Talk of the Town

Maria Shriver discovers what the influential philanthropist Wallis Annenberg thinks about her place in the city she loves

During her tenure as first lady of California, Maria Shriver hosted an October conference that brought together women whom she saw as architects of change. Wallis Annenberg certainly fits that description. The philanthropist—who, like Shriver, is the daughter of a famous family and a mother of four–has since 2002 overseen the foundation started by her father, media tycoon Walter Annenberg. The $1.7 billion endowment has had a profound impact on L.A.’s landscape the past few years, with the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City, and in 2013 the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. This year Shriver has embarked on an ongoing series of interviews with remarkable women, including poet Mary Oliver and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem. On a recent afternoon she added one more to her list: a rare interview with Annenberg, who invited Shriver to her foundation’s Century City office.


Maria Shriver: When I think of an L.A. woman, I think of Wallis Annenberg. It’s not because I see your name all over the city. It’s because I’ve admired you for a long time. You could live anywhere in the world and chose to make L.A. your home. Why?

Wallis Annenberg: There’s no place like L.A. The weather. The cultural diversity. The athleticism. The concept of refugee optimism, where the elevator man is not going to be an elevator man for life. He might be a movie star tomorrow. I love that openness. You don’t get a free pass here because your name is this or your name is that or your parents came over on the Mayflower. It’s a land of accomplishment. No matter how kooky you are, if you’ve got something to offer, we’ll take you.

MS: Women look at philanthropy differently from men. What do you think is the big difference?

WA: It’s difficult for women to ask for money. Much harder than it is for men. Women who are in a certain economic bracket use philanthropy as a means of social connection and social advancement. That’s not to say it’s not a sincere thing.

MS: How do you decide what to give money to?

WA: What I look for above all is leadership and infrastructure. Because every single nonprofit is valid. They’re all worthwhile. But if you don’t have good management and a dedicated leader—who’s dedicated, not doing 50 other things—I’m not interested. You’ve got to get people who can carry the message through example. People who are breaking new ground. People whose approach can get attention. Then you can kind of leverage things. I think that’s the best way to make a difference.

MS: You look for a person with passion.

WA: Yeah, but they have to walk like they talk. I’ve had people come in here and say, “Please, do this,” and I’m really not terribly impressed. I don’t want to hear the same old thing. It’s just not enough to present your wonderful self to the world. I’m influenced by women—and men, but particularly women—who know something about something and want to offer it freely around, who constantly amass knowledge.

MS: When you drive in Beverly Hills and see your name there—the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which is still being completed—and then you go down to the ocean and drive by the Annenberg Community Beach House, what are you feeling?

WA: It puts a smile on my face. When I go by that beach club in Santa Monica and see the cars parked there—money can’t buy that feeling. It makes me feel very, very fulfilled. If I’m depressed or sad or self-obsessed, which is part of human nature, all I have to do is drive by that beach club and it changes my entire mood.

MS: When you give money to someone, to an organization, what’s the feeling that gives you?

WA: Oh, it’s very nurturing, very satisfying to know you’ve been of service. That’s what it’s about. That’s the way I see myself—as Wallis, not wallet.

MS: So you feel when you give the money that you’re being of service, that you’re making—

WA: A dent.

MS: A difference?

WA: A dent. I’m not going to say I’m making a tremendous difference. But I’m certainly making a dent. And I’m empowering someone and helping them achieve something.

MS: Don’t you think you’ve made more than a dent in L.A.?

WA: [Laughs.] Yes, I do. I think my photography space and I think the beach club are—they’re brilliant! But again, it’s service to the people. It isn’t about me. In L.A. there are great civic-minded people like Eli Broad, who’s got one way of doing things—the big projects. My father’s philanthropy was more like Broad’s. And then you have my way of doing things, where I’m looking for the innovators and the leaders. The things I do, outside of the major projects of course, you’d never hear about. That’s my style. I’m a very low-key person. I don’t want a pulpit. I don’t care about being photographed. Talk about my products—and I look at them as products. It takes years and a lot of patience to build these things. Right now I’m raising money for the cultural center in Beverly Hills, which has put me in a very difficult position because I like to think of myself as a giver, not a getter. And I’m now on bended knee asking people to please give. There’s going to be a 500-seat theater, a children’s theater, ballet, dance. It will also preserve our wonderful post office that was built under the Works Progress Administration under FDR. We still need to raise another $20 million, and hopefully the people in this community will participate. But your name can work against you. When Jackie Autry was raising money for the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, I must admit I thought, “Gene’s fabulously wealthy! Let him pay for it.” Similarly, they hear the name Annenberg and say, “Oh, my God, they’re loaded. Let them write an extra check.” I think that’s why I’ve had, shall we say, a difficult time raising money.

