THE ANNENBERGS: The Salvaging of a Tainted Empire by John Cooney
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THE ANNENBERGS: The Salvaging of a Tainted Empire

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KIRKUS REVIEW

When media-millionaire Walter Annenberg was offered the plum post of US ambassador to Britain by buddy Richard Nixon, he hesitated--we read in Cooney's first chapter--lest the specter of father Moe, racing-wire czar and income-tax felon, rise to embarrass all concerned. Now the Annenbergs have apparently decided to go public and lay the ghost: but in the outcome, shameless reprobate Moe Annenberg gets the curtain calls and son Walter, whose lifelong efforts to clear the family name occupy the book's second half, sinks like a stone. Moses Annenberg, shtetl-born in 1878, grew up tough and a gambler in Chicago. Through older brother Max, he got involved in Chicago's newspaper-circulation wars, then--when things heated up and his relations with Max cooled--removed to Milwaukee. . . to set up a newsdealer chain, wax rich on checkered investments, assume ""aristocratic affectations"" (from Lewisburg, at 60+, he'd sign his letters ""Your old gev""), and father a string of daughters before the arrival, in 1908, of Walter: ""a gentle boy,"" with a withered ear, whom Moe would forever pamper and deride. An affinity with buccaneering journalist Arthur Brisbane turned Moe into a publisher; success led to Hearst, New York, circulation-rule of Hearst publications, purchase of the Daily Racing Form (and the wipe-out of competition, nationwide), acquisition of the racing wire, to service bookmakers--which brought on the deadly attention of Al Capone. Strategically withdrawing to Miami (and Meyer Lansky), Moe bought the Miami Tribune--ostensibly for Walter, but in actuality the ideal outlet for his own combination of combativeness, promotional genius, and drive to do-good. The Miami years and Moe's later shift to Philadelphia, with the purchase of the classier Inquirer, provide the book with its best copy: Moe preparing three different editions of the Miami Tribune--to scoop the country, whichever way the Hauptmann case came out; Moe beefing up the Inquirer with new staff (""Now you son of a bitch, get those men!""), brawling with rival publisher J. David Stern, becoming a Republican power--and, in Cooney's chief disclosure, incurring the enmity of FDR, who then conspired with Treasury Secretary Morgenthau to get him. While Moe saw no inconsistency between ""the America of his dreams"" and ""the pragmatic, brutal ways in which he had made his money,"" fastidious Walter had been appalled; now, loyal and protective, he would see his father plead guilty to tax-evasion to save him from complicity. And then we have Waiter's assumption of command: not the gregarious whirlwind but the aloof overlord. Much apologia ensues, for editorial interference--along with due credit for dreaming up Seventeen and seeing the potential of TV Guide. There's much, too, on the Annenbergs' initial gaffes in Britain, and their subsequent success. This reads too slavishly ""as told to"" (and too hard on suspected detractors) to be convincing or even especially interesting, except in a gossipy way. But Moe--who could be out of Mark Twain or Damon Runyon--is an American original worth meeting.

Pub Date: June 8th, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster