THE ANNENBERGS AND THEIR WORK

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Billions in philanthropy ensure that many monuments to Walter Annenberg will remain when he dies, befitting someone who has achieved what he has. At 91, Annenberg is not only perhaps the greatest philanthropist of the century, but also one of its most accomplished figures.

Upon a base of insolvency, he built an impressive publishing empire anchored by TV Guide, which sprang from instinct and became a near monopoly in its field. Annenberg was no saint, but in "Legacy," Christopher Ogden's biography of Walter and his father, people attest to the son's strong moral center.

He had a knack for recognizing talent in those who would go far, ranging from Dick Nixon to Dick Clark. Near the end of his service as President Nixon's ambassador to the Court of St. James's, he arranged for his friend of 30-plus years, Ronald Reagan, to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, spawning one of the century's great political alliances. He is the only US envoy to have been knighted.

There is, however, only one monument to Moses Annenberg. It is a big one, though: all of his son's life. Doted on, mercilessly ridiculed, and finally admired by his father, Walter was driven by the twin motivations of proving his worth to his father and vindicating him.

Moses Annenberg also was a publishing titan, who started with nothing and built a vast fortune -- but his life ended in tatters, with a conviction for tax evasion and a mountain of debt. Walter believed, with ample reason, that his father had been hounded into prison by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt because Moses Annenberg had used his newspaper to rail against FDR's policies in the late '30s.

There is one more monument in this story, and it is the story itself. Ogden has created a great work distinguished by the breadth and depth of its research, and by its evenhandedness; it leans toward the positive, but it doesn't fawn, and there is plenty that is uncomplimentary.

From typically humble immigrant beginnings, the elder Annenberg rose through the newspaper trade, going in 20 years from street brawling for readership to managing circulation for all of William Randolph Hearst's publications. He maintained side interests as well, chief among them the Daily Racing Form, which dominated its field much as his son came to dominate television magazines.

Moe Annenberg made his home with the former Sadie Friedman, and together they had nine children. Walter arrived in the middle, in March 1908, but he was the only male and immediately became his parents' favorite. Ogden says Sadie, who outlived her husband by decades, was a very strong influence in Walter's life, but does not devote space commensurate with that role.

Bolstered by the family fortune, Walter grew up the carefree playboy. He started college, but dropped out to play the Roaring '20s stock market. He built himself a seven-figure stake but lost it in the crash, and had to be bailed out by his father for $350,000. His father's Hollywood scandal sheet gave Walter entree into show biz circles, and he dated Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, among others. For a time he wrote a gossip column, "Boy About Town," learning the ropes from Damon Runyon, who "just happened to like me."

Eventually Moses left Hearst, and in the 1930s bought his own newspaper, which he deemed a more suitable career for Walter than the gambling-tainted Racing Form. Walter sat at his father's side, but had little input. His father loved him, Ogden says, but didn't respect him, and would often dress him down viciously in public. "What do you know?" Moses would thunder. "You have no idea what the hell you're talking about!"

Later, Walter would rhapsodize about his father, conceding only that he "could be firm." "I wasn't worth a damn in those days," Walter told Ogden in an interview. (The Annenbergs cooperated unconditionally with the author, allowing free access to voluminous archives. In addition, Ogden interviewed more than 200 people, and his bibliography stretches over nine pages.)

When the Internal Revenue Service, sent by FDR, came calling, Walter was forced to change overnight. "Until all the legal troubles, Walter didn't even come in until 10 or 10:30 a.m.," Moses' secretary told Ogden. Power transferred absolutely when Moses, in part to spare his son, who also had been indicted, accepted a plea bargain that included time in prison.

Few believed Walter could succeed, but he began to, almost immediately. He also worked diligently to win his father's freedom, without success until his father was dying with a brain tumor. Moses' final, whispered words to Walter: "My suffering has all been for the purpose of making you a man." And a very particular man he was. He was paying millions annually in back taxes, but one wonders if even that explains Walter's penuriousness. Here is a typical missive to his first wife: "For pure unadulterated waste, the enclosed Western Union telegram to The New York Times cost $1.81. You could have sent all this in a letter with a three cent stamp." Their marriage ended in 1949 after 11 years.

Walter expected not servitude from a wife, but devotion, which he alluded to in an early-'50s Mother's Day card to Sadie in which he said her example had taught him that "the essence of motherhood is submission and sacrifice." He found such a woman in Lee Rosentiel in 1950, and they remain partners to this day. Together they have lived an epic life, indulging in luxury and suffering in adversity, as when Walter's only son, Roger (from his first marriage), who suffered a personality disorder, committed suicide in 1962. Walter communicated with his children mostly through letters, and sometimes would correct their grammar while exhorting them to live up to their good fortune of birth.

His stewardship of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Moses' chief bequest, was uneven. He fought injustice where he saw it, sometimes intervening personally, and yet he maintained a capricious blacklist of names whose mention was allowed only disparagingly, or not at all. When his Triangle Corp. couldn't agree on a stadium lease with the hometown '76ers basketball team, he banned their mention for the rest of the season (attendance plummeted).

When President Kennedy was slain, most publishers sent a reporter to Dallas. Walter didn't, but he did send a check for $12,500 to the widow of J. D. Tippett, the Dallas police officer slain by Lee Harvey Oswald, to pay off her mortgage. (His editors were miffed when AP scooped them on this story, but Walter didn't want to break the news in his own pages; he didn't want to be seen as seeking credit.)

Walter made fabulous amounts of money through his publications, but he will most be remembered for giving it away, a pursuit he credits to Sadie. Early on, he would help individual employees who had suffered a loss, or respond to a tragedy he'd read about, but his giving has grown far beyond that. Add up his gifts to educational institutions, for example, and include only those of $2 million or greater -- and they would exceed $1.3 billion. He donated another billion when he gave his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ogden's selected list of donations runs three pages.

At 624 pages, "Legacy" can appear imposing, particularly for summer reading, but Ogden, a staff member at Time magazine, writes in an inviting, accessible, and unassuming manner. He has found subjects worthy of in-depth treatment, and produced a work worthy of his subjects.