The Regans at Sunnylands

Sunnylands at Play

Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s estate in Rancho Mirage was more than just a gathering place for presidents and other World leaders; it was the ultimate playground whose element of fun was sometimes overlooked.

Janice Lyle Attractions

The Regans at Sunnylands
Nancy and Ronald Reagan dance to a mariachi band Jan. 1, 1983.

From the forthcoming book, Sunnylands: America’s Midcentury Masterpiece, by Janice Lyle, foreward by Michael S.Smith; a Stephen Drucker Book, published by The Vendome Press.

For more than three decades, the Annenbergs brought people of power, influence, and celebrity together at Sunnylands for relaxation and celebration. Marcia French recalls a party attended by Dinah Shore, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Gerald and Betty Ford, and Bob and Dolores Hope. Several of those in attendance had been immortalized with prominent Coa-chella Valley roads named in their honor. Shore looked around the room and commented. “The party can start — all the streets are here.”

The welcoming of the political elite began immediately upon completion of the house. During the first week of the Annenbergs’ residence at Sunnylands, former President Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower visited the newly finished estate. Eisenhower was an avid golfer and happily played golf on the course. He was surprised that there were no palm trees (the signature tree of the Palm Springs area) on the grounds. Responding to this comment, the Annenbergs had two Washingtonia robusta palms planted and called them the Eisenhower Palms. …

A little midday dancing, recalled in a scrapbook compiled by columnist Gloria Etting in 1968, notes that amplified dance music “boomed from an FM station and we all broke into silly and exaggerated frug routines on the terrace.”

Ronald and Nancy Reagan began visiting Sunnylands in 1967. While he served as California governor, they often came to stay. …

Business leaders and philanthropists like David Rockefeller, Warren Buffett, Edmond and Lily Safra, and Bill and Melinda Gates came in the 1990s. Literary and media figures were always part of the crowd. Truman Capote came in 1968 followed by Newton Minow, Ann Landers, and Sidney Sheldon. Television anchors, including Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Andrea Mitchell, and Diane Sawyer, were guests in later years.

Entertainment icons came to sing and play. Neighbor Frank Sinatra was married to Barbara Marx at Sunnylands in July 1976. Bob and Dolores Hope came a total of 50 times between 1975 and 2005. Actors Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck, singers Beverly Sills and Michael Feinstein, comedian George Burns, conductor Zubin Mehta, designer Oscar de la Renta, and artist Helen Frankenthaler all visited the estate. …

But the Annenbergs’ home was also a place for family. … So the grandchildren grew up visiting Sunnylands. … Some of the grandchildren share memories of riding bikes and driving golf carts, sometimes not carefully, landing in a lake or bunker.

Whether a president, a celebrity, or a grandchild, visitors to Sunnylands experienced an unparalleled ambiance that felt otherworldly. Ambassador Charles Price said in his 1978 toast: “I hope for permission to eventually enter the Pearly Gates. And I also give thanks for having been to Sunnylands first.”

Clockwise from top left: Truman Capote and two of Walter Annenberg’s sisters, Lita Hazen (left) and Evelyn Jaffe Hall, strike a pose for the camera during a visit in 1968. Photo: Sunnylands Collection. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrive for lunch Feb. 27, 1983, during a goodwill tour of California. Photo: Sunnylands Collection; The Game Room, at the heart of the guest wing, was a place for lunches, relaxing, and watching movies during weekend stays. Photo: Ken Hayden, 2012; Walter and Leonore Annenberg rest near the pool following a weekend of guests. Photo: Gloria Etting, 1968.

Top left: The 20th century hardstone peony tree stands in a glass corner of the Inwood Room against the desert landscape. Photo: Mark Davidson, 2016. Top right: Desert light is not always sharp and harsh; soft light sometimes bathes the estate. A replacement Beaucarnea tree, only 75 years old, was planted in 2011 to reintroduce the original view from inside and around the house. Photo: Marion Brenner, 2015. Bottom: Leonore Annenberg joined her guests in the swimming pool. Photo: Gloria Etting, 1968.

Top: Walter Annenberg’s golfing buddies, including President George H.W. Bush, celebrate a successful putt. Official White House photo, March 3, 1990. Top right: Nancy and Ronald Reagan relax poolside Dec. 31, 1981. At this moment in the history of the estate, topiary trees can be seen near the house, and grass has replaced the original bougainvillea atop the bermed wall. Official White House photo. Bottom: The cactus garden off the master bedroom was the only example of arid-landscape planting on the historic estate. Photo: Marc Glassman, 2016.

Top left: The Eisenhower Palms mark the second fairway in this aerial view of the elevated green, ringed by bunkers. Photo: Sibylle Allgaier, 2012. Top right: The Annenbergs lunch with friends at the Chinese Pavilion in 1977. Photo: Sunnylands Collection. Middle: The Inwood Room, which accommodated the Annenbergs’ favorite pieces from their Main Line residence, is a sharp contrast to the aesthetic of the rest of the house and to the desert style. American artist William Draper painted the portrait of Walter Annenberg. Photo: Ken Hayden, 2012. Botttom: The Annenbergs bid farewell to President Ronald and first lady Nancy Reagan as Marine One lifts off from the grounds of Sunnylands Jan. 2, 1984. Official White House photo.

Leonore Annenberg was still enjoying golf on her private course at age 84, when this photograph was taken. Photo: Derry Moore, 2002, Sunnylands Collection.