Intimacy Over Grandeur

Seventh in an eight-part series

Gloria Greer Arts & Entertainment, Real Estate 0 Comments

“Why, as I leave, do I feel that I am playing Paradise Lost?”

President Ronald Reagan wrote this in one of many Sunnylands guest books before returning to the White House after a long weekend at the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage. Another time, after one of the famous Annenberg New Year’s Eve parties, he wrote “You’ve made it hard for us to go back to the universe.”

“Heaven” and “paradise” are the most frequently written words in the guest books that friends of the Annenbergs signed at the end of their visits. As diverse as the signatures are, they cannot tell the entire story of a Sunnylands stay. No one can, because each cherished memory of a visit with former Ambassador Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, was distinct.

Charles and Carol Swanson Price were among the Annenbergs’ closest friends. Carol met them through her parents, Florence and W. Clark Swanson (president of Swanson’s Foods) and remembers visiting Sunnylands as a schoolgirl.

“They were still plowing the land, and I watched it grow into this magical place,” she says. She and her husband became close to the Annenbergs before Charles was appointed ambassador to Belgium in 1981 and the Court of St. James (Great Britain, the same post that Walter had held) in 1983. They attended all but two of the New Year’s Eve parties, including those held for eight years honoring Nancy and President Reagan with most of the president’s cabinet in attendance. They also attended small luncheons and dinners, hunted Easter eggs with their children and the Annenbergs’ grandchildren outside the game room, played golf together, and traveled the world with the couple. After Walter’s death, Carol accompanied Leonore to London, where she received the prestigious Order of the British Empire from Prince Charles. “I have so many joyous memories,” Carol says. “They are not of the grandness of it, but the intimacy of it.”

Bill Moss, who divides his time between homes in Dallas and Indian Wells with his wife, Diane, remembers a dinner conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Bill Cohen, who had just stepped down as secretary of defense. Netanyahu had so many suggestions about the Middle East that Cohen murmured, “Shouldn’t we keep this conversation for the United Nations?”

“I can still remember my first visit to Sunnylands and watching Ambassador Annenberg show Gen. Alexander Haig [former U.S. security advisor and secretary of state] the paintings in his vast collection, describing in detail various aspects of each painting and its artist,” Moss says. “I was awestruck with the amount of knowledge and love Walter had for each painting.”

“Walter loved to walk around with his guests and show them his ‘babies,’” Carol Price says, referring to the magnificent paintings and sculptures at Sunnylands.

Richard and Pat Nixon were frequent visitors — before and after his presidency. Shortly after Nixon resigned, he returned to Sunnylands and made this notation in the Sunnylands guest book: “When you’re down, you find out who your real friends are — We shall always be grateful for your kindness and your loyal friendship.”

Julie Nixon Eisenhower also visited as a youth, but says her husband, David, will never forget his first visit to Sunnylands. “It was 1969 and my dad’s first year in office. We were in San Clemente. David and I had been married the previous December, and we were on a college break. My dad decided on the spur of the moment to go to Sunnylands. Lee and Walter had been inviting him, and he needed a break from the pressure of government and the war in Vietnam; and so he and David took a helicopter there. It was my father’s first visit as president, and they had the most wonderful evening — the three of them [Eisenhower, Nixon, and Walter] playing poker in the game room. David said it was fascinating to see the property, a whole new venture [for the Annenbergs] and the beauty of the setting and mountains. Lee would come in and out of the game room during the poker game, and David was struck with how beautiful and full of life she was.”

Mamie and former President Dwight Eisenhower were the first guests at Sunnylands. “Ike used to love to go there to fish in the Sunnylands lakes,” Julie recalls. “Sometimes he would go there and fish all by himself — even when the Annenbergs weren’t in residence.”

Leonore’s daughter Diane Deshong has many memories, but will never forget the Christmas Eves when Walter would gather his grandchildren on his lap and read The Night Before Christmas. “It was an annual tradition when they were young that continued when he had great grandchildren,” she says. “People who do not know them forget that my mother and Uncle Walter were real people. They were parents and grandparents. Family was important to them.”

Holidays were a special time at Sunnylands. Michael Comerford, Sunnylands’ house manager, enjoyed planning Christmas for the children. “Mrs. Annenberg would say, ‘Michael, surprise me!’” he recalls.

“Michael would outdo himself each year,” Deshong says. “After Christmas Eve dinner, the drapes would be pulled to reveal a different scene. I remember one year the entire atrium was a village with trains moving on the tracks and even miniature people that moved.” She also has fond memories of her mother trimming the Christmas tree with her children and Comerford. “The only thing sad about it was that the tree had to come down before New Year’s Eve.”