MS: Besides Eli Broad, is there anybody you look at and say, “That’s a role model for me”?

WA: Oh yes. Your mother was one.

MS: She didn’t give money away. She asked for it. She wasn’t running what you’re running.

WA: It doesn’t matter. She was doing something of service. It doesn’t matter if you’re a giver or a getter. I know I’m on the giver side of the fence, which is really an accident—a wonderful accident—of birth.

MS: Anyone else inspire you?

WA: Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. Melinda Gates. Sherry Lansing.

MS: I read an interview with you where you said, “I’ve never been embarrassed about using my name. I’m proud of it. It’s who I am. I just want to feel worthy of it.” What do you think the Annenberg name stands for?

WA: The Annenberg name stands for first class all the way. I don’t want anything shoddy or slipshod or slippery. If we can’t do the best job, we don’t want to do it. Quality.

MS: Innovation? Creativity?

WA: Yes, but it has to be quality. There are a lot of slippery characters—I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that—who talk a good game. And that’s fine. But nothing second rate.

MS: Do you feel worthy of the Annenberg name?

WA: Absolutely.

MS: How’d you get there?

WA: I worked at TV Guide in the ’80s—a job I was fortunate to get because of my name. But when my father sold the magazine to Rupert Murdoch, I didn’t know what the heck to do. My father said, “Well, why don’t you set up an Annenberg Foundation office here in Los Angeles?” I said, “My God, what a challenge.” And that’s how I began in the business of philanthropy—which I’d really been raised around—but the beginnning was subtle. I remember when I was a little kid, my father used to drive us to Atlantic City (we lived outside of Philadelphia) for the weekends. We’d see these trucks with men sitting in the back: cotton pickers, corn pickers, grape pickers. And my father would always say, “Remember, there but for the grace of God that could be me.”

MS: My kids don’t know about your dad.

WA: No. How would they?

MS: But they know about you.

WA: They do?

MS: Yeah, I tell them.

WA: Well, bless them. I can’t say that I was groomed from the time that I was five to run a foundation. But I found right away that I loved it.

MS: Very often people say women have a tough time making decisions.

WA: I don’t. I get ideas from the strangest places. Things can come to you. I really believe there’s a power up there.

MS: Godshots. I call them Godshots.

WA: Exactly. Godshots.

MS: Sometimes when someone invites you to a meeting, you must know they’re not inviting you because you’re Wallis and they just love you and you’re so entertaining. Doesn’t that ever bother you?

WA: Not even a bit.

MS: Oh, come on.

WA: Maria, it doesn’t.

MS: But you know they’re inviting you for your money.

WA: I’m grateful to be invited, period. You know, when I was at TV Guide, I had my experiences with show business. The screenings, the parties—they’d practically pick me up in a gold chariot. But I was smart enough to see it was about TV Guide. I never fooled myself that it was me. After Murdoch bought the magazine and eventually I was fired, I knew the party was over.

MS: So many people have lost jobs or lose status, and they think it’s the end of the world and they can’t pick themselves up and they don’t know where to go. Did you ever have a moment like that in your life where you thought, “I’m done, I’m finished”?

WA: When I was young, yes. After my divorce [in 1975]—before I had gone to work or anything—I thought, “Nobody’s going to invite me. I’m not going to have any friends because I’m single.” Yes, I certainly fell into that kind of depression. Until George Frelinghuysen—he was a big, very eccentric socialite here in Los Angeles at the time—called to invite me to dinner. And I said, “George, I better tell you something. Um, I’m not married anymore.” He said, “We don’t want him. We want you.” Remember, this was before the days when a woman could go places alone. I had all my charge accounts closed down, and I was paying the bills! Tell me how that makes sense! Anyway, when he said to me, “We don’t give a damn about him, we want you,” it gave me a lot of courage. It’s always wonderful to feel included. On every level. Whether you go or you don’t go, I’ve never known anyone in my life who was insulted by an invitation.

