Before Sunnylands, There Was Sunny-Lands

Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage, CA

Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s Rancho Mirage estate Sunnylands, favorite repose of the Reagans, Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon (who fled here in disgrace directly from Washington), and Truman Capote (!), will open on March 1 as a “west coast Camp David,” the Times Adam Nagourney reported yesterday.

The 25,000 square foot jewel of mid-century modern architecture sits on a 200 acre estate with hundreds of olive trees and 11 man-made lakes.

Just a few years gone (Walter died in 2002, Leonore in 2009), it’s almost possible to forget that Walter’s father Moses (Moe or M.L.), the Hearst-trained publisher of the Daily Racing Form, seeded a media empire here by purchasing the Inquirer in 1936. M.L. turned the moribund paper around by eschewing (at least temporarily) the paper’s long-standing conservatism in favor of hard-hitting journalism and the New Deal. “A newspaper isn’t living up to its real power in a community unless it does something,” he told his editors. “A paper that isn’t willing to stand up and fight for rights and happiness and health, the general welfare, of the community which supports it, isn’t worth printing, and it certainly isn’t worth owning. I want the Inquirer to the be the eyes and the voice, and if need be, the good hard fists of the citizens of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.”

As he rebuilt the paper, M.L.–who would soon enough go to prison for tax evasion–often had his editors over to his suite at the Warwick, on 17th Street, where he kept his mistress Gertrude Boze (and gave her a quite ample salary of $150 week). Those editors were also treated to weekends at the original Sunnylands, on 5,000 acres near Milford, Pa., in the Poconos. Part of the estate was Big Log Tavern Lake, site of the drowning of Thomas Mitten, chairman of the Philadelphia rapid transit company and the estate’s previous owner.

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About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."

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