says, referring to the abundance of letters and cards the Annenbergs sent.
While the couple exercised formalities in their correspondence, “there’s some intimacy there, too.” Rowe adds. “They do speak of the troubles in their lives and the challenges. These weren’t just surface relationships. They talked about the struggles of raising kids and being in the limelight and wanting to protect their children.”
Bookshelves literally speak volumes about the Annenbergs’ interests, as well as their aesthetic (no broken bindings, torn jacket covers, or dog-eared pages). The bulk of the 3,400 books concern art; other topics include etiquette, birds, plants, social sciences, journalism, history, geography, music, and government. Walter’s ambassadorship to England (1969-1974) is reflected in geography and travel books and in numerous books about Winston Churchill and English royalty.
The oldest publication, dated 1687, was a gift from Prince Charles: Ralegh’s History of the World. Glued on the inside front cover is an official presentation document from the prince to the Annenbergs dated Feb. 22, 1986. Another valuable piece in the collection is a 15-by-21-inch antiquarian tome (circa 1824) with morocco binding: The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, containing 53 plates, “published by the Command of and dedicated by permission to the King by his Majesty’s dutiful subject and servant, John Nash.” Antiquarian, limited-edition “complete writings of” include American romantic poet James Russell Lowell, American essayist/novelist Charles Dudley Warner, and British poet/historian Lord Macaulay.
About 35 percent of the books in the Sunnylands collection are signed or inscribed. Among signatures are those of Andrew Wyeth, Winston Churchill, Warren Berger, Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Placido Domingo, Frank Sinatra (signed “The Colonel”), Malcolm Forbes, William Buckley Jr., and several former presidents.
Fiction is nominally represented. A couple of classics are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Contemporary novels include The Testament by John Grisham, The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan, and three by Sidney Sheldon.
Magazines — which were selected by Leonore Annenberg to be placed in guests’ rooms according to what she thought would most interest them — range from Architectural Digest and National Geographic to Town & Country, Vanity Fair, and Palm Springs Life (the latter including seven copies of the November 1991 issue featuring Walter Annenberg on the cover and an article about his art collection inside). Given the couple’s interest in and collecting of art, it’s no surprise to find bound catalogs from Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses. What is surprising is the absence of TV Guide and Seventeen, both publications of Walter Annenberg’s media group Triangle Publications.
Among all the books and magazines, one cannot help but be drawn to the Annenbergs’ college and high school yearbooks. The 1926 edition from the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., reveals under Walter Annenberg’s picture that his extracurricular activities included football, basketball, baseball, track, and the junior prom committee.
Scrapbooks contain more treasures — and provide even more context to the lives and legacy of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. They are filled with photographs, invitations, programs, menus, and schedules (guest visits at Sunnylands were carefully choreographed with instructions for staff).
“If the materials are stable, we keep photo albums together, because somebody put it together in a certain way,” Rowe says. “But if things are at risk, then you have to disassemble it. But we document how it was assembled.”
Photographs have aided in the work to prepare Sunnylands (including the residence and landscaping) for public visitation and tours.
“We get a lot of information from photographs about décor and [the Annenbergs’] shifts in taste,” Rowe says. “There weren’t many. Their aesthetics stayed pretty close, but there were subtleties.”
Because they entertained so frequently and oversaw a peak staff of 100, documentation became critical. “Every detail was attended to,” Rowe says. “They were once operational documents. Now they are historical records. When you combine archives like that with objects, the narrative opportunities are limitless.”
Objects include vehicles (among them, a golf cart that was a gift from Sinatra) and clothes. From Leonore’s closet come designer gowns and casual wear; from Walter’s, velvet blazers, choir robes (his preference over bath robes), pastel pants, and ribboned golf hats.
The extent of the collections will provide the public with many years of discovery (and reasons to return) after Sunnylands opens to the public on March 1, 2012. Just the same, Rowe says, “We consider ourselves a static collection. Once people become aware of the archives, they may make donations, maybe a film they shot at Sunnylands. But it is a personal collection, and the exhibits will reflect that. The space at the center lends itself to a small, thematic, tightly conceived exhibit.”
In addition to organizing the archives and placing photographs and documents in acid-free files and fireproof/earthquake-proof cabinets, the collections staff is digitizing them for research by the public. According to Rowe, they have been looking for the best ideas from the Reagan and Nixon libraries, as well as other archival institutions, to determine how access will be handled.
“Some [institutions] have online access; some you have to make an appointment [to visit]. Some charge per page; some don’t. We are in the process of discovery and figuring out how we want to run it,” she says. “But we absolutely want to provide public access. That’s what the Annenbergs wanted, and we are going to make sure that happens.”
As daunting as the challenge to fulfill the couple’s legacy may seem, those working in the collections office clearly revel in the task.
“We feel a privilege and a responsibility,” Rowe says.
“It’s joyful work.”
Among the guidelines adopted by The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands are the following:
Tranquility. A signature feature of retreats, as distinguished from other meetings and conferences, is the opportunity to spend time for reflection, nurture meaningful relationships, and develop ideas in a lovely setting and to spend some time in recreational and other leisurely activities.
Quality. Guests at Annenberg retreats will enjoy the gracious hospitality, recreational opportunities, and personal touches that were the hallmark of Ambassador and Mrs. Annenberg.
Style. Annenberg retreats are known for their civility of discourse, respect for diverse opinions, and adherence to The Chatham House Rule. Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
Collections, as a rule, stay in one place, often encased in glass to discourage handling. Walter and Leonore Annenberg diverged from that course with the silver-gilt objects they collected from 1959 to 1988. They transported baskets, plates, trays, and other serving items between their homes in California and Pennsylvania and used them when entertaining guests.
