Commentary Magazine


Legacy by Christopher Ogden

Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg
by Christopher Ogden
Little, Brown. 624 pp. $29.95

In 1933, Moses Annenberg, a self-made publishing magnate who had risen from nothing to become the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, sent a telegram of congratulations to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s newly elected President. “The success which is crowning your efforts in the most difficult task since the reign of Washington and Lincoln,” Annenberg gushed, “is deserving of the highest appreciation that can be shown you by the American people.”

But by FDR’s second term Annenberg had soured on the President, having been offended by his scheme to pack the Supreme Court and his larger tilt to the Left as the New Deal unfolded. The Inquirer became a steady critic of the administration, running headlines like “The War Against Business Goes On.”

FDR took notice. In October 1938, he dispatched his Interior Secretary and close political aide Harold Ickes to follow up on allegations that Annenberg had links to the mob. In Philadelphia, Ickes made a speech declaring open season on the publisher; by any standard, it was a vicious performance. “You can’t stand the stench of Annenberg on top of the gold of [Sun Oil company founder Joseph] Pew,” Ickes orated. “Stand downwind and just whiff.” In Washington, FDR pressed the assault. “Goddammit, Homer,” he screamed at his Attorney General Homer Cummings, “why don’t you prosecute this fellow? Why don’t you call him a son of a bitch?” Within two weeks, the Treasury Department, the FBI, and the Justice Department were pursuing Annenberg.

Prosecutors found no mob connection but did put together a strong case of tax evasion. Annenberg, whose family business was a complicated affair managed by an amateurish bookkeeper, had undoubtedly violated the law. Under normal circumstances he would have been able to settle with a stiff fine, but the administration wanted him in jail. Though the publisher lobbied desperately for a settlement, FDR would have none of it, and prosecutors got the message.

It was when the authorities targeted his son that Annenberg finally agreed to a guilty plea that would put him in prison. “As you know, I’ve always had the greatest ambitions for Walter,” Moses told the Inquirer’s editor at the time. “I purchased the Inquirer and built it up with his future in mind. That’s the only thing I’m interested in, and if I can spare Walter the trial, I won’t mind doing a year in jail.”

Annenberg was sentenced to three years at Lewisburg prison in Pennsylvania. Eighteen months into his term, his parole board unanimously voted for release, but Attorney General Francis Biddle, a longtime foe, overturned the ruling. The Annenberg family then sought a pardon. Ickes urged the President to reject it: “In his much smaller sphere,” Ickes wrote, “Annenberg has been as cruel, as ruthless, as lawless as Hitler himself.”

At this point Annenberg’s health broke. Out of prison at last, he died on July 20, 1942 at the age of sixty-five. His last words were to his son: “Walter, who knows what is the scheme of things. My suffering has all been for the purpose of making you a man.”

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This episode is the central event in Christopher Ogden’s fascinating biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg. On one level, the Annenbergs’ is a familiar tale of a Jewish immigrant family’s climb from pogrom-ravaged Eastern Europe to the pinnacle of American society. For, just eight decades after the Annenbergs sailed into New York harbor in 1885, Moses Annenberg’s son Walter, having himself presided over a mammoth publishing enterprise that included Seventeen magazine and TV Guide, rose to become the ambassador of his country to the Court of St. James’s. But it is the odd relationship between father and son that overshadows even this gaudy ascent.

Ogden, a journalist with Time and the author of a previous biography of Pamela Harriman, was granted extraordinary entry to the Annenberg family, and apparently full access to the huge trove of letters its members wrote to one another. (Walter communicated with his own children more easily by mail than in person.) This enables Ogden to describe the climactic moments of their lives—including the suicide of Walter’s son in 1962—in intimate, page-turning detail. And Ogden is also a sympathetic biographer, frankly admiring Moses’s vigor and drive and the self-discipline and acumen of Walter, now aged ninety-one and still at the helm of a $3 billion-plus foundation that bears his name.

But Walter was not always the man he became. On the contrary, up to the point of his father’s death, he had been a quiet and unassuming dandy, a meticulous dresser with a passion for showgirls; and even afterward, as Ogden shows, he did not suddenly undergo a transformation from Prince Hal to King Henry. As a mature billionaire, he continued to rely on his charm to carry him along socially. At Sunnylands, the huge estate he built near Palm Springs, he hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It was, indeed, his friendship with those two Presidents that led to his prominence in political circles and that culminated in his being named to London in 1969.

And yet, for each moment in Legacy when Walter Annenberg seems shallow, there is another that shows him to be a formidable and willful personality. A stutterer from his youth, he had to perform tortuous exercises for hour upon hour, every day of his life, to keep his speech impediment under control. Both in and out of business, he was quick to confront underlings and politicians who challenged him, and no more than his father before him did he ever shrink from wielding the Inquirer as a club to beat his sometimes powerful foes. His gigantic success—in addition to creating Seventeen and TV Guide, he sat atop a TV-based media empire of his own—was owed in equal parts to talent and drive. As an investor, he compiled a record to match Warren Buffet’s.

Still, no matter how rich he got, and no matter how many billions he gave away in often ill-conceived gifts to charity, in some fundamental sense Walter never really emerged from his father’s shadow. Or, rather, he never seemed to want to. When asked the secret of his success, he always said it was being born Moe Annenberg’s son. A maxim he had etched in bronze and put on his desk read, “Cause my works on earth to reflect honor on my father’s name.”

“His mistreatment was the making of me,” Walter later said of his father’s ordeal at the hands of FDR, Ickes, and the rest. More than the voguish story of a (rich) father forever dominating the psyche of his (even richer) son, in the end Legacy casts an unexpected and quite profound light on another theme altogether: the links of honor and duty that can enduringly bind one generation to another.

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About the Author




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