MS: Is it hard to be a woman in Los Angeles in your opinion?

WA: Now that I’m in my seventies, it’s easy. What was necessary was to make friends with other women so you don’t feel isolated or alone. When I moved here in the ’60s, Beverly Hills was a big attraction because of the fabulous public school system. I wanted my four children to have that experience, having been chauffeur driven to school myself. Of course when I was younger, I certainly thought, “Beverly Hills? They’re going to think, you know, I’m ugly.”  We thought everybody was a size four or under. A lot of issues with beauty. But at this stage in my life I’m long beyond that.

MS: A lot of people look down on, or look askance a bit at, L.A. They think it’s only entertainment. They think it’s just movie stars. I’ve always argued to my family back east, “No, it’s a really serious town that’s full of smart, serious people.” And people always look at me like, “Are you sure? Are you kidding?”

WA: I think that reputation is really passé. I don’t agree with that at all. I think we are on the cutting edge in education, in fine arts, in theater as well as movies.

MS: Somebody said to me, “Wallis has become the grande dame of L.A.” Accurate?

WA: No. I don’t see myself as a grande dame at all. I’m just a committed citizen. There’s nothing particularly grand. No.

MS: You are the most visible woman changing Los Angeles.

WA: Does that make me a grande dame?

MS: Well, I think it’s a compliment.

WA: OK, the mayor said it once. But I don’t think of myself that way. I think I’m doing a very good job at what I’m doing. I am proud of myself. I think I’m a damn nice person. But I don’t have that sense of grandiosity. I’m doing the best job that I can. My bailiwick is L.A. This is my home. People need me here.

MS: You’ve put your mark, your stamp, on this city. You’re certainly the most philanthropic woman—if not person—here. Do you think you could have done all this staying in Philadelphia?

WA: God, no. You know, it’s very WASP-y.

MS: So you attribute much of your success to Los Angeles.

WA: Absolutely. The openness. The spirit. The lack of identifying with “I belong to this club.”

MS: And this family.

WA: Exactly. People are people are people, regardless of their background or education. And you never know when somebody is going to offer you a wealth of information.

MS: You’ve talked about having three of your kids involved in the foundation and in philanthropy. How difficult is it to raise kids to be motivated to make a difference in the world when they know they have money and they don’t need to?

WA: Well, I’ve always encouraged the children to be who they are, whatever that may be. I’ve never put any rigid expectations, whether it’s “Show up for Thanksgiving” or “Send me three dozen roses for my birthday.” I’ve tried to encourage them to be real. In terms of raising them, hopefully I’ve been a good role model. And I think that’s very important. I was just very lucky that they turned out to be as wonderful as they did. I’d love to say I have a formula, you know, but I don’t.

MS: A lot of family foundations have a difficult time.

WA: Well, that’s why I divided it—each one has the same amount of money. They’re not competing for approval. They can do whatever project they want to do.

MS: How did you teach them?

WA: You know something, Maria? I don’t believe that I did teach them. I just said, “Here you have this great gift, to be part of the Annenberg Foundation. Go for it! If you don’t want it, that’s your privilege, too.” But they all did.

MS: You talk about it being an honor and a privilege to be in this family and to be able to give out money to make a difference and to be worthy of the name. It all feels like you haven’t really struggled with it that much. I don’t actually really believe that. Is there anything that scares you, that worries you, that keeps you up at night, that makes you feel insecure?

WA: It’s so corny, Maria, but it’s so true: If you live one day at a time, you really don’t get into fear. And I try to do that. I stay out of results and just try to accomplish whatever I can.

MS: How do you stay out of fear?

WA: By being a loving human being. That’s the only way I know. By being of service. By surrounding yourself with positive people. By being grateful. And I am very grateful. That is the truth. There by the grace of God go I.

ALSO: Hear an audio clip of Maria Shriver’s conversation with Wallis Annenberg

This feature was originally published in the October 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine