The Pleasure of Your Company

Gracious hospitality and vigorous protocol mark an exceptional history of entertaining at Sunnylands

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This feature was adapted from the exhibition book, The Pleasure of Your Company: Entertaining at Sunnylands, by ANNE ROWE, director of collections and exhibitions at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands.

Sunnylands, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, is known for many things: architecture, design, art, the golf course, parties, famous visitors, and hosting high-level meetings. The Annenbergs were the ultimate hosts.

Beginning in 1966, upon completion of the home, the Annenbergs invited visitors to sign their guest book. U.S. presidents and their families, royal visitors from Britain and other countries, world leaders, U.S. Supreme Court Justices, as well as film, music, and visual artists convened, retreated, and enjoyed private refuge at Sunnylands.

The Pleasure of Your Company: Entertaining at Sunnylands, an exhibition at Sunnylands Center & Gardens opening Jan. 19 and continuing through
Jan. 11, 2015, examines five memorable events that took place at this estate. Four occurred during the Annenbergs’ lifetime:

• the 1976 wedding of Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx.
• the 1980 New Year’s Eve celebration in honor of President-elect Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan
• the 1983 luncheon in honor of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip,
• and the 1990 dinner hosted by President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush for Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.

A fifth event — in the post-Annenberg residency era — was a state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for President Xi Jinping of China on June 7, 2013. In including this event, the exhibition acknowledges the continuing role Sunnylands plays on the American political and cultural stage.


The Sinatra Wedding, 1976

Walter Annenberg approached Barbara Marx in the early 1970s, during her courtship with Frank Sinatra. “Barbara, if you and Frank ever decide to get married, we must have the wedding at Sunnylands.” Barbara wittily replied, “Don’t hold your breath!”

After four years of dating, Frank presented Barbara with a 22-carat diamond — a nonverbal proposal. He never formally proposed. Walter responded with his typical wry humor, saying she should get Frank to the altar right away, given what Walter called Frank’s mercurial personality. Barbara agreed. The date was set for July 11, 1976.

Guests were told that they would be attending an engagement party.

Barbara and Frank traveled to the ceremony from the Sinatra compound, sneaking across the Tamarisk Country Club fairways and entering Sunnylands through gates reserved for staff and deliveries.

Barbara was resplendent in a beige chiffon Halston gown with an emerald brooch. Frank wore a handsome summer-weight suit with a beige silk tie and a brown and beige hanky in his breast pocket.

The ceremony was held in front of the fireplace beneath three French Impressionist paintings: a Van Gogh, Seurat, and Gauguin. Two Chinese cloisonné cranes with Imperial lineage flanked the fireplace, which was festooned with fresh flowers.

Following the exchange of vows, Frank provided a light moment in the emotional and reportedly happy room. When officiant Judge James Walsworth uttered the words, “for richer or poorer,” Frank quipped, “richer, richer!”


New Years Eve, 1980

Brooke Astor, one of New York’s grandest 20th-century socialites, proclaimed that an invitation to the Sunnylands’annual New Year’s Eve party “was the greatest invitation one could ever have.”

Gov. Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent New Year’s Eve at Sunnylands beginning in 1975, and attended in 1977 and 1979. With his election to the White House in 1980, the New Year’s Eve party was exhilarating, and marked Sunnylands’ change from a private retreat for friends to a “Camp David of the West.”

The Secret Service was discreetly in attendance, and the Sunnylands internal security protocols were augmented and overseen by the White House. Food preparation and handling were now observed with a concern for safety. 

No longer would the Reagans’ Sunnylands visits be quiet, under-the-radar getaways. Rather, motorcades, press announcements, road barricades, Marine One landing on the lawn of Sunnylands, and Air Force One sightings at Palm Springs International Airport became a part of the spectacle.

The program and menu for the New Year’s Eve party was tied with a red, white, and blue ribbon. Enamel boxes with the Sunnylands emblem were presented as party favors for the women. As was customary, couples were split up during dinner to encourage conversation and networking. Dancing to live music commenced with dessert and lasted long into the night. A round of “Auld Lang Syne” followed the countdown to midnight.


