Remembering a Gracious Couple: A Firsthand Account

“Why are you trying to sell Sunnylands?”

Gloria Greer Arts & Entertainment, Social Scene 0 Comments

Gloria Greer, Muriel Fulton, Leonore Annenberg, and Helen Kenaston at Palm Springs Desert Museum in the late 1960s.

“Why are you trying to sell Sunnylands?”

The deep and very annoyed voice was that of Walter Annenberg, owner of Triangle Publications and U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James.

“I think you have me mixed up with someone else. I am not in real estate,” I replied.

I was a guest of Bob and Dolores Hope at a $1,000-per-plate fundraiser for Eisenhower Medical Center, one of several held before the hospital was completed. I had walked up to the dais to thank the Hopes for their generosity when Ambassador Annenberg confronted me.

“I know exactly who you are,” he retorted. “You are on television, and you said that I was trying to sell Sunnylands.”

Yes, I was on the local ABC outlet, but I had never said Sunnylands was for sale.

I knew how much Annenberg and his wife, Lee, loved their Rancho Mirage home.

“I think you have me mixed up with another reporter. Maybe Rona Barrett [who had a similar televised gossip segment on ABC in Los Angeles] used the story, because I didn’t.”

The ambassador’s demeanor immediately changed. “I think you are right,” he said, laughing and then quietly adding, “Remember me to your mother.”

He had met my mother and father, a producer and composer, when he spent time in New York City, where we lived when I was a toddler, and in Atlantic City (a favorite vacation destination for Philadelphians such as him), where my family maintained a suite at The Ritz-Carlton until my father’s death. There was never a time when I saw Ambassador Annenberg that he did not ask about my mother, a sign of his caring and his interest in others.  

I was the first journalist in the country to announce that President Richard Nixon had asked Walter Annenberg to become ambassador to the Court of St. James, a 1968 television scoop before the official announcement was made.

The first time that a layout of Sunnylands appeared in a national magazine was in a 1978 issue of Town & Country, shortly after his tenure as ambassador ended. The estate was an important part of a 24-page story on the Coachella Valley that I wrote with Nancy Holmes for that issue of the magazine. I was surprised to receive a phone call early one morning at my Palm Desert home with this announcement:

“Mrs. Greer? Ambassador Annenberg is on the line.”

“Good morning Mr. Ambassador,” I said (I always called him ‘Mr. Ambassador,’ and I think he appreciated that.)

“I just finished reading the Town & Country story you and Nancy Holmes wrote about our desert,” he said. “It’s excellent. You should be very proud.”

I was amazed. I had not seen the story or photographs in print. The Ambassador obviously received an advance copy and took the time to phone me to tell me how much he enjoyed it.

It was not the only time he called me about something that appeared in print.

On another morning many years later, I heard his unmistakable, deep voice on the other end of the line.

“How do you spell Maine?” he asked.

“As in what?”

The bombastic voice replied, “As in Maine lobster, from Maine.”

“Why M-a-i-n-e.”

“Then why isn’t it spelled that way in your magazine?” (I was then publishing Sand to Sea, to which the Annenbergs subscribed.)

“Where is it misspelled?” I asked.

“There is an advertisement that reads ‘Live Main Lobster.’ I have been watching it for two years and it has been spelled that way — without the ‘e’ — for two years!”

“Well, Mr. Ambassador, I never noticed. That is the way the camera-ready ad was given to me. I will correct it.”

A few days later, I saw Mrs. Annenberg at an Eisenhower Medical Center function. I told her about her husband’s phone call and the spelling of Maine.

“Oh,” she laughed, “That’s Walter. He always does things like that.”

The ambassador’s keen interest in everything — from local television reports to ads in local publications — was a side of him that not everyone saw. Also unknown to casual acquaintances was his desire to be on top of breaking news stories at all times. That is why, long before computers and cell phones, there was an Associated Press Teletype machine in a study behind the master bedroom that ticked out every breaking news story as it happened.

“We also have an AP machine at our home in Philadelphia,” Mrs. Annenberg explained. “That way Walter is in concert with the news all the time. The newspaper business is exciting.”

Seeing Sunnylands with the Annenbergs was a privilege. They took great pride in their home. I asked what prompted them to buy their acreage and to build Sunnylands.

“We used to stay at La Quinta Hotel [now La Quinta Resort & Club] when we came to the desert,” Mrs. Annenberg explained. One day, we were playing golf at Tamarisk Country Club and coming down the 14th fairway when we saw this land. It is unusual to see an elevated piece of land right here. We drove past this over and over again. For years we planned to build a place in the desert. Walter has always loved California; and, although I wasn’t born here, I did graduate from Stanford and consider myself a real Californian. We purchased the land in 1963 and worked on our home and the property until 1966, when we were able to move in. Sunnylands made a longtime dream of ours come true.”

It was Walter Annenberg who insisted that the water in all 12 lakes on the property be recycled. As Mrs. Annenberg proudly told me, “It is pumped up from top to bottom.” She also told me that when the property was developed “Walter said, ‘The only sand I want to see is in a sand-trap.’”

Much has been written about the Annenbergs’ magnificent art collection, their signed photographs from Britain’s royal family, and their prized Steuben crystal collection (which Mrs. Annenberg proudly showed me as we walked to the dining room). But one wondered how they spent their days and evenings.

“I seldom take my guests out,” Mrs. Annenberg said. “We have so much here.

They can play tennis, golf, and swim. I plan the meals and organize the flowers.” She also told me she personally selected the fresh flowers and plants from their four greenhouses for the guest rooms and cottages. “I like to grow as many plants as possible,” she said. They included exquisite orchids and a luscious rose garden that bloomed twice a year.

