Wallis Annenberg uncensored and in control

Wallis Annenberg doesn’t care much for doing interviews.

I know this because I started trying to get one six months ago, after going on a hard-hat tour of the new Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, when it was still under construction. And I tried again last week, when Annenberg appeared as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Women A.R.E. summit, a daylong confab held at the SLS Hotel for accomplished and philanthropic women, when again I was told, “Wallis isn’t doing interviews.” Ironic then, that it was onstage at the summit that Annenberg announced, “I have very little use for the press. For the most part.”

Don’t tell that to the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, founded in 1971 by her father, Walter Annenberg. I imagine her caveat – for the most part — is due to the fact that her life’s work is built around community-building – from the Annenberg Community Beach House to the many arts and culture institutions she supports, including the Annenberg Space for Photography and the performing arts space newly dubbed The Wallis – and she must know, deep down, that in order for those massive philanthropic efforts to “advance public well-being,” as is the Annenberg Foundation’s mission, people actually have to know about them.

But for the most part Annenberg prefers to stay private. To date, the most significant piece of journalism that exists about her is a 2009 Vanity Fair profile that fawningly declared her the most important philanthropist in this city. “It sometimes seems as if Wallis Annenberg is single-handedly funding L.A.,” VF’s Bob Colacello wrote. Her friend Betsy Bloomingdale (yes, that Bloomingdale) described her as “the Brook Astor of Los Angeles,” a nod to old-moneyed New York.

The antithesis of a self-promoter, Wallis’s way of doing things is to deflect attention from herself by creating a more dazzling diversion. At the performing arts center’s recent lavish opening, a star-studded party induced the press to focus on the panache while Wallis didn’t have to utter a word. So her appearance at the Women A.R.E. summit offered a rare, unqualified glimpse into Annenberg’s inner-life. For 30 minutes, Annenberg sat in the hot seat, draped in a crimson blouse and sporting a large ruby cuff bracelet, as Huffington Post senior editor Willow Bay cajoled from her a lively, pungent dialogue.

Of course, the conversation had to start with her father. The only child of publishing tycoon and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, young Wallis was born into 1-percent kind of wealth. “Don’t misunderstand me, it was very nice, very comfortable, but it’s not what I wanted,” she said. She may splurge on a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Maybach, but still she confessed, “I don’t want to be a slave to the things, you know? And the more you own, the more they own you, which has been my experience. But they never fixed me, and they never made me happy.” 

After her father sold his Triangle Publications to Rupert Murdoch for $3 billion in 1988, he used one third of the profits to establish the Annenberg Foundation. “The thing that I wanted from him was the foundation,” she said. “I never wanted anything else.” But in order to prove her worthiness, she appointed herself as her father’s apprentice. She confessed she used to listen in on his phone calls and crept into his office when he wasn’t looking to read his mail.

Annenberg isn’t shy about her resourcefulness – or her craft. “I can generally see a con or something shoddy coming at me within five seconds on the telephone,” she said with total assurance. Annenberg doesn’t seem the type to suffer fools. “I loathe secrets,” she said, “and if I know anybody who is carrying on in the office and forming cliques or secrets or anything of that nature, they’re not gonna be around very long.”

Her tough talk, however, belies her efforts towards democratic leadership. Unlike her father, whom she colorfully described as “a one man operator” – “You either agreed with him or left,” she said — Wallis claims a more inclusive style. She noticed in the non-profit field a “disconnect” between board members, board chairs and paid executives, and so created an initiative called Alchemy, which trains nonprofit leaders to work together more efficiently. To date, 1,700 non-profits have been through the training program, she said, and Alchemy’s leadership seminar tends to sell out each year.

Even so, she admitted that working by committee on the performing arts center was a real challenge. “For me, it was kinda hard – I’ll be very honest with you. I do sort of like being the boss,” she quipped. Fortunately for Annenberg, who quite literally puts her money where her mouth is, she got her way when others wouldn’t. “The minute the money was involved, everybody whewww – they all scattered,” she said, adding wryly, “and they stopped giving so much advice.”

For a woman with billions to spend on charity and another reported $200 million in her private accounts, Annenberg appears surprisingly grounded about her wealth and power. “You can’t solve any problem by writing a big check,” she declared. “There are just not enough zeroes.” In jest, she offered an illustrative anecdote: “We have a big problem with Aids in Africa! Here Bill… [Clinton]. It doesn’t work that way.”

Of all her public projects, she singled out the Wilson Park Annenberg Tree House in Torrance, a 2,500 square-foot, handicap-accessible tree house that offers panoramic city views. “This didn’t cost a lot of money,” she said, pointing out that the most elaborate projects aren’t necessarily the most rewarding. “If you could see those [handicapped] young people and older people going up in this tree house, and the joy they get when they are parallel with the leaves and the trees and they can see the ocean, it’s very moving.”

Bay’s toughest question came at the end: What does Annenberg expect in return for all her public investments?

“Well, accountability is very important,” Annenberg said, careful not to betray the business-savvy inside. But, at the end of the day, she said, seeing people enjoy her contributions makes her most happy. “When I used to feel depressed — I was living in Malibu at the time — it was kinda lonely. I would just simply go down the road and see the Annenberg Community Beach club, and you know, look over the fence, and you see mothers and fathers with their offspring enjoying this space.

“That’s the reward. That’s my jewelry. You can’t get that in a Neiman Marcus catalog.”

Now in her 70s, Annenberg is happy to bask in a child-like petulance, full of wit and one-liners and the kind of banter that comes from accumulated wisdom she is more than confident to share. It was purpose-driven philanthropy that saved her.

“I was as crazy as a bat,” she said of her younger self. “I think life is a process, and it takes a long time to really get to the place, at least for me, where I like myself and I don’t have to hurt myself — because that is something I engaged in when I was younger…

“So I think today, what’s happened is my insides match my outsides. And I like myself. And that’s it.

“I’m done.”