In addition to permanent installations, the inaugural exhibition at Sunnylands Center and Gardens, opening March 1, 2012, will showcase the styles of eight of the best-known silver-gilt artists, with examples from England’s Georgian, Regency, and early Victorian periods, 1739 to 1843. Of particular note are seven baskets that were once royal silver-gilt belonging to King George III and Queen Charlotte.
According to Anne Rowe, director of collections and exhibitions, rotating exhibitions at the center will run about a year. “We want to have a lot of programming around the exhibits, to have specialists come in and talk about them, so a year is a fair amount of time to do that,” she says.
Walter and Leonore Annenberg communicated regularly with friends and acquaintances and clearly treasured the correspondence they received, as they saved thousands of letters over the years. Funny, insightful, and touching, here are a handful of the personal documents preserved in the Sunnylands archives.
Letter From General Electric Theater Host Ronald Reagan After He and Nancy Reagan Made the Cover of TV Guide, November 20, 1958
We have been so busy looking at the latest edition of TV Guide we haven’t had time to write. If you haven’t seen it you should rush right out to the nearest newsstand and buy a copy. Don’t bother to send any clippings about “you know who” — we have already taken care of that, plus we were sent a beautiful reproduction of the cover for which we are very grateful.
Of course it’s possible you won’t be able to get a copy so keep watching the G.E. Theatre [sic] because one of these Sundays I [sic] show you what I’m talking about. Anyway the girl in the picture (she’s my new wife — which shows the power of the press) and I are both truly grateful. Our love to Lee.
P.S. If this magazine doesn’t sell, the dog is to blame — you know how “cat lovers” are.
Letter From Richard Nixon Accompanying His Book No More Vietnams, February 22, 1985
Since April 30th will mark the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, we shall probably be inundated in the weeks ahead with acres of books, columns, and television documentaries criticizing and lamenting the American role in Vietnam.
The enclosed book presents a different point of view. There can be an honest difference of opinion over whether we should have become involved in Vietnam and how the war was conducted. But after witnessing the reign of terror that has been imposed upon the people of Vietnam and Cambodia by the Communist regimes we opposed, fair-minded observers can reach only one conclusion: Whatever our mistakes, the United States tried and failed in a just cause in Vietnam.
As I put it in the last paragraph of this book, “‘No more Vietnams’ can mean that we should not try again. It should mean we must not fail again.”
Letter to Queen Elizabeth, December 15, 1987
Your annual Christmas card reaching me today was indeed a joy and for which I thank you. To think that I received it earlier than usual ever heightens my appreciation because it will enable me to frame it and have it join the other 14 remembrances that I have been privileged to receive from you.
The collection of your pictures continues to excite guests who come into my Room of Memories when they visit here at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, and understandably so because, quite simply, you are the most beloved woman in the world.
My wife joins me in wishing you and all those near and dear to you a most happy holiday season.
Respectfully and enthusiastically,
Letter From Jacqueline Kennedy After Receiving David Martin’s Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, January 28, 1962
Dear M. Annenberg,
How could one adequately express gratitude to you and Mrs. Annenberg for the magnificent gift you have made to the White House — and to all American citizens who will see it there?
For months we have hoped against hope to acquire the Franklin portrait for the White House. Now you have made it possible — and we are speechless — overcome by your generosity and the power and beauty of the picture.
It is so touching and appropriate that you gave it — Philadelphia is the long link between Benjamin Franklin and you — and the reason Franklin’s great picture ends up in the White House
2 centuries after it was painted — to stay forever.
I had so admired the picture from photographs — but to see it takes one’s breath away — the colors — red and green — are so beautiful. The red is almost like Van Eyck — so many layers of transparency. You feel if you turned off all the lights in the room, those colors would gleam out from the dark.
We will hang it next week, after it has been shown to the press, if that is all right with you. The best place for it looks to be over the Green Room mantel — as it is so important I feel it should have the place of honor in a room — and it is the period of that room. But if it looks best in the red room it will go there — wherever it appears to its best advantage.
I am trying to persuade CBS to reshoot the Green Room for their White House television show Feb. 14 so people can see it hanging. If they are unable to do that, it will appear as a slide and I will tell about it.
Please please do come and see it soon. The only sad thing will be that you and Mrs. Annenberg will long to pop it in a truck and take it back to Philadelphia. Who would blame you. Not many people would give such a beautiful thing away.
That you did is so magnificent that there are no words to thank you. All the future generations of Americans who will see it there will be as proud and grateful as we are today. I am sure Benjamin Franklin is the happiest of all.
Again, all deepest thanks — in which the President
On a Personal Note
Among the collection of letters are 4-by-5 notes from Leonore to her husband, all beginning “Dearest” or “Darling,” signed “With love” and sometimes “Your Lee.” The notes not only inform Walter where she is (golf, lunch with a friend, visiting her daughter, at a doctor or dental appointment, having a facial, or shopping), but also the time (to the quarter of an hour) she will return. She sometimes promises to call.
In a longer correspondence, dated Dec. 7, 2001, Leonore tells Walter that she is in Beverly Hills for a 50th anniversary celebration, after which she will fly to New York to attend a Carnegie Foundation luncheon at the New York Public Library “to accept for us the first Andrew Carnegie Award for philanthropy.” (Walter Annenberg was in ill health at the time and unable to travel with his wife to the Carnegie Foundation event.)
“I’m so proud of all you have accomplished,” she writes. “I will tell the whole audience.”