A Family Affair | Publishers Clearing House Fortune Behind Two Sarasota Ballet Performance Venues

By Seidman, Carrie | Sarasota Herald Tribune, August 7, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Family Affair | Publishers Clearing House Fortune Behind Two Sarasota Ballet Performance Venues


Seidman, Carrie, Sarasota Herald Tribune


SARASOTA BALLET IN NYC

As the Sarasota Ballet makes its debut at the Joyce Theatre in New York City this week, few in the audience are likely to be aware of the connection between the renowned Big Apple dance venue and the company's home at the Mertz Theatre in the FSU Center for Performing Arts in Sarasota.

Both owe their existence to the fortune generated by the magazine marketing company known as Publisher's Clearing House. Yