Tonight, big giver will be receiving

Leonore Annenberg to get Philadelphia Award

Posted: June 18, 2007

Precious few Philadelphians, let alone Americans, have lived on the grand scale of the Hon. Leonore Annenberg, with Cezanne-filled estates on either coast, where she hosted presidents and princes, and with a gold-embossed Gulfstream jet to shuttle back and forth.

And precious few Philadelphians, let alone Americans, have left a mark on one region as she has, in partnership with her late husband, Walter H. Annenberg, former publisher of The Inquirer and TV Guide and U.S. ambassador to Britain under President Richard Nixon.

Annenberg, 89, will receive the 86th Philadelphia Award tonight, the city's highest civic honor. Editor and philanthropist Edward W. Bok established the award to recognize "a citizen of the Philadelphia region who, during the preceding year, acted and served on behalf of the best interests of the community."

Leonore Annenberg has long been a charitable arbiter, an equal partner in the family's massive philanthropy. Honored earlier this year at the Academy of Music's 150th anniversary gala, she remarked, "I feel like the grand old lady of Locust Street."

Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Annenberg "really cares very deeply about the history and the culture of the city. There really hasn't been another couple like the Annenbergs. We owe them a great deal." Walter Annenberg received the Philadelphia Award in 1993.

The Annenbergs' gifts have supported most of the city's major institutions. Their names are as nearly ubiquitous a part of the architecture as William Penn's and Benjamin Franklin's.

"She's intelligent, elegant, caring, and was very much supportive of her husband," said H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who came to Philadelphia in 1965 to work as Walter Annenberg's corporate attorney. "Their success at the Court of St. James's was largely due to her. She's interested in politics and everything that is happening in the world."

Upon her husband's death in 2002, Leonore Annenberg - addressed by intimates as "Lee" - was bequeathed $2 billion and named president, chairman and sole director of the Annenberg Foundation.

She was content to let her husband do the talking during their 52-year marriage. After her husband's death, she was said to be daunted by assuming leadership of the foundation, but she has come to wholly embrace her role.

Under her stewardship, the Radnor foundation made regional grants totaling almost $48 million last year to several institutions, including the Art Museum, the National Constitution Center, and the University of Pennsylvania. It even bought an ambulance for the Narberth Volunteer Medical Service Corps. Since its establishment in 1989, the Annenberg Foundation has awarded 6,700 grants totaling more than $3.8 billion.

The foundation pledged $10 million to keep Thomas Eakins' masterwork, The Gross Clinic, in Philadelphia, the largest gift in the successful $68 million campaign to retain the painting. She committed $30 million to relocate the Barnes Foundation to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Annenberg is scheduled to accept the prize in the ballroom of the Academy of Music, which received a $5.3 million renovation grant from her foundation last year. The gilt-and-mirrored hall was the site in January of her last Philadelphia public appearance, when Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, attended the Academy's annual gala - a royal visit that Annenberg personally arranged.

"She has a very high sense of her responsibility to the community," said Judge Arlin M. Adams, a close friend. "I think anyone who has as many material things as Lee does and to be interested in so many things is very unusual, and to be so relatively humble about it."

Leonore Annenberg's name appeared hundreds of times in this newspaper, which the Annenberg family owned from 1936 to 1969. The society pages listed her weekly attendance at charitable events and invariably described her designer clothes. She is one of those elegant women who fixed her style at an early age and rarely wavered in appearance, with powdered porcelain skin untouched by sun, a meringue of blonde hair impervious to the elements, and understated designer suits adorned with exquisite jewelry.

Occasionally, the stories included a quote or two, but no more.

"She doesn't crave the limelight," Lenfest said.

Annenberg rarely granted lengthy interviews to any publication, except when she was U.S. chief of protocol under President Ronald Reagan. Though close friends say she is as mentally alert and curious as ever, Annenberg is physically frail, attending increasingly fewer social events. The Philadelphia Orchestra, touring in California in May, performed a private concert at her Palm Springs home.

