Two Annenbergs: An American tale

May 30, 1999|By William K. Marimow | By William K. Marimow,Sun Staff

"Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg," by Christopher Ogden. Little, Brown. 624 pages. $29.95.

Looking back on his life at age 62, Moses L. Annenberg declared in 1940 that his career could best be understood by reflecting on the differences between a cherished house pet and a hungry wolf. "You never hear of a well-fed house dog going out to hunt for food," Annenberg said, "but the hungry wolf must hunt or starve. ... I learned how to hunt, and I kept it up."

Indeed Annenberg's ambition and the needs of his burgeoning family kept him hunting in a peripatetic publishing career, which is skillfully chronicled in Christopher Ogden's book, "Legacy." In 624 well-researched and well-written pages, Ogden knits together the intertwined lives of Moe Annenberg and his son, philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg, set against the backdrop of America -- a colorful cavalcade of politicians, newspaper owners, prosecutors and defense lawyers and entrepreneurs -- from the turn of the century until the 1970s.

In the early 1900s, Moe worked the streets of Chicago, distributing William Randolph Hearst's Chicago American, leaving home each morning with a revolver in each one of his two coat pockets. He moved from Chicago to Milwaukee in 1906 and in the next 14 years amassed a fortune of $2 million by setting up a distribution network for the Chicago papers and national magazines. He bought the Daily Racing Form in 1922 for $400,000 in cash and cleared enough profit the first year to pay for his purchase.

In July 1936, Moe bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and its 18-story, white tower headquarters, dominating Broad Street, north of City Hall. Along the way, he had eight children, one of whom -- Walter -- became one of the nation's most generous philanthropists, giving away more than $2 billion and another $1 billion in art.

Only a federal prosecution in 1940, motivated by the Roosevelt administration's antipathy for a potent political enemy, could quell Moe's passionate pursuit of wealth, power and respectability by the social establishment. In April 1940, he pleaded guilty to evading $1.2 million in income taxes and agreed to pay $9.5 million in penalties, then a staggering sum. Two months later, a federal judge sentenced him to three years in jail, where he developed a fatal brain tumor.

Moe's death, on July 20, 1942, seven weeks after being released from prison, was a watershed in Walter's life. Overshadowed by his domineering father, whom he loved, revered and feared, Walter, until Moe went to prison, was -- in Ogden's words -- "a lazy, spoiled bachelor," known to his mother and sisters as "Boy."

But Moe's absence ignited a spark in Walter, a drive to succeed and to somehow ennoble the work that Moe began. On an 18-inch plaque, which Annenberg kept near his desk, were these words: "Cause my works on this earth to reflect honor on my father's memory."

In ensuing years, Annenberg worked feverishly, logging 14-hour days on Inquirer business and Seventeen magazine, which debuted in September 1944, an overnight hit. All this time, Annenberg tightened expenses while struggling to repay the IRS in multimillion-dollar installments, due until 1946.

Clearly, Annenberg's most brilliant business coup came in 1953 when -- in the early days of the television industry -- he foresaw the market for a magazine directory of shows. Ignoring skeptics like Norman Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and Gardner Cowles, the owner of Look magazine, Annenberg introduced TV Guide in April 1953 with a press run of 1.5 million in 10 cities.

By 1978, TV Guide was selling 21 million copies a week -- a billion copies a year! -- with 94 editions. It was the only magazine to ever sell that many copies. When Annenberg sold his publishing empire of Seventeen, the Daily Racing Form and TV Guide to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the final purchase price was $3.2 billion.

All of this, and much, much, more, is recounted in Ogden's father/son biography, which is a meticulous and fascinating account of Moe's rise and fall and how it inspired Walter in business, in his more than five sparkling years as ambassador to Great Britain and his lifelong commitment to philanthropy.

Although Annenberg cooperated -- giving Ogden access to personal and corporate records, love letters to his wife Lee and even the Episcopal Academy report cards of his son Roger, who committed suicide -- the Annenbergs were still subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

While Ogden concludes that the tax case against Moe was inspired by politics, he establishes that Moe was illegally using corporate funds to pay for personal expenses.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.