Comerford, who had worked for the Duke of Gloucester (the Queen of England’s uncle) and Princess Beatrix (now Queen Beatrix of Holland) at the Netherlands Royal Palace and then in the American Embassy before and during Annenberg’s 1969-1974 tenure as ambassador, first accompanied the Annenbergs to Sunnylands in 1971 when they were planning an Easter return to their Rancho Mirage estate. They had invited Gov. Ronald and Nancy Reagan and Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin, Princess Alexandra, and her husband, Angus Ogilvy. Leonore sensed the need of someone to manage their household during these visits. Comerford was able to get a two-week visa through the U.S. Embassy. He accompanied the couple to the United States on their visits until the Annenbergs returned stateside permanently. That is when Comerford gave up his position at the U.S. Embassy in London to remain with the Annenbergs as their house manager.

Weekend guests came to Sunnylands from all over the world. Although Walter was no longer ambassador to the Court of St. James, members of the British royal family were frequent visitors. They included Prince Charles; Prince Andrew; former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson; and Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and his wife, Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were so fond of the Annenbergs (Walter was the only American ambassador to have been knighted by the queen) that on a brief California visit they flew from Los Angeles to the desert just to have lunch at Sunnylands. The guest book devotes an entire page to the signatures “Elizabeth R” (the “R” denoting her title, Regina, Latin for “queen”) and “Philip.”

Whether it was the arrival of British royals, United States presidents; heads of state; family; or friends from Philadelphia, Beverly Hills, and New York, a stay at Sunnylands felt heaven sent. Richard Nixon told his daughter that Lee Annenberg was the greatest hostess he had ever known. And, Julie adds, “She made it look effortless.” In truth, it was anything but effortless. It was a tribute to Leonore’s grace and wisdom that it could appear effortless.

“Mrs. Annenberg was the ultimate example of an extremely gracious and thoughtful hostess,” says Linda Brooks, who worked for the Annenbergs for more than 30 years, first as a secretary and then as estate manager. “She paid attention to every detail that made each and every house guest feel special and pampered.”

“Mother and Uncle Walter greeted everyone by the front door when they arrived,” Deshong says. While the host and hostess greeted guests, staff members would take their  luggage to one of five luxurious guest suites, unpack, and place everything in a closet or drawer. The suites were named by color: Pink (Charles and Mary Jane Wick stayed there), Yellow (a haven for Nancy and Ronald Reagan); Peach (where good friends Harriet and Armand Deutsch stayed), Green (the suite of choice for former Attorney General William French Smith and his wife, Jean); and Blue (a favorite for Alma and Colin Powell and George and Barbara Bush). Amenities included turned-down beds every night with fresh linen and a breakfast menu delivered before dinner with a request for the next morning’s desired menu choices, time, and place.

Most guests arrived on Friday afternoon before dinner and left Sunday after luncheon with their cars freshly washed and filled with gas. “All your cares would vanish when you arrived at Sunnylands,” Deshong says.

“Not only did Mrs. Annenberg plan wonderful meals, magnificent place settings, and superb flowers, but also every detail to make them comfortable in their guest quarters,” Brooks says. “Every Thursday before a weekend visit, she would review all the latest magazines and books we had on hand and choose those that she thought would be of most interest to each guest. She placed them herself in each guest room as she swept through to see that everything else was in place and the orchids in each room were perfect and matched.”

“Regardless of who was there, you felt it was a great experience,” Diane Moss says. “The sum was greater than the parts. Besides beauty and impeccable taste, the evenings were so memorable because they brought people to a higher level than they would be in another environment.”

“The success of their dinner parties was very much so because of [Leonore’s] detailed attention to the seating plan,” Brooks explains. “We would go through many drafts before she came up with just the right one that mixed and matched her guests in the most compatible manner. She paid very close attention to interests and personalities to be sure that each guest would have table partners who would be interesting and lively.” Another Annenberg strategy: Husbands and wives were always separated so that they each had different conversations and experiences.

“Lee was the centerpiece of the whole thing,” says Marcia French. “The evenings and lunches were secondary to her welcome spirit. Her tables were magnificent, the service impeccable.” But most of all, French admired the way Leonore kept the conversation going around the table. “Others at the table might be conversing. Suddenly Lee would turn to me and say, ‘What do you think, Marcia?’ just to draw me into the conversation. She was the greatest diplomat I have ever known.” Ronald Reagan apparently agreed. He made her his first United States chief of protocol with the title of ambassador in 1981.

A list of those who would be dining or sharing the weekend was placed in each guest suite in advance, including a brief bio of each guest. If you were not an overnight guest but arriving for lunch or dinner, the information was faxed or e-mailed to you in advance.

“Walter and Lee each had a wonderful sense of humor and enjoyed their friends’ humor,” Julie Nixon Eisenhower says. There was fun and laughter, as well as stimulating discussions. French remembers one party attended by Dinah Shore, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Gerald and Betty Ford, and Bob and Dolores Hope. Shore looked around the room and commented, “The party can start — all the streets are here” (referring to Coachella Valley roadways named after the guests).

