This Day in Jewish History / Birth of a Media Tycoon and 17 Magazine's Founder

Walter Annenberg built an empire of newspapers, magazines and TV stations, amassed an impressive art collection and befriended Ronald Reagan.

David Green
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David Green

American media tycoon and one-time ambassador Walter Annenberg was born on March 13, 1908. The owner of a number of U.S. newspapers, magazines and TV stations, Annenberg also was known for his philanthropy, establishing a foundation that gave away billions of dollars both before and after his death in 2002.

Walter Hubert Annenberg was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Moses Louis Annenberg and Sadie Friedman Annenberg. Sadie was American-born, but “Moe” Annenberg had arrived with his family from East Prussia in 1885 at the age of 7. Sadie continued to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle throughout her life, but Moe was secular in his Judaism, a way of life that his son continued.

Moses Annenberg started out with his own newspaper distribution business before going to work for William Randolph Hearst. Eventually he became national circulation manager for Hearst’s newspaper empire before breaking off to become a publisher himself. He bought the Daily Racing Form and, in 1936, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Along the way, he also picked up the General News Bureau, a wire service that provided horse-racing results to newspapers and bookmakers. He was known for unscrupulous behavior in an industry that cultivated strong-arm tactics against the competition as well as labor, and he also ran into trouble with U.S. tax authorities. That led to his conviction on tax-evasion charges in 1939. Moe agreed to pay $9.5 million in back taxes and fines, and to serve two years in prison. He died in 1942, less than two months after his release.

Walter grew up as the privileged son among seven sisters (an eighth sister died as a young child), in Great Neck, Long Island, and attended a New Jersey boarding school that was unusual in that it accepted Jews. In 1927, after a year at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, Walter left to join his father’s business. He was indicted for “aiding and abetting” at the same time as his father, but the charges against him were dropped as part of the deal Moses made with the federal authorities.

With the death of Moe Annenberg, Walter became head of the company, which was now called Triangle Publications and based in Philadelphia. Two years later, he founded Seventeen magazine, which was aimed at teenage girls and initially edited by his sister Enid Haupt. Its first issue sold 400,000 copies. He soon added TV and radio stations across the country to the stable and, in 1953, began publishing TV Guide, a national magazine that combined local TV listings with columns and reported stories that were often of very high quality. At its peak, the magazine had the widest circulation of any magazine in the United States, reaching 17 million homes.

Walter Annenberg used his newspapers to advance political causes he believed in – and sometimes his own business interests too. In Philadelphia, the Inquirer – to which he later added the tabloid Daily News – supported the Marshall Plan after World War II, fought municipal corruption a few years later and battled McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Later Annenberg became identified with the Republican Party. Locally, his papers became mouthpieces for Frank Rizzo, a police chief known for his brutality who rose to be a two-term mayor in the 1970s, in large part thanks to Annenberg. The Inquirer also helped foil Milton Shapp’s first bid to become Pennsylvania governor in 1966, when it had a reporter ask the Democratic candidate if he had ever been institutionalized in a mental hospital. Shapp, telling the truth, said no, and the next day, the Inquirer ran a five-column front-page headline declaring that “Shapp denies mental institution stay.” (Four years later, Shapp was elected to the first of two terms, the first Jew to serve as governor of Pennsylvania.) Only later did it emerge that Annenberg was a major shareholder in the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was slated to merge with the New York Central Railroad, a deal that Shapp opposed and the Inquirer vigorously endorsed.

On the national level, Annenberg was a supporter of Richard Nixon and later of Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom he hosted regularly at his 2.6-square kilometer West Coast estate “Sunnyville,” near Palm Springs, California. (The property, situated at the corner of Frank Sinatra Drive and Bob Hope Drive, has its own golf course.) In 1969, Nixon appointed Annenberg ambassador to Great Britain, at which time he resigned as president of Triangle. Later the same year, the company sold both of its Philadelphia newspapers, and began spinning off its television and radio properties.

In 1988, Triangle, of which Annenberg had remained principal shareholder, sold off the remainder of its businesses to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $3 billion. Annenberg then devoted himself fully to collecting art, and to giving his money away. When he died, his collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, valued at more than $1 billion, went to the Metropolitan Museum.

Annenberg established schools of communications at both the University of Southern California and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1986, he endowed the then-bankrupt Dropsie College of Jewish studies in Philadelphia, which then turned into a research center. (It was briefly named for Annenberg, before merging with the University of Pennsylvania and becoming the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.) In 1990 he donated $50 million to the United Negro College Fund. He was also a major funder of public broadcasting in the United States and of educational reform programs.

Annenberg was married twice, first to Bernice Veronica Dunkelman, the mother of his two children, and later to Leonore “Lee” Cohn. Both women were born Jewish, although Cohn was raised as a Christian Scientist, and in both cases, the family did not lead a Jewish life.

Annenberg died on October 1, 2002, at his home in Wynnewood, PA. He was 94.   

Walter Annenberg launched America's first teenage magazine, Seventeen, in 1944.Credit: Wikemedia Commons
Walter Annenberg, center, with wife Leonore and President Ronald Reagan, 1981.Credit: Wikimedia Commons