“We have an estate manager and a head butler, but I plan every detail,” she said.

Houseguests enjoyed dinner on Friday evenings and were joined by additional guests on Saturday nights. “But seldom more than 14,” Mrs. Annenberg said. Guests usually departed after luncheon on Sunday, but the hostess also enjoyed entertaining friends during the week.

“Often, we have three tables for bridge and three foursomes for golf,” she explained, calling it “a most happy time.”

The most publicized of the Annenberg parties were their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Ronald and Nancy Reagan started celebrating with the Annenbergs when he was governor of California and continued throughout his presidency. One of my favorite memories was being able to report the annual New Year’s Eve Party attended by the entire presidential cabinet.

On the first day of 1984, I reported on my televised segment on KMIR-TV news: “President Ronald Reagan toasted his friends on New Year’s Eve and told them, ‘Most people wait for 365 days for Christmas …, but Nancy and I wait 365 days for Sunnylands. Let’s drink to that tradition.’”

Despite the glamour of it all, Mrs. Annenberg maintained certain traditions. “We never have more than 50 on New Year’s Eve — five tables of 10,” she said.

I once asked her what the most important ingredients for being a good hostess were.

“First of all, have interesting people,” she replied. “Then you try to put together an ambiance of good food and attractive table settings. But all of that would be unimportant if you didn’t have interesting people.”

There are very few people in the world whose guests were as interesting as those who visited or stayed with the Annenbergs.

“The first friends who crossed our threshold when we finished Sunnylands in 1966 were Ike and Mamie Eisenhower,” Mrs. Annenberg told me.

I still recall my introduction in 1974 to the British Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. I had been invited by Leonore Annenberg to come to Sunnylands to meet the heir to the British throne. The date was March 17. I wore a white pantsuit and a white hat trimmed in green. The then 25-year-old Prince was addressing guests, including Gov. Reagan and his wife, Nancy. He stopped his conversation and looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. “I like your green,” he said. Mrs. Annenberg looked at me with a wide smile. After all, it was St. Patrick’s Day.

Many years later, it was Mrs. Annenberg who arranged for me to interview President Dwight Eisenhower’s grandson, David Eisenhower, and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower — twice. She arranged for me to do the first interview for The Press-Enterprise newspaper outside of the guest cottage where they were staying. Julie Eisenhower had visited Sunnylands many years earlier with her father, President Nixon. “I can’t get over how all the trees have grown. It is magnificent and so relaxing to be here,” she said. My next interview with Julie was for my television program Conversations With Gloria Greer on Time Warner Cable. I knew that she would be here to participate in the 30th anniversary of Eisenhower Medical Center. I placed a phone call to Mrs. Annenberg to see if she would once more intervene for me.

Mrs. Annenberg never turned down a phone call from me and helped me if she could. Julie Nixon Eisenhower came to the studio and graced me with what I consider one of the best half-hour interviews I have ever conducted.

The first large party given at Sunnylands was a 1974 fundraiser for Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum) attended by 350 guests.

Mrs. Annenberg was starting her second term as president of the museum’s board of trustees, and donors of $2,000 or more were invited to attend.

I was a guest at the next fundraiser at Sunnylands, this time for Eisenhower

Medical Center, and the tab was $25,000 per couple. It also was given as a “thank you” to 46 sponsors of a larger EMC benefit that followed at Rancho Las Palmas Marriott Resort in Rancho Mirage featuring George Burns in concert.

The Annenbergs welcomed guests to the early party at their house, address-ing each of us by name. Ambassador Annenberg had been on the original board of Eisenhower Medical Center and personally asked Burns to contribute his time and talent for the larger fundraiser. He told me that, in accepting, Burns said, “I have great admiration for an American named General Eisenhower, and that is why I will do it.”

Throughout the years, I saw the Annenbergs many times — at private parties at Dolores and Bob Hope’s house; at benefits for Eisenhower Medical Center, Palm Springs Desert Museum, McCallum Theatre; and at the White House in 1981 when I was a guest of composer Frederick Loewe, who received the Kennedy Center Honors. On each occasion, the Ambassador would ask me to remember him to my mother, and Leonore Annenberg would greet me as if I were one of her closest friends. When she saw me at the White House, she enthused, “I am so glad you are here!” She was so warm that I almost expected her to take me on a White House tour!

I discovered another example of Mrs. Annenberg’s thoughtfulness, whether she was hosting guests at Sunnylands or Wynnewood, the family home in Philadelphia. One day, I received a phone call from Carol Price, the Annenbergs’ good friend and wife of Ambassador Charles Price. I had not met Mrs. Price.

“I didn’t know you knew my mother!” she said enthusiastically, adding “Thank you for the nice words you wrote about her.”

A magazine article that I had written about Carol Price’s mother, the late Florence Swanson Hamilton, had thoughtfully been placed in the guest bedroom at Wynnewood, where Mrs. Price was a guest.

The last time I saw Leonore Annenberg was at the groundbreaking for the Annenberg Wing at Eisenhower Medical Center. She was seated at the dais, but she had been very ill and was taking oxygen. After the ceremony, I wondered whether I should greet her when she wasn’t well and there were so many people surrounding her. I decided it was polite to greet her, and I wanted to be able to talk to her again. I was hesitant, but stepped forward. Before I could say hello, she smiled radiantly — as she always did when greeting someone — and said, “Hello Gloria. It has been such a long time, and I am so glad to see you.”

Leonore and Walter Annenberg not only were philanthropists who enriched the desert, but they also were warm individuals who enriched the lives of all who knew them, including this writer.

Related Article: Return to Sunnylands

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