Billionaire estate where Reagans lolled open to gawkers

February 2, 2013

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

Ned Redway

SUNNYLANDS VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS

The 25,000-square-foot main house on the Sunnylands estate was designed by architect A. Quincy Jones.

Graydon Wood

SUNNYLANDS VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS

Auguste Rodin’s “Eve” stands in a pool of water surrounded by bromeliads in the atrium of the main house at Sunnylands.

Anonymous

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ronald Reagan poses with George Shultz, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Walter Annenberg before a round of golf on the estate in 1988.

Chuck Scardano

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Frank Sinatra and new wife, the former Barbara Marx, put the first cut through their wedding cake following their marriage on Sunday, July 12, 1976 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The ceremony took place at the home of former ambassador Walter Annenberg. (AP Photo)

Chuck Scardano

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Annenbergs hosted the wedding of Frank and Barbara Sinatra in 1976 at Sunnylands.

Mark Davidson

Via Bloomberg

The new Sunnylands Center, designed by Fred Fisher and Partners, is shown in California, in this handout photo taken on Nov. 14, 2011. The home is is run by the Annenberg family on behalf of a $300 million trust established for its care.

Ned Redway

Via Bloomberg

The Sunnylands estate house, as seen from across one of the lakes on the golf course, is shown in this undated handout photo released to the media on Jan. 23, 2013. There are 9 holes in total on the course, complimented by 11 lakes.

Graydon Wood

Via Bloomberg

The atrium of the estate house at Sunnylands is shown in California, in this handout photo taken on April 23, 2006. The sculpture in the center of the atrium is an original casting of Eve, by Auguste Rodin, made in 1881.

The Office of James Burnett

Via Bloomberg

The gardens, with a reflecting pool in the foreground and the solar field in the background, are shown at Sunnylands in California.

Mark Davidson

Via Bloomberg

The Grand Hall inside the new Sunnylands center is shown in this handout photo taken on April 18, 2011. The interior design is by Michael Smith.

George Brich

AP

President Nixon secluded himself from the press at the Rancho El Mirage estate of Walter Annenberg, millionaire ambassador to Great Britain, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 1974 in Palm Springs, California.

White House

Via AP

President Ronald Reagan, center, and golfing partners, left to right, Sec. of State George Shultz, pros Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, pose for a photographer before playing a round of golf at the Annenberg estate, Dec. 31, 1988.

Official White House Photo

Via Bloomberg

Bob Hope dances at a New Year's Eve party at Sunnylands in California, U.S., in this 1982 handout photo. The Annenbergs are seen in the background.

AP

U.S. President Richard Nixon speaks with Walter H. Annenberg, United States Ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1969.

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