Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Sunday I went on a bit of a field trip. I visited Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, former home of billiionaire couple Walter and Leoneore Annenberg. The house is hidden away and costs to tour, so I confined myself to the front garden and grounds.

From Walter’s NYT obituary

"The lavish way of life enjoyed by Mr. Annenberg and his wife, Leonore, was most visible at Sunnylands -- completed in 1966 at a cost of $5 million -- where the couple spent the winter months. An airy, Astrodome-size extravaganza of glass and Mexican lava stone, pink marble floors and clustered plantings, the 32,000-square-foot house -- surrounded by well-guarded fencing -- sits on acres of rolling terrain. A well-primped, mock-English country landscape in the desert, with trees, hills, ponds, waterfalls, it has a nine-hole golf course and even an artificial swamp for the birds that Mr. Annenberg liked to watch."

Nowadays, especially with the Southern California drought, folks are a bit more ecology-conscious, so the front gardens are water-conserving, lovely, and free. I enjoyed wandering about in the 96-degree sun and taking photos so bright and Disney-esque that they look like they were photoshopped, (but I assure you were not!).

The surrounding communities are likewise almost surreal. How do people find their way home? I'd wondered on the way over, especially if they'd had one too many martinis. There was not a store, not a sidewalk, not a person, not an item out of place: just perfectly manicured lawns and endless cookie-cutter condo complexes. Everyplace looked exactly the same: a locked gate, a bed of petunias, a guard booth. Who were they guarding their stuff from? Who did they think was going to steal it: the retired banker and bridge-playing wife who lived next door?

Then again, I was hardly opening my own place to the public for free, for people to use the very cool restrooms, enjoy the views and sit on a bench in my gorgeous desert garden.

Sunnylands billed itself as a West Coast Camp David. The Reagans were close friends and frequent visitors. and as I took in the palo verde, ocotillo and barrel cactus, I couldn't help but think that decisions had been discussed or made here--Reagan was an enthusiastic "hawk"--that resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of people in lands that were not quite so "well-primped."

One photo in the Visitor Center especially caught my eye: the two couples relaxing on a mid-century sofa: first Walter, then Nancy, then Leonore, then Ronnie: arms linked.

Walter was leaning casually back looking bored as if to say,  Hey someone has to be a billionaire, all in a morning’s work and if you’ll excuse me, now I’m going to play a few rounds of tennis.

Ronnie had on a pair of tan slacks in a red and black plaid. Hey he’s one of us, certain Ugandans probably think upon seeing a photo of Idi Amin relaxing. Just so, many of us see a Western movie star. A beloved politician. Much of the rest of the world--especially those in countries where U.S. backed right-wing death squads murdered and pillaged with impunity during the Reagan years--see an insane, power-hungry butcher.

What is the truth and what is a mirage?

What did that American flag, riffling gently in the desert breeze, really mean?

What are we really going to have to answer for when the sheep are separated from the goats?

The visitors were mostly older couples: the men in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts, the women in perky capri sets and visors. In the ladies' room, I caught the face of a fellow visitor in an unguarded moment. She was studying her bejewelled-sandalled feet with the look of an anxious lost lamb and, with a stab of sisterhood, I so understood. Should I have used the red polish instead of the pink? Does my gut show in these pants?

In fact, I understood all of it: the desperate desire for security and safety, the frantic effort to contrive a life with no sudden surprises, the anguished yearning to be loved.

The Annenbergs were philanthropists and art collectors who gave away over two billion dollars in cash. I've enjoyed the Annenberg Space for Photography in L.A.  The Annenberg Foundation also funded the Not A Cornfield project, also in L.A., in which my friends from the Echo Park Film Center played a huge part.

I thought: There is nowhere to go in this world that is pure enough for the purity we yearn for. There is no money or heart or life that is entirely clean, and no money or heart or life that is entirely dirty.

I thought of how, before coming out to the desert, I'd been complaining to a mutual friend of the noise in L.A. She'd mentioned her friend, Fr. Steve Kelly, SJ, who spends much of his time in federal prison for witnessing against nuclear weapons.  She'd mentioned that the only time Fr. Steve can get quiet time in prison to deeply pray is around 2 in the morning. So he arranges his schedule to get up then, in the middle of the night. And in solitary confinement, he prays: for the world, for peace, for all of us.

And there we all hang, in the desert: nailed to the paradox, nailed to the cross

For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.

We have in our day not prince, prophet, or leader,
no holocaust, sacrfice, oblation or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. 

--Daniel 3: 37-38.


  1. "There is nowhere to go in this world that is pure enough for the purity we yearn for. There is no money or heart or life that is entirely clean, and no money or heart or life that is entirely dirty."

    Mmmm, I like this!


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