Glamour and ostentation, those twin pillars of power in this celebrity-saturated desert valley, can be found on almost every street, many of which are named after the very stars being venerated.
Plentiful as palm fronds, there’s the Bob Hope “party house” hovering bluffside like a flying saucer, and there’s the midcentury-modern marvel where Frank and Ava (no last name’s needed) loved and fought with equal ferocity, and there’s the high-toned Las Palmas neighborhood where a gaggle of Hollywood A-through-D listers own second and third homes.
But the epicenter of cultural cachet in the greater Palm Springs area is a 200-acre estate so vast it almost needs its own ZIP code and so exclusive that, for decades, you needed to be either a head of state, a captain of industry, a fame-besotted actor or a VIP of impeccable pedigree to gain entrance behind the formidable pink fence.
Sunnylands, it is called. The compound of the late publisher and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, has been dubbed the Camp David of the West, and with good reason. Seven U.S. presidents have visited, Ronald Reagan spending many a New Year’s Eve dancing on the marble floors, Richard Nixon strolling the grounds post-resignation, and Barack Obama holding a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. When not serving as a temporary seat of power, the 25,000-square-foot main house saw Frank Sinatra marry Barbara Marx, his last wife (Ava Gardner? Long since divorced) in front of the walk-in fireplace and served as Queen Elizabeth II’s personal version of Airbnb.
Fortunately, for we commoners, entrance into this sanctum sanctorum of wealth and power now is available for anyone with mouse-clicking dexterity and $35 to spare. Since the spring of 2012, after a $61.5 million renovation on the 48-year-old estate that included the construction of a 17,000-square-foot visitors center and a new garden, Sunnylands has been open for public viewing when it is not being used as a venue for summit meetings, nonprofit conclaves and retreats for policy leaders.
It’s still pretty difficult to gain entrance, but this time only because the tours (usually Thursdays through Sundays) sell out within hours after a block of tickets are released via the Annenberg Foundation website.
Because of Sunnylands’ history and mystique, this is one tour that even jaded Palm Springs locals clamor to experience.
They drink in the expanse of green on the sprawling grounds, golf course and 11 man-made lakes, framed by the San Jacinto Mountains on one side and the Chocolate Mountains on the other. They gawk at the 50,000 plants that draw scores of bird species to reside in one of the nine gardens. They snap pics – from the outside only; no indoor photography – of the 25,000-square foot main house and its pink pyramidal roof meant to evoke a Mayan temple, handiwork of famed Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones.
They walk, wide-eyed, through the main living room, cavernous as a Costco but lavishly decorated with floor-to-ceiling windows, furniture designed by the famed William Haines, walls of Mexican lava stone and digital reproductions of the Annenberg’s art collection – Picassos, Monets, Renoirs and Van Goghs – donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art upon Walter Annenberg’s death. The room’s centerpiece in the atrium, the Auguste Rodin sculpture “Eve,” is no reproduction. It’s ringed by bromeliads that resemble pink pineapples. Almost as an afterthought, a complete collection of Steuben glass, its crystal carved by Asian artists, is attached near a hallway leading to the dining room.
They get almost viscerally overwhelmed by the canary yellow color scheme that dominates the Annenbergs’ master bedroom (actually, the only bedroom in the main house, encircled by guest wings and cottages that number 22 rooms.) Much head-shaking takes place when the docent – on this day, Kacey Donner – points to a button on each side of the bed.
“Those are call buttons,” Donner said. “There are 38 of them in the house. Mr. and Mrs. Annenberg used them whenever they needed (to call) staff. Eventually, they decided to stop using them when they decided telephones were more efficient.”
But the real F. Scott Fitzgerald “the rich are not like you and me” moment comes when Donner points to a garden outside the master bedroom window to where a birdhouse once stood. It was called the “Feathered Hilton,” and it was outfitted with a microphone that picked up the chirps of birds and pumped it into Walter’s office and bedroom, so that he didn’t have to go outside to enjoy nature.
The piped-in bird sounds may have been Annenberg’s doing, but most of the house bears the stamp of Leonore, who was the niece of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. Most noteworthy is the vivid use of color, evident everywhere, from bathrooms to bars.
“Pink, yellow and green – those were Mrs. Annenberg’s favorite colors,” Donner said. “She once told a newspaper that she dressed to match the house. … All the guest rooms are color-coordinated.”