Carol Price was present when Alma and Colin Powell arrived for one of their many visits. “Lee and Walter were extremely fond of Colin and Alma,” she recalls, “and so they loved it when Colin arrived by announcing, ‘Mom and Pop — we’re home!’

“Whether guests were there for the first time or had been there many times, they felt at home,” Price notes.

Menus were as detailed as seating arrangements. “They were cross-checked and coordinated for Mrs. Annenberg’s final approval,” Comerford says. “Two or three menu alternatives, with help from the chef, were submitted first.” Before the menus were selected, Leonore (and in later years, Brooks) would check with guests’ secretaries or assistants in advance to find out if there were any food items they were unable to eat.

There was also an advance request for activities that would appeal. Did their guests enjoy golf or tennis? Did they play bridge or backgammon? Games were prescheduled to add to a memorable stay, and experts were invited to join the guests.

“It was terrific to be a tennis pro and have the opportunity to meet all the people you would ever want to meet: presidents, royalty, movie stars, Supreme Court judges,” says Tommy Tucker, then director of tennis at Mission Hills Country Club and now director emeritus. “I was employed, but never made to feel like an employee. We would play tennis and then all have lunch. I remember after playing tennis with Joanne Breyer, wife of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, having lunch and she asked if we could go back and play more tennis. She was an excellent player, and we played until dark.”

Tucker also recalls that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was “spectacular” on the tennis court, and that Alan Greenspan, then head of the Federal Reserve, was left handed and so intent on improving his backhand with Tucker that they played until it was almost too dark to see on the unlit court. “There were always people watching,” Tucker says. He remembers Leonore and Manhattan social icon Brooke Astor cheering them on. “The score was usually 7-6. I knew where to place the balls so that everyone looked good.”

“There was no guest who enjoyed the property more than President [George H.W.] Bush,” Brooks says. “He would get up early to fish in one of the lakes, play 18 holes of golf in two hours, and then fish again!”

The Annenbergs loved to play golf with each other and their guests, and the course was always in perfect condition.

“I remember riding in a golf cart with Lee,” French recalls. “When she saw stray leaves on the course, she would jump out of the cart and place tiny red metal flags on the leaves. That way the gardeners would know where to find the leaves!”

The warmth of the host and hostess outshone the five-star attention their guests received, according to longtime friend Betty Barker, who often dined alone with the Annenbergs. She was also invited for special occasions, including Supreme Court justice retreats, special evenings when members of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performed, and Walter’s birthday parties. “I remember his 90th birthday,” Barker says. “Lee arranged for the Pete Fountain Jazz Band, a favorite of the ambassador’s, to play as a birthday surprise.”

Despite the grandeur of the estate and its guests, Deshong says that, for her mother, breakfast was family time. “My mother always had breakfast in her bedroom, and we would have our private time there with her.”

Sunnylands could also be a refuge. In 1979, when UCLA students attempted to storm the Los Angeles residence of the Shah of Iran’s mother and sister, the former Iranian ambassador to the United States, Ardeshir Zahedi, convinced Annenberg to allow family members to stay in a cottage at Sunnylands for two weeks. Fatemeh, the Shah’s sister, wrote this in the Sunnylands guest book: “A sad occasion gave us the happiness to know and enjoy the friendship of a generous man and his charming family. Thank you Mr. Ambassador.”

Carol Price calls the Annenbergs “true life enhancers. They extended their friendships; they helped others. They wanted their friends to like one another. Sunnylands was a welcome place to be, and everyone felt it.” The Prices always stayed at Sunnylands when they visited from Kansas City, before they became Indian Wells residents. “I used to tell Lee that the only bad thing about having a home here is that I couldn’t stay at Sunnylands,” Carol says.

Charles Price, who shares his wife’s devotion to the Annenbergs, gave this toast at one of their parties in 1978: “I hope for permission to eventually enter the Pearly Gates. And I also give thanks for having been to Sunnylands first.” 

The tradition of inviting guests to sign the Sunnylands guest book continues. In March, former First Lady Laura Bush visited the Sunnylands Visitor Center (opening to the public in February 2012) and signed a new guest book.

The original guest books may be shown in a special exhibition in the future. They feature hundreds of signatures from the most prominent people of our time, including Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly actress Grace Kelly), Rosalyn Carter, Truman Capote, Barbara Walters, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Barbara and George Bush (who always signed the guest book with the number 41, designating his presidency), and George W. Bush.

On Jan. 28, 2004, Dolores Hope attended a dinner two years after the death of Walter Annenberg and wrote, “A return to Heaven — only the Saint is missing.” The signatures represent an era of charm and the unequalled hospitality that Walter and Leonore Annenberg created at Sunnylands.

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