A Biography of Moses and
By Christopher Odgen
Little, Brown. 615 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Peter Esmonde
It's a quintessentially American tale: An immigrant boy fights his way out of tenement slums to gain success as a street-smart businessman. Presciently identifying new opportunities and markets, he builds new companies and ends up a millionaire, complete with a mistress and a home on Miami Beach. End of story.
Well, not quite. Imagine the outspoken millionaire running afoul of those in power. Indicted by his government for tax evasion, he pleads guilty, and is imprisoned. Now terminally ill, the broken man calls on his only son, a hopelessly pampered college dropout, to take the businesses forward and redeem the family name.
This is the compelling, sometimes heartbreaking story related by Christopher Ogden in Legacy, his winning double biography of Moses Annenberg, the brash self-made millionaire, and his awkward son, Walter, now universally respected as one of the world's most generous philanthropists.
For all his wealth, Walter's beginnings were not particularly auspicious. Born partially deaf, spoiled by his mother and seven sisters, the stuttering young man was an indifferent student, an early business failure and an uninspired journalist. Ceaselessly criticized by his father, young Walter was awash in money -- but adrift in the world. All that changed with Moses Annenberg's imprisonment in 1940 on tax evasion charges. Forced to delegate authority, the elder Annenberg exhorted 32-year-old Walter to take leadership of the family paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. During the 22 months of Moses's incarceration, father and son exchanged more than 400 letters, forging a lasting covenant. On his deathbed, Walter's father said: "My suffering has been for the purpose of making you a man."
Over time, Walter Annenberg proved himself a capable manager and strong executive -- and a business strategist with his father's knack for identifying inchoate consumer needs. Early on, he recognized the importance of television, creating TV Guide and funding "The University of the Air," a groundbreaking educational series. He launched Seventeen magazine in 1944, years before anyone else noticed the teen market, then brought "American Bandstand" to national prominence. Year after year, the younger Annenberg took his keen understanding of the synergy between mass media and popular culture directly to the bank. Friendships with the famous and powerful followed. In 1969, Richard Nixon appointed the Philadelphia publisher ambassador to the Court of St. James, a crowning achievement.
Recognizing the breadth and grandeur inherent in this uniquely American rags-to-riches tale, Christopher Ogden has fashioned a double portrait that manages to be both wonderfully engaging and terribly wrenching. The author is best known for his biographies of Pamela Harriman and Margaret Thatcher; he was evidently attracted to this story of a multimillionaire surrounded by strong women, and driven by the memory of a proud, demanding father. Legacy is a masterfully crafted book, based solidly on extensive personal research. One would be hard-pressed to find a recent biography that plays so adroitly upon Americans' obsession with social mobility, wealth and fame.
The Annenbergs granted Ogden extraordinary access to private records, and he has re-
ciprocated with a biography that, while by no means "authorized," is unfailingly respectful of this wealthy family's sensitivities. The author deftly places Walter's most petulant behavior in a sympathetic light. In lesser hands, such kid-gloves treatment would result in bland hagiography. That Legacy succeeds in spite of its politesse is a testament to Ogden's obvious prowess as a writer.
The book's brisk pace and careful editing render its occasional faults all the more obvious. Short on fact, Legacy's first chapter substitutes trite description for hard detail. Later chapters rehash old Washington gossip (as chief of protocol, Lee Annenberg went toe-to-toe with Nancy Reagan) or offer trivial details of the mind-numbing lifestyles of the rich and famous in the flat, even tone of a TV miniseries.
The author views Moses Annenberg's incarceration and death as the crucible in which Walter's character was forged. Yet the reader can't help but feel that the son has remained somewhat adrift throughout his life. Walter's worship of maternal figures (he calls his wife "Mother" and addressed his own mother as "dearest Celestial") borders on the comic. As a father, Walter was a failure (his only son committed suicide at 22, and his daughter's marriage was destroyed by addiction); as a diplomat, he was largely a ceremonial figurehead, little more than the American host with the most.
Reading between the lines of Christopher Ogden's accomplished biography, one suspects Walter Annenberg of using money itself to lend meaning to his life -- if not for himself, then for the thousands who've benefited from his remarkably selfless largesse. Perhaps, in spite of all his professional achievement and personal courage, Walter Annenberg may be destined to always remain his father's son: still seeking to redeem the family name, still desperately struggling to make good.
Peter Esmonde is a writer and producer living in Chicago.