Legacy: A Biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg , by Christopher Ogden. Little, Brown & Company, 615 pages, $29.95.
I am going to attempt something unusual in this review. I am not going to use Christopher Ogden’s extensive, engrossing and excellent biography as an armature from which to hang my own views of his subject, nor to show off how clever or erudite I am, or how “interesting” or “dazzling” a writer I can be. I am going to try to review the book I believe Christopher Ogden thinks he has written, not the book I myself might perhaps write, or wish Mr. Ogden had written, or feel he should have written, and to do so in a manner that will hopefully enable the intelligent general reader to decide whether or not to buy it (or to borrow it from a local library, if said reader is fortunate enough to live in a place where Andrew Carnegie’s great vision still flickers with some brightness).
I am not an “Annenbergologist,” with a particular ax to grind. In the early 70′s, my father and I visited Walter Annenberg at his Palm Springs home, where he was a gracious host. More important, as a reasonably well-informed American of a certain age, I have long been aware of the family history: Moses Annenberg, the patriarch, started out building newspaper circulation for Hearst in a time when ax handles were as useful in establishing distribution channels as focus groups are today. Moses, a tough man who–to quote from his son Walter’s friend and great political patron Richard Nixon–generally believed the omelet was worth the eggs, built a great media empire (great by the standards of the half-century preceding World War II). He attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, who instigated what must still be the most egregious example of “the politics of personal destruction” and managed to get Moses Annenberg sent to Federal prison for income tax evasion, a development that cast a lifelong shadow over the son, and clearly provided the psychological underwriting for Walter’s subsequent monumental achievements as businessman ( TV Guide , the most spectacularly successful magazine ever launched from ground zero, was his inspiration), art collector, wielder of media and political influence and philanthropist on a scale that ranks with the greatest. Indeed, there is much in the first part of the book, which centers on the father-son dynamic, that reminded me of the relationship between Henry Bolingbroke and his son Hal in the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV . It is a great story. I think the author does it writerly justice: He knows when to adumbrate, when to gossip, the narrative proceeds smoothly, the prose is admirable, the characterizations everything they should be, especially with such contradictory, complex, now awful, now admirable and thus always deeply human “great men” (and women–Walter had seven sisters!) at center-stage. This is a book written to be read.
It is also, let it be said, a biography in which the living subjects have cooperated. Whether this constitutes de jure grounds for suspicion I cannot say. Other Annenberg biographies, which I have not read, presumably rake more muck. It does seem to me that the way Mr. Ogden tells his story permits a sentient, moyen sensuel reader to judge for herself or himself whether at this point or that the author has taken something off his fastball. Indeed, I think this is one of Mr. Ogden’s strengths as a biographer: He leaves room along the way for the reader to put his two cents in.
If business interests you, or politics, or mass culture, or good gossip about Hollywood and Washington, you will like this book. If American society and its personal and institutional intrigues interest you, there’s a lot here for you. The same goes for Philadelphia, WASP versus Jew, big-city newspapering or searing family heartbreak. The Annenbergs are people who over the course of this century and then some have lived at the heart, and at the nerve ends, of political and commercial power. To be given their story in this accessible, well-written, lucid manner, is to be handed a personality-driven primer, a “true bill,” as it were, pretty much laid bare as regards both strengths and disabilities, and on several narrative levels, concerning the way things have worked and have gotten done in this “American century.”
Like me, many readers will harbor knee-jerk notions formed in younger or more foolish days: They will look upon the Annenbergs as possessors of a great fortune built not, as Balzac asserted and Mario Puzo quoted, on a great crime, but on an entire catalogueofskullduggery and sociocultural degeneracy. TheywillthinkofWal-
hardlylessbase thanAl Capone; as friend to such monsters as Nixon and Ronald Reagan; as a tumble-tongued, locution-tied Ambassador to the Court at St. James, made fun of by Evangeline Bruce and her smart friends; as a sinister major political power broker; as a man to whom charity is but another means of manipulation. Mr. Ogden’s version will not sit well with readers so predisposed, because it will raise Cain with their preconceptions, but they are the ones who most ought to read it.
Walter is a very interesting man who, once he came into his own, never hesitated to call ‘em as he saw ‘em, without fear or favor, or regard for personal interest. He saw through Barry Goldwater, he saw through Nancy Reagan, he saw through and loathed Joseph P. Kennedy. To paraphrase another great citizen of Philadelphia, any man capable of such judgments cannot possibly be all bad. Indeed, if you give a damn about the way we live now, and how we’ve gotten there, and the strange, conflicted contradiction between doing good and just doing that lies at the core of the capitalist spirit, this is a damn good book to start with.
If you’re a cynic, I don’t think you’ll like this book, but if you’re any sort of idealist, who likes to see someone who is basically a good man, if not always a good guy, prevail over all sorts of handicaps, physiological, psychological, commercial, political, you’ll get a kick out of it. If you want to believe that there is more to capitalism than Donald Trump, you’ll take heart from it. If you think that fathers and sons and wives and daughters (Mr. Ogden gives the ladies a definite fair shake), and the unhappiness or happiness of families and marriages, and the emotional resonances in individuals of wealth and expectation are the great subjects the greatest writers have always proclaimed them to be, you’ll relish it. It’s like a great novel, and unlike novels that pretend to similar scope today, the characters are real–by which I do not mean that you can look them up in biographical dictionaries.
The bottom line is: This is a much richer story than people might at first blush, or casually, think. The Annenbergs have lived extraordinarily kaleidoscopic lives; they and their biographer give you an awful lot of bang for your buck (or your $29.95), both as individuals and as a family.
Walter Annenberg was born about the time that J. Pierpont Morgan died. Both men would base their public conduct, not always in ways that elicit our admiration, on the premise that character counts most–in others perhaps more frequently or insistently than in themselves, let it be said in absolute fairness. So here’s a concluding thought. Father’s Day is coming up. If I were an enterprising bookseller, I would package Christopher Ogden’s Legacy with Jean Strouse’s magisterial Morgan and sell them as a pair for, say, $50. What a present for a Dad! And what a legacy for that Dad, in time, to pass on to his children.