New Exhibition Reveals Extraordinary Gifts from Sunnylands’ Famous Guests

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What do you get the man or woman who has everything? The question was not a theoretical one for the U.S. presidents, royal families and Hollywood legends who visited Walter and Leonore Annenberg at Sunnylands, their winter estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Over the decades, the couple, recognized as two of the 20th century’s greatest philanthropists, were themselves the recipients of countless personal gifts – some lavish, some light-hearted and sentimental – from the world-famous figures they entertained at their home.

In a new, year-long exhibition, Treasures at Sunnylands: Selections from the Gift Collection of Walter & Leonore Annenberg, 46 items reflecting both the generosity and the whimsy of the Annenbergs’ guests, family, and close friends went on display Jan. 25 at the Sunnylands Center & Gardens, 37977 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage.

The Annenbergs lived at the apex of the political, business and entertainment worlds. Under President Richard M. Nixon, Walter Annenberg served as ambassador to the United Kingdom’s Court of St. James’s from 1969 to 1974. His Triangle Publications, Inc. launched TV Guide and Seventeen magazines. Leonore Annenberg served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of protocol from 1981 to 1982. In all, eight U.S. presidents have visited Sunnylands.

“It’s exhilarating to see a collection of the tangible markers of the Annenbergs’ extraordinary lives,” said Anne Rowe, director of collections and exhibitions at Sunnylands. “These gifted objects from all over the world, in all shapes and sizes, and signed with warm expressions of love and affection, create a powerful narrative.”

From a silver cigarette box presented by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, to a singing fish plaque from President George H. W. Bush, gifts in the exhibition are categorized into offerings of presidents and first ladies, royalty, diplomats, business leaders, entertainers, and family. A beaded, safety-pin necklace from then-First Lady Hillary Clinton that became a prized piece of jewelry for Leonore Annenberg will be on display, as will the family’s Austin Mini Moke – a small, freewheeling vehicle that a fun-loving Frank Sinatra delivered in 1968.

The exhibition is the second at the Center & Gardens to illustrate the social history of the Annenberg estate. The Pleasure of Your Company: Entertaining at Sunnylands highlighted five historic events that occurred inside the home. “We do get the impression that the social history of Sunnylands is of great interest to the public,” Rowe said. “News broadcasts over the years showed motorcade after motorcade entering the gates to this mysterious place time after time. Famous people would be spotted in town and speculation would grow that they were guests of the Annenbergs at Sunnylands.”

Items in the exhibition were given by such notables as entertainers Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas; U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; royals Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II; and business leaders Randolph Hearst, with wife Veronica, and Justin Dart, with wife Jane.

The exhibition, on display from Jan. 25, 2015 to January 2016, is free to the public during the Center’s operating hours, 9 am to 4 pm, Thursday through Sunday. Sunnylands is closed in July and August.