Assuming control of his father's shattered company, Annenberg launched the phenomenally successful Seventeen magazine in the '40s and TV Guide in the '50s and acquired several radio and TV stations. Annenberg habitually turned his head to the right to obscure the disfigured ear he had been born with. His politics usually followed his ear after his second marriage, to Leonore Cohn Rosenstiel. Like his father, he used the Inquirer and his media empire as his bully pulpit, punishing enemies real and imagined. After purchasing the Philadelphia Daily News, Annenberg practically turned over local police coverage in the city to Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, a brutalist who rose to mayor in large part thanks to Annenberg. Rizzo returned the favor by providing extraordinary protection when the Teamsters and Newspaper Guild struck the Inquirer. Annenberg also waged a smear campaign against Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, using his two dailies, two radio stations, and three Pennsylvania TV stations. In one example, reported in today's Philadelphia Inquirer obit, an Inquirer reporter got Shapp to deny that he'd ever been in a mental hospital and then printed the denial on Page One. The media war subsided only when Shapp asked the FCC to revoke Annenberg's broadcast licenses. And in the mid-'70s, he sicced TV Guide on the liberal media culture. TV Guide may be the only publication to become more liberal after Rupert Murdoch purchased it.
"Annenberg became an oddity in Philadelphia," Cooney writes. "His name was associated with numerous good works, and he was often the first prominent citizen anyone seeking charitable donations approached, but the whimsical use of his paper on occasion to punish those who offended him made many people uneasy." The kindest thing he ever did for Philadelphia was to sell the Inquirer to John Knight, who turned it into a real newspaper.
President Richard Nixon rewarded Annenberg for his anti-communism and pro-Vietnam-War views by appointing him ambassador to Great Britain, where he attacked U.S. student radicals in his first speech. Ambassador Annenberg, as he thereafter preferred to be called, returned to the States and expanded both his media properties and burgeoning art collection. He also entertained the flow of human sewage that visited him at his own Xanadu, a mansion set on 250 acres (complete with its own golf course) in Palm Springs. There at "Sunnylands," he hosted the disgraced Nixon ("Life is 99 rounds," he told Dick), the detestable Frank Sinatra, and offered refuge for his political soul mate, the shah of Iran. Talk about guilt by association.
By the late '70s, the racketeer's son launched the rehabilitation of his reputation with philanthropy. He gave $150 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1981 and went on a giving binge after selling his media properties to Murdoch in 1988 for $3.2 billion. He pledged his $1 billion collection of Cézannes, Monets, van Goghs, Gauguins, and others to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (postponing delivery, of course, until his death; meanwhile he collected tax breaks). He also donated hundreds of millions to various educational foundations and projects.
The light from Annenberg's philanthropy will continue to burn brightly at the various Annenberg organizations: Annenberg Center for Health Sciences; Annenberg Center for Communication (University of Southern California); Annenberg School for Communication (University of Southern California); Annenberg School for Communication (University of Pennsylvania); Annenberg Foundation; Annenberg/CPB Projects; and Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Some may find justice in this finale: That Annenberg's billions are being spent to still the wretched wake he churned with his life and his media empire. The less charitable of us will nod, smile, and mutter that there's no rap you can't beat if you're willing to empty the purse.