The Royal Luncheon, 1983

In September 1982, the Annenbergs learned the impending visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh would include a stop in California. Walter wrote to the private secretary to the Queen, inviting the royal couple to Sunnylands.

A luncheon at Sunnylands was scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 27, 1983. The royal party flew to Palm Springs from San Diego on Air Force Two and drove in a motorcade to Sunnylands

Eighteen guests dined with the Queen of England. Eight were members of the royal party, and 10 were Americans, including former President Gerald Ford and former First Lady Betty Ford

Chef Michel Venaut began the luncheon with mousselines de saumon with cucumbers and sauce verte served with a 1979 riesling wine from Germany. The main course was a rack of lamb, served with string beans, glazed carrots, and potatoes Parisienne. This was paired with a 1966 Château Lafite Rothschild, a French cabernet blend. A soufflé à l’érable (with maple) was served for dessert paired with 1970 Dom Pérignon Champagne.

The table was set with Royal Copenhagen’s Flora Danica china and pale green place mats shaped like cabbage roses. The flatware was Georg Jensen’s cactus pattern, with a variety of Baccarat crystal glassware. Leonore created centerpieces with Boehm Porcelain flowers and Flora Danica tureens in a nod to the fine china that was also used in the English royal household. The Queen famously quipped that she and the Annenbergs had the same china, only the Annenbergs had more of it.


The Bush-Kaifu Summit, 1990

In February 1990, President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush made plans to visit the Annenbergs at Sunnylands over the weekend of March 2.

Bush had the trip on his mind when he spoke on the telephone from the Oval Office on Feb. 23, 1990. Toshiki Kaifu had been serving as prime minister of Japan for six months. Three days prior to Bush’s call, Kaifu’s party re-elected him for an 18-month term. Bush called to congratulate him and invite him to Rancho Mirage.

There were to be summit meetings during the day on Friday and Saturday at The Club at Morningside, and a formal Official dinner at Sunnylands, hosted by the president and first lady on Friday night.

Seating charts placed an American official acting as “head of table.” They were President George Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and Secretary of the Treasury James Brady. Leonore was seated next to the president,  and Walter was seated next to Barbara Bush. A balance of Japanese and American delegates made up the remainder of the guests.

Chef Michel Venaut’s first course might have recognized the traditional Japanese diet consisting largely of fish and vegetables, through the choice of mousseline; however, the dish is decidedly a French interpretation. British epicurean culture was represented in the choice of beef Wellington. French cuisine was again referenced in the dessert choice of a soufflé. California wines were served exclusively.

According to longtime butler Michael Comerford, the only challenge was maneuvering around translators whose chairs were positioned slightly behind the guests they were assisting.


The Obama-Xi Summit, 2013

In spring 2013, the White House expressed interest in an informal and symbolic Sunnylands meeting June 7–9 between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China. Obama would stay after the meeting for 24 hours of private recuperation.

The press speculated that this encounter might focus on trade inequities, cyber theft, human rights, environmental concerns, and intellectual property rights. Both leaders knew that there was much work ahead, and agreed to meet in a relaxed atmosphere.

The presidential motorcade arrived at Sunnylands in the late afternoon of June 7. Obama shook hands and posed with the Sunnylands greeting committee.

Following a brief interval, Obama welcomed Xi in the atrium. A limited press pool had access in the living room for a brief photo session. The two presidents posed seated in front of a Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington from the Sunnylands collection.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay prepared the dinner, and visited the dining room to introduce his menu and wine pairings. The menu was Southwestern, reflecting the indigenous history of the Americas, as well as the Southern California location where tamales are a traditional favorite.

On day two, a walk around the grounds for the two leaders and their translators, provided a serene landscape in which to personally connect. They later posed on a California-made redwood bench that the White House presented as a gift to the president of China.

Madame Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, arrived on June 8 for tea with Wallis Annenberg, daughter of Walter Annenberg and trustee of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. Xi and Obama joined them in the Royal Sitting Room, where Bush had relaxed with Kaifu 23 years earlier.

Obama validated the unusual quality of the experience at Sunnylands when he signed the guest book on June 9:

Thank you for the extraordinary hospitality — both for the U.S.–China summit, and for the extra day. It could not have been better! — Barack Obama

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