Indeed, right down to the smallest detail, such as the color of jelly beans in a bowl on the dresser matching the walls and carpeting.
“Pink was definitely one of Mrs. Annenberg’s favorite colors,” Donner added. “That’s why there’s a pink wall around the property. Before the pink wall added in 1995, the property was surrounded by pink oleander bushes. But in ‘95, there was an oleander blight and the disease spread quickly. Soon the property was surrounded by dead bushes. The Annenbergs didn’t like this because you could see into the property. So it took them about three months to build the wall.”
So pervasive is the pink, which Leonore once said reminded her of the sunsets over the San Jacintos, that the Annenbergs themselves are buried in a pink mausoleum on a hillside yard by the golf course. “The (city) rules made them designate 50 acres for cemetery space,” Donner said, “but the Annenbergs are the only ones buried there. And they will be the only ones.”
Most of the accoutrements in the main house and the surrounding grounds, opulent as they are, do not bespeak of the political power broker Annenberg was. It really could be any billionaire’s estate, which is reason enough for many to give a look-see. But what makes Sunnylands more noteworthy is its place in history. The docents never miss an opportunity to point out a spot where something of significance took place. Annenberg, who made most of his fortune as the founder of TV Guide, stayed on the periphery of politics, though he did serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Nixon.
The back patio?
“That’s where President Reagan would meet with Cabinet people like (Secretary of State) George Schulz to … discuss important matters,” Donner said. “The 1986 Tax Act was (hatched) on a conversation between Reagan and (legislators) on the golf course.”
The living room fireplace, 6 feet by 6 feet?
“That’s where Frank Sinatra married Barbara, his fourth wife (in 1976),” Donner said. “Walter used to say to Barbara, ‘When are you and Frank going to get married?’ He told them that if they got married, he’d host the wedding. But the only days Walter was going to be at Sunnylands were July 10, 11 and 12. Barbara thought 7-11 was a lucky date. None of the wedding guests were told they were coming to a wedding because they didn’t want the press to show up. The press showed up (at the gates), anyway, and Mrs. Annenberg was nice enough to give them water. It was a hot day. She worried about them.”
The sunken bar in the guest cottages?
“There’s a movie projector built into the wall over the bar. A screen would (descend) over the window and Walter and Frank Sinatra would host movie showings,” she said.
On the grounds, bordering the golf course, are all manner of reminders that a power couple held sway. Donner leads the group in an eight-seat electric cart, pointing out the magnolia tree grown from cuttings President Nixon brought from the tree Andrew Jackson planted at the White House; the two palm trees (only two on the estate) that were planted to “appease President (Dwight D.) Eisenhower”; the lake where President George H.W. Bush liked to fish.
But the most name-dropping room in the main house is the “Room of Memories,” often mistaken for Walter’s office but actually a room for entertaining and unwinding with a few cocktails. Featured are framed photos of the Annenbergs with the queen, handwritten notes to the couple from “Elizabeth” and from the Queen Mother, and numerous presidential grip-and-grin shots from leaders of both parties. Two paintings serve as the room’s anchors: a portrait of George Washington on one wall, Walter Annenberg on the other.
“Be sure,” Donner said, “to check out the photo of President Reagan on the TV. He and (Soviet head of state Mikhail) Gorbachev exchanged New Year’s (1986) greetings right over there. Well, I mean, Reagan was over there in a chair.”
A framed photo shows Reagan peering at the TV in the Room of Memories with Gorbachev’s face on the screen. A handwritten note to the Annenbergs from Reagan is scrawled along the side. It reads: “Dear Lee and Walter: So I said to my friend, ‘You should be here. You’d forget that commie rubbish.’ I hope he heard me.”
Donner lets the group linger in the Room of Memories, and, at one point, a woman rested her hand lightly on one of the antique chairs. A green-shirted, khaki-pantsed security guard hustled over, saying, “Excuse me, ma’am, your arm.” The tourist apologized profusely.
Yes, they take the preservation and pristine nature of Sunnylands quite seriously. And the guests tramping through the rooms and wings and gardens just seem grateful to get a glimpse into a life they can scarcely imagine.
“It’s just so serene,” said tourist John Stewart of San Diego, visiting with his friend Randy Hovnet of Bellingham, Wash. “It had to be so much better coming here than meeting in that hornet’s nest of Washington (D.C.)”
“When you’re behind these walls,” added Hovnet, “it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”
The world as we know it, at least.