Hostess, Arts Patron Leonore Annenberg, 91, Aided Late Husband in Philanthropy

Leonore Annenberg, with husband Walter, greets British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, left.
Leonore Annenberg, with husband Walter, greets British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, left. (1985 Photo By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)
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By Rebekah Davis and Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 13, 2009

Leonore Annenberg, 91, an arts patron and society hostess who served as President Ronald Reagan's first chief of protocol and was the widow of publisher, philanthropist and ambassador Walter Annenberg, died March 12 at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The cause of death was not reported.

After her husband's death in 2002, Mrs. Annenberg inherited half of his $4 billion estate. She also became board chairman of the Annenberg Foundation, based near Philadelphia, which has given away more than $1 billion to cultural, educational and medical centers worldwide under her stewardship. The foundation made a $15 million donation to the Newseum journalism museum in Washington in 1997.

Mrs. Annenberg, a well-coifed blonde whose expensive fashion tastes landed her on best-dressed lists, spent her life amid privilege and power.

She was raised in Hollywood by her uncle, Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn, and derived her greatest social prominence through her marriage in 1951 to Walter Annenberg, who owned TV Guide, the Daily Racing Form, Seventeen magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Annenberg, one of the country's wealthiest men, used the Inquirer in particular to promote the candidacies of Republican politicians he admired, notably Richard M. Nixon and Reagan.

The Annenbergs had two major home bases: Sunnylands, a desert estate outside Palm Springs, Calif., where Nixon spent part of his post-Watergate exile, and Inwood, a manor home on Philadelphia's tony Main Line.

Both homes were dotted with priceless impressionist and postimpressionist masterpieces. Mrs. Annenberg, known as Lee, became a board member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a member of the acquisitions committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She also served as a trustee of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Many of the Annenbergs' pieces were donated to the Met.

Walter Annenberg's loyalty to Nixon was rewarded in 1969 with the ambassadorship to Britain. With the help of Hollywood decorator William Haines, Mrs. Annenberg famously oversaw a $1 million redecoration of Winfield House, the ambassador's residence.

In 1981, Reagan offered her the position of chief of protocol at a salary of $50,112 a year. She called it "the first paying job I ever had."

The chief of protocol, a post that carries the rank of ambassador and traditionally has gone to the socially prominent, arranges the president's logistics for trips abroad and is a principal U.S. representative greeting foreign leaders on their arrival in the United States.

To meet members of the Washington diplomatic corps, she hosted them at her own expense to dinner at the government-owned mansion Blair House. She handled arrangements of an official visit to Washington by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and caused a brief stir by curtsying before Prince Charles of England after he landed at Andrews Air Force Base in 1981. Her act was considered too deferential, but her defenders noted that she had merely been following a custom developed during her five years in London.

She said she did not appreciate the unkind comments that followed and furthermore felt marginalized when she was denied a role in arranging the visit to Egypt for a U.S. delegation attending the funeral of President Anwar Sadat. She left her office after less than a year and returned to charitable giving.

Leonore Cohn was born Feb. 20, 1918, in New York City. Her father, Maxwell Cohn, was a shadow of the business success of his brothers Harry and Jack Cohn, who started Columbia Pictures. After her mother's death in a car accident, she and a younger sister were raised by Harry Cohn at the behest of the film mogul's wife, Rose, who was childless.

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