Annenberg died at his suburban home in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania of complications related to pneumonia, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said this afternoon. His wife, Leonore, was with him when he died.
He began his life as the wealthy heir to a media company — “I started out with an awful lot handed to me,” he once told an interviewer — but in his adult years Annenberg multiplied his inheritance through a series of shrewd business moves. Later in life, he donated billions of it away.
As a publisher, Annenberg oversaw a vast multi-billion dollar media empire that launched the weekly TV Guide magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Philadelphia Daily News, and broadcast properties in Pennsylvania, New York, California and Connecticut.
Annenberg, the only son of nine children, inherited Triangle Publications — an umbrella company which owned The Philadelphia Inquirer and two horse racing publications — from his father, Moses Annenberg. The younger Annenberg took the helm of the company after his father’s death in 1942, when the debt-ridden Triangle’s finances had soured. Annenberg proved to be a shrewd publisher and editor of newspapers and gradually sought to expand the assets of Triangle Publications.
In 1944, Annenberg started the fashion magazine, Seventeen, which became an overnight success. His sister, Enid, later served as the editor-in-chief for the teenage fashion magazine. Nine years later, Annenberg founded TV Guide and purchased a string of radio and television stations in Penn., Conn., NY, and Calif. TV Guide, featuring stories about television programs and their personalities, grew to reach roughly 17 million homes, the largest circulation of any U.S. magazine.
In the late 1960s, Annenberg began selling off units of his empire, including the two Philadelphia newspapers in 1970 to Knight Newspapers (now Knight Ridder) for an estimated $55 million. The selling spree culminated in 1988, with the $3 billion sale of Annenberg’s crown jewel, TV Guide, to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Over the course of his life, Annenberg become one of America’s most noted philanthropists, giving away billions to public and private schools, hospitals, museums, universities and a diverse variety of charities, primarily through the Annenberg Foundation, which he controlled.
Annenberg’s largest donations included $120 million each to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California for the establishment of communications schools which bear his father’s name; $100 million to the small prep school he attended, the Peddie School in Highstown, N.J.; $150 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; $50 million to the United Negro College Fund; and $25 million to Harvard University.
In February 1981, Annenberg pledged $150 million over a 15-year period to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), one of the NewsHour’s principle funders, which helped launch the Annenberg/CPB Project to produce college-level video courses.
In 1993, he announced a five-year, $500 million series of grants for public school reform in rural and urban public school districts. Recipients included Brown University, the New American Schools Development Corp., and public school districts across the nation.
Annenberg was also known for providing smaller, spontaneous gifts, many of which were unpublicized. In 1963 Annenberg paid the mortgage on the home of a Dallas woman whose policeman husband was killed trying to capture the late President Kennedy’s assassin. He also gave the state of Israel $1 million after the Six Day War in 1967, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported.
An avid art collector, Annenberg in 1991 donated his famous collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces – said to be worth over $1 billion at the time — to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was a trustee emeritus. The works continue to be exhibited at the Met for six months every year.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed him ambassador to Great Britain, a post that he held for five-and-a-half years. Annenberg, a loyal friend to Nixon through the years, would describe this experience “the greatest honor of my life,” and for years afterward, friends and associates continued to address him as “ambassador.”
Annenberg’s 1938 marriage to Veronica Dunkelman ended in divorce in 1950. They had two children, Wallis, and Roger, a Harvard student who committed suicide with a drug overdose in 1962.
In 1951 he married Lenore Rosenstiel, who served as U.S. chief of protocol, with the rank of ambassador during the Reagan administration. Annenberg and his second wife, known as Lee, frequently hosted former Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, as well as English royalty.
“Walter Annenberg was a visionary who believed in the power of education and communication to improve the world,” Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said Tuesday.
“He was the most generous philanthropist of his generation, donating billions of dollars to improve public education, provide public access to the world’s artistic treasures, and create two great schools of communication that carry his name,” Cowan said. “His great heart as well as his powerful vision will continue to guide this school, its faculty, and its students for generations to come.”