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Billionaire estate where Reagans lolled is open to gawkers

By Christopher Palmeri and — Bloomberg News,

The man who sold TV Guide for $3 billion did not let guests staying at his winter home watch television.

There were plenty of other diversions at Sunnylands, the California desert retreat of Walter Annenberg and his second wife, Leonore. The 200-acre estate in Rancho Mirage, a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, features a nine-hole golf course, 11 lakes and a game room. It was a place of rest and relaxation for seven presidents. Frank Sinatra and his fourth wife, Barbara, were married there in 1976.

Regular folk can now get a glimpse of this prestigious playpen. The Annenberg family, which runs the home on behalf of a $300 million trust established for its care, opened Sunnylands to the public in March. The tours provide a window on the good life in mid-century America as well as a portrait of a couple who were masters at entertaining and, to some extent, control freaks.

The 25,000-square-foot house was designed by architect A. Quincy Jones in a Mayan-inspired theme, with a temple-like roof ornament and lava rocks on the exterior. Inside it’s all open space, pink marble and glass, better to take in the views of the nearby San Jacinto Mountains.

The Annenbergs were noted for their collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art. The Monets, Gauguins and van Goghs were given to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art after Walter Annenberg’s death in 2002. Reproductions on canvas grace the walls of Sunnylands.

The pair also threw a heck of a New Year’s Eve party, one where you might find Jimmy Stewart playing the piano or Bob Hope breaking into the old soft shoe. Ronald and Nancy Reagan attended 18 times.

The Annenbergs knew how to take care of their guests. Furniture was low to the ground to make short people’s legs appear longer. Breakfast orders were delivered in bed to women and left on the desk for men.

A microphone at an outdoor bird feeder piped real tweets throughout the home. Notes in the kitchen told the help — the staff totaled 50 when the Annenbergs were in residence — not to serve cocktails to men in the Baccarat crystal. A toilet in the projection room ensured that the operator never had to leave when a film was playing.

The main house at Sunnylands has just one bedroom, a master suite that is now reserved for the U.S. president. Additional quarters boost the property’s sleeping capacity to 22 people.

Walter Annenberg served as President Richard M. Nixon’s ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974. A wall in the home’s “Room of Memories” is filled with Christmas cards from the Queen Mother. Leonore Annenberg, who died in 2009, served as U.S. chief of protocol in the Reagan administration.

Walter Annenberg took over the family publishing business, which included the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily Racing Form, after his father, Moses, went to jail for tax evasion. He launched Seventeen magazine in 1944 and TV Guide eight years later, selling them to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 1988.

Sunnylands has been a hot ticket. The $35-a-person tours (Thursday through Sunday except in July and August) are limited to seven guests at a time, and sell-outs are frequent.

In keeping with the Annenbergs’ vision of the site as a sanctuary for world leaders, the trust hosts retreats where issues such as U.S.-Mexico relations are discussed.

As a pillow in the Reagans’ favorite “Yellow Suite” reminds, however, “Superior people never make long visits.”

— Bloomberg News

© The Washington Post Company