Leonore Annenberg

Leonore and Walter Annenberg were major benefactors of USC, among other institutions. (© Douglas Kirkland)

Leonore Annenberg, a major patron of the arts, science and education who was the billionaire widow of publishing magnate Walter Annenberg, has died. She was 91.

Annenberg, who served briefly as President Reagan's chief of protocol, died early Thursday of natural causes at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an Annenberg family spokeswoman who is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a statement released Thursday, former First Lady Nancy Reagan called Annenberg "a dear and longtime friend" and praised the couple's "unparalleled" philanthropy that "left an indelible print on education in the United States."

When Ronald Reagan appointed Annenberg to the protocol post in 1981, it was as if she had spent the first 63 years of her life preparing for a role in which attention to etiquette and diplomatic detail play such an important part.

What she called her only other "meaningful job" didn't come with a salary but took her to London, where Walter served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1969 to 1974. She had delighted in mingling with the royal family, entertaining and spending $1 million of Annenberg money refurbishing the ambassador's mansion.

Her husband, who once owned a communications empire that included TV Guide, was one of the country's most generous philanthropists, giving away more than $2 billion in cash in addition to a trove of art, according to "Legacy," an Annenberg biography by Christopher Ogden.

The Annenbergs gave about $290 million to USC, making the family the largest single donor in the school's history. They founded USC's Annenberg School for Communication in 1971 and the Annenberg Center for Communication, created to align and promote communications technologies, in 1993.

Ernest J. Wilson III, dean of the Annenberg School, said in a statement Thursday that "her remarkable philanthropy" and "engagement with the power of communication to improve humanity truly" have changed the world.

After her husband died in 2002, Leonore Annenberg became president of the Annenberg Foundation and continued giving millions away. More than $100 million was donated for an expansion of Eisenhower Medical Center and $10 million was given to the Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley for a center to teach children about civic responsibility and the U.S. presidency. In 2004, $25 million was given to build the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology at Caltech in Pasadena.

On the Annenberg Foundation website, Annenberg's stepdaughter, Wallis Annenberg, expressed "deep sadness" over Leonore's death and stressed that the organization's commitment to philanthropy will continue "for generations."

In the early 1950s, the Annenbergs began building a renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces that was worth an estimated $1 billion when they pledged it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. The collection of about 50 works -- including paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh -- usually hung in their 32,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Mirage.

Designed by Los Angeles modernist architect A. Quincy Jones, the airy home on the 240-acre estate was completed in 1966 for a reported $3 million. Annenberg was known for her attention to detail as decorator and hostess at the desert compound lushly planted to resemble an English country estate.

Known as Sunnylands, the estate that was their winter home had given refuge to President Nixon after his resignation over the Watergate scandal and was the site of Frank Sinatra's 1976 marriage to Barbara Marx. Actor Gregory Peck and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. had been guests. But no one was allowed to just drop by.

"Even we absolutely must wait for an invitation," Diane Deshong, one of her two daughters, told the Washington Post in 1981.

With Annenberg's death, Sunnylands will be made available to the president of the United States and other high-level government officials to use as a diplomatic retreat. Eventually it also will be open for public tours three days a week, Jamieson said Thursday.

The Annenbergs also kept a chalet in Sun Valley, Idaho, and an estate outside Philadelphia.

When a Times reporter noted in 1981 that many people would be satisfied to stay by the pool instead of going to Washington to wrangle over diplomatic ceremony, Annenberg replied: "But what if you had done that for nine years . . . and suddenly you were offered a challenge?"

The $50,000-a-year job as protocol chief was the first paying position she had ever had. She was surprised that she adored it, Annenberg told The Times in 1981, and at 63 "was amazed to find out" she could do it.

In early 1981, she was put in charge of a staff of 40 in Washington, who didn't know what to expect from an international hostess who wore $3,000 suits and had a multimillion-dollar jewelry collection. Early on, Walter was overhead saying, "Remember, Motherrr, as we learned in London, it's the career people who saved our bacon and made the world go round."