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Sunnylands: Where Movie Stars And Presidents Play (And Work)

President Obama arrives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Friday to spend two days with China's new president, Xi Jinping, at a 200-acre estate called Sunnylands.

The house at Sunnylands is built of lava stone. The private golf course includes a pink pagoda. And if the presidents feel like fishing in one of the property's 11 lakes, they will hardly be the first world leaders to dip a line in the water.

Obama is the eighth president to visit Sunnylands. The first was Dwight Eisenhower, in 1966. He went to see his friends Walter and Leonore Annenberg, wealthy publishers and philanthropists who had built the estate as their winter home.

The center's current director, Janice Lyle, says Eisenhower looked quizzically at his friend. "You're right by Palm Springs," Eisenhower said, "but you don't have any palm trees."

"And so the next week, Walter Annenberg made certain that two palm trees were planted on the property," Lyle says. "They're currently called the Eisenhower Palms. They're almost 50 years old, and they tower over everything else here."

Obama will see those palm trees when he arrives Friday. He may also see an inscription in the guestbook from Richard Nixon. Shortly after the president resigned in disgrace, Nixon visited Sunnylands and wrote, "When you're down, you find out who your real friends are."

The most frequent presidential visitor by far was Ronald Reagan. He was friends with the Annenbergs when he was an actor in Hollywood. Reagan attended New Year's Eve at Sunnylands 18 times — many of them with Secretary of State George Shultz.

"I often sat beside Dolores Hope" — the wife of the legendary performer Bob Hope — "and she was just great," Shultz says. "I asked my wife what Bob Hope talked about. She said he just told jokes. He was so funny; he had her in stitches all the time."

That's one thing that made Sunnylands unique. Titans of politics mingled with titans of entertainment. Dinah Shore and Jimmy Stewart hung out there. In 1976, Frank Sinatra married his fourth wife there.

The Annenbergs went out of their way to make that event work, says frequent guest Carol Price.

"They opened up the house in the middle of the summer — something that they'd never done for anybody else," Price says.

Price says Leonore Annenberg was a renowned hostess. She would provide magazines tailored to her guests' interests. If you were sleeping in the yellow room, there would be a bowl of yellow jellybeans, and pink ones in the pink room.

And Leonore Annenberg gave everyone biographical sketches of the other guests in advance, Price says.

"They were always very flattering, but they were interesting, and it helped the other guests," Price says. "For instance, she even did that for when a number of years the chief justice would come."

The Annenbergs were lifelong Republicans, but they were proud to host notables from both parties.

President Bill Clinton with Walter and Leonore Annenberg at the entrance of the historic estate on Feb. 14, 1995.
White House / The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands
The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands
President Bill Clinton with Walter and Leonore Annenberg at the entrance of the historic estate on Feb. 14, 1995.

"We have a wonderful photograph of Bill Clinton on Valentine's Day," says Lyle, the Sunnylands director. "The Annenbergs are both wearing red."

The privacy of the estate makes it a great place for Friday's presidential retreat between the U.S. and China, says Doug Paal, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paal worked for President George H.W. Bush, who liked to catch bass in the lakes at Sunnylands.

"Without having the trapping of the White House and all the bells and whistles that the Chinese normally seek, this gives a lot of face, it gives a lot of respect, it shows high-level treatment, but you don't have that structured, 'You must do this first. Stand on the red line. Wait for the cameras. Wait for the music to stop,' " he says.

The Annenbergs dreamed that Sunnylands would continue on after their deaths as a sort of Western Camp David. This weekend is the first time the estate has hosted a president since the Annenbergs died.

The staff is trying to provide the same kind of hospitality that Leonore Annenberg would have — down to the yellow jellybeans in the yellow room and the pink ones in the pink room.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Consideredgrew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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