Today's Page One obituaries for Walter H. Annenberg in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post barely scrape the festering keratosis that was his career in crime, journalism, and politics. "Media Tycoon Gave Fortunes to Others," soft-pedals the Los Angeles Times. "Walter Annenberg, Philanthropist and Publisher, Dies at 94," intones the New York Times. "Publisher, Philanthropist Walter Annenberg Dies," echoes the Post.
I'd prefer the headline, "Billionaire Son of Mobster, Enemy of Journalism, and Nixon Toady Exits for Hell—Forced To Leave Picassos and van Goghs at Metropolitan Museum."
The dailies concede that the bedrock upon which Walter built his fortune was cleared by a tax-evading father, Moses; that the son dodged a trip to the slammer with Dad via a plea bargain; that Walter punished his political and personal enemies with his publishing empire; and that he ingratiated himself with his soul mate, the odious Richard Nixon. But in skimming only the surface scum of his life, these obituaries neglect the fetid undercurrents and tidal filth of his complete life. The ugly arc of Annenberg's life rivals that of fellow press baron William Randolph Hearst or even his fictional stand-in, Charles Foster Kane. It's a life that proves that you can earn polite notices in death no matter how you lived if you give away a billion dollars to the right places before you croak.
(In the time-honored tradition of obituary writing, I've plundered the archives for this Annenberg appreciation. I lean especially hard on a June 1993 piece I wrote after Annenberg bought his way onto Page One of America's top dailies by giving hundreds of millions of dollars away. One of the many luxuries of the rich is that if they go philanthropic at the right time, they can read their obituary before they die—obits that are usually more flattering than their real obits.)
Walter Annenberg was born of a congenital criminal, a rascal who never saw a business proposition that he couldn't improve with a bit of violence. Moses "Moe" Annenberg developed these talents in 1900 in Chicago when he worked as a circulation manager for the monstrous William Randolph Hearst, back when circulation wars were fought with clubs and torches. At Hearst's behest, Moe and his gang cracked the heads of rival newsboys, burned uncooperative newsstands, and toppled competitors' delivery vans. When Marshall Field's department store canceled an ad in Hearst's Evening American, Moe's brother Max led 60 drivers and newsboys to the store, where they terrorized shoppers and employees by surrounding it and chanting, "Marshall Field's closed! Marshall Field's closed!" The store reordered its ad, reports John Cooney's The Annenbergs: The Salvaging of a Tainted Dynasty, a detailed 1982 dual biography of Walter and Moses. In Moe and Max's defense, it should be said that the competition used the same tactics to move newspapers.
When Hearst needed circulation help with the New York Daily Mirror, Moe enlisted Lucky Luciano, the numbers and loan-sharking gangster. "I used to think of the Mirror as my paper," Luciano said. "I always thought of Annenberg as my sort of guy."
In the early '20s, Moe purchased the Daily Racing Form and became the major owner of the General News Bureau, a race wire that provided horse race results to newspapers and bookies. With what biographer Cooney calls "methods of strong-arm tactics and bribes" to politicians and police, Moses expanded his business in city after city by ruthlessly destroying the local race-wire competition. "The hoods on his payroll might intimidate a racing publication one day, a man with wires to bookies the next," Cooney writes. Moe's boys literally made Blanie Shields an offer he couldn't refuse. When the small-time race-wire operator in Covington, Ky., declined to sell his business, they sabotaged Shields' office and told him that he would be "bumped off."
In his drive for domination, Moe double-crossed his racketeering wire partners by going into business against them. That put him on the Capone-mob hit parade, so he moved himself and his family to Miami, protected by gangster Meyer Lansky. As the Racing Form and the wire thrived, Moe expanded his publications empire by buying the Philadelphia Inquirer, which he turned into his personal anti-New-Deal political sheet.
Walter Annenberg, writes Cooney, was shielded from his father's illegal enterprises and connections. Although he held titles in his father's businesses, he mostly busied himself with Hollywood starlets and the playgirls of Miami and New York. The publicity created by Moe Annenberg's scummy enterprises was plain for all to see. If Walter didn't know, he would have to be stupid, which he was not. If he knew and still worked for the old man ... you make the moral call.
Moe's bribery, blackmail, and mobstering career ended when he was indicted for tax evasion in 1939. Walter, a company VP, was indicted on charges of "aiding and abetting." Moe pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay the $9.5 million in back taxes and fines. Prosecutors offered to dismiss Walter's charges if Moe went directly to jail, which he did. Moe served two years and died 39 days after his release.