Inwood, her 18-room Wynnewood estate nestled on 13 acres, was sold last week to trusts controlled by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. The Gulfstream, tastefully decorated in caramel leather, has been put on the market. Annenberg lives at Sunnylands, her 25,000-square-foot California mansion, which boasts a living room the size of a grand hotel lobby. Situated on 650 manicured acres with a private golf course, Sunnylands is less an estate than a desert principality, maintained by a staff of 30.

Annenberg was a longtime constant on the local charity circuit, chairing myriad social events, sitting on the city's most prominent boards, lending her name as "honorary chairman" to others.

It was her marriage to Walter Annenberg that brought her to Philadelphia.

The Annenbergs were viewed as a strong partnership, rarely apart. They shared a lifetime interest in the arts, education, civic engagement and Republican politics, though she isn't a staunch conservative on social issues. She gives generously to abortion rights organizations and a California home for elderly gay men and lesbians.

"She doesn't care about labels. She cares about principles and issues," said U.S. District Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, a good friend who, with her husband, Gov. Rendell, is scheduled to present the award tonight. "When you are with Lee in a group, she wants everyone's views on the table. She's elegant, but she's also the warmest person you can imagine." She watches Jeopardy with dinner served on tea trays, she said.

Annenberg is credited with influencing her husband's interest in art, especially French impressionism and postimpressionism, helping amass an exquisite collection of paintings that was sought aggressively by several major museums, all with strong charitable ties to the couple. In 1991, the works were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Mrs. Annenberg long served as a trustee. Many of the 53 works were replaced with copies in her homes.

After 10 months in the $50,000-a-year position as U.S. chief of protocol, Annenberg resigned in 1982 to be with her husband. "It's the first paying job I ever had," she said at the time.

Her childhood was comfortable, eventually privileged, but not easy. She was born Leonore Cohn on Feb. 20, 1918, in New York City, the granddaughter of Russian and German immigrants, and daughter of Maxwell Cohn, the less successful brother of Harry and Jack Cohn, founders of Columbia Pictures.

When she was 7, her mother died in an automobile accident. She and a younger sister were sent to live with her Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harry in Los Angeles, who raised them. She was not spoiled by attention.

Leonore Cohn went to Stanford University, studying history and political science, which were to remain life-long interests, and completed her degree, which Walter Annenberg never managed to do at the University of Pennsylvania.

She has two daughters from previous marriages, Diane and Elizabeth, and remains close to both.

Despite Annenberg's enormous wealth and the advantages afforded her, close associates say she retains a warmth and unflagging curiosity in global and regional issues.

"Lee never takes herself too seriously," said her friend Arlin Adams. "She's always more concerned about people who have less than her."

A Record of Generosity

The Philadelphia Award, established by editor and author Edward William Bok in 1921, is bestowed annually to someone from the region who, during the previous year, acted in and served on behalf of the community's best interests. The recipient is chosen by a board of trustees currently headed by Moore College of Art & Design president Happy Craven Fernandez, and brings with it a $25,000 honorarium.

These are some of the gifts this year's winner, Leonore Annenberg, made to regional institutions in 2006 as president and chairman of the Annenberg Foundation:

$10 million for the acquisition of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic to be displayed publicly in perpetuity in Philadelphia.

$10 million for the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communications' Project for Global Communications Studies.

$6.4 million for seven national and regional civic education and engagement programs at the National Constitution Center.

$5.3 million for the renovation of the Academy of Music ballroom.

$5 million to endow the Leonore Annenberg University Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania.

$5 million for the renovation and renaming of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing's building.

$2.5 million to the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School to establish a fellowship program honoring the late dean George Gerbner.

$1 million for the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships.

$500,000 for the University of the Arts Skyline Performing Arts Center.

$500,000 to the United Way.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or

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