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'Legacy: A Biography Of Moses And Walter Annenberg' by Christopher Ogden

Annenberg millions were father’s ruin and son’s way to give back

Sunday, July 04, 1999

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Legacy: A Biography Of Moses And Walter Annenberg

By Christopher Ogden

Little, Brown.


In “Legacy,” Christopher Ogden pulls off a biographical hat trick: He makes a scoundrel like Moses Annenberg sympathetic; he makes Moses’ son, Walter, admirable; and he makes their relationship the key to understanding them both.

Moses Annenberg was a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia who arrived literally barefoot in New York in 1885; his wooden shoes had been washed overboard during the stormy voyage. By 1927, he was a multimillionaire, controlling 40 different businesses, including the Daily Racing Form.

When Moses was jailed for tax evasion in 1940 and died two years later, it fell to his only son, Walter, to save the family business for his mother and seven difficult sisters. He then went on to multiply and eventually to give away much of his share of one of America’s great fortunes.

Ogden is a writer for Time and Fortune magazines, and he excels at mixing finance and gossip. He is also the author of the well-named “Life of the Party: A Biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.”

After a subject like the much-married Harriman, more than a century of Annenbergs had to seem dull by comparison.

While Moses had his share of run-ins with Chicago gangsters, much of his life involved complicated accounting and business deals. With time out for a controversial ambassadorial appointment, Walter’s story is centered on publishing and philanthropy.

Although Ogden provides a summary chart of Annenberg giving, much of this material remains less than riveting.

He did have the cooperation of Walter Annenberg, now 91, and his wife, Lee. They, in turn, provided access to Annenberg relatives, friends and family papers. The resulting book, while not likely to please the surviving subject, is balanced and fair.

It devotes about equal space to Moses and Walter. Moses’ story is by far the more dramatic.

Moses came to America with his family at age 8. A tough youth who left school at 11, Moses eventually gravitated to selling newspaper subscriptions for William Randolph Hearst in Chicago. Circulation crews battled with sticks, knives and guns for territory, and the young immigrant thrived in this tough environment. Ogden finds no evidence that Moses killed anyone, but he was partially responsible for numerous beatings and at least one death.

Later, Moses built a newspaper circulation business in Milwaukee and expanded his empire in the 1920s and ’30s. Ownership of the Daily Racing Form and a partnership in a news service that provided racetrack information to newspapers and bookies brought him back into contact with the underworld.

He got into even more trouble over politics. Moses bought the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1936 and by 1938 was engaged in a political war against Franklin Roosevelt, criticizing the New Deal and backing a Republican Party candidate for Pennsylvania governor. Ogden argues that it was FDR’s anger over Moses’ political attacks that brought the indictment of Moses, Walter and two employees in what was then the biggest tax-evasion case in U.S. history.

While politics may have played a role, there’s no doubt that Moses was guilty. Like Leona Helmsley, he mingled private and corporate money, then failed to pay income tax on it. It was theft on a grand scale.

In return for a promise to drop charges against Walter, Moses agreed to plead guilty to a single count, expecting probation. Instead he spent two years in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg. He died a broken man weeks after being released.

Walter, then more of a playboy than a businessman, faced the triple tasks of raising $9 million to pay back taxes and penalties, keeping the family business alive and restoring the family name.

Two and a half out of three isn’t bad.

Keeping close tabs on expenses, he paid the IRS an amount Ogden calculates was equal to about $110 million in today’s dollars. He also expanded the family publication empire. Like his father, Walter had two especially good ideas. The first was to develop a new magazine aimed at teen-age girls. The second was to acquire the rights to, and then distribute nationally, a weekly publication offering both feature stories and complete TV program listings -- a kind of Daily Racing Form for television watchers.

Both Seventeen and TV Guide were immediate newsstand successes.

His generosity to schools, colleges and art museums puts Walter Annenberg in a class with givers like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Ogden concludes that he was so traumatized by his father’s jailing that he has spent much of his long life making up for it -- relying on will, strong character and pots of money.

Ogden doesn’t sugarcoat Walter’s flaws. He ran the Philadelphia Inquirer as a personal fiefdom, maintaining a blacklist of people whose names or photos could not appear in his paper. He also writes sensitively about Annenberg’s troubled relations with his two children, one of whom killed himself.

Annenberg’s stature as a millionaire paid off when he was named ambassador to Great Britain. Traditionally the ambassador’s job in places like Rome, Paris and, especially, London, is given to the major campaign contributors or expert fund-raisers.

Ogden argues that Annenberg, who served from 1969 until 1974, didn’t buy his way into the London job from Richard Nixon. Maybe not, but Ogden goes on to describe all the money the Annenbergs spent once Walter got the job. He paid for redecoration of the official residence of the American ambassador, donated money for a pool at Chequers, the country home of British prime ministers and even set up a fund to bankroll a concert series that Prime Minister Ted Heath conducted.

A longtime friend of Ronald Reagan, Annenberg became a large contributor to the former president’s political campaigns. In turn, Reagan appointed Annenberg’s wife, Lee, chief of protocol for his first term.

But despite decades of business success and billion-dollar generosity, when the Annenberg name comes up, it remains hard to get away from the connections to Moses.

Glancing blow

Joseph Kanon, the author of a best seller called “Los Alamos,” has written a new thriller called “The Prodigal Spy.” Early in that novel, the hero is heading to an Embassy dinner in London in 1969 when he is told that a man named Annenberg is rumored to be named the new ambassador.

“Remember Moses?” his stepfather asks. “Nailed before your time for income tax evasion. Eight million penalty -- in 1940 dollars. Makes you wonder what he really did. Now the son’s on his way to the Court of St. James’s.”

A new book by Christopher Ogden provides a subtle account of what Moses and Walter Annenberg “really did.” Many more people, unfortunately, are likely to learn about the father and son from “The Prodigal Spy” than from “Legacy.”

-- Len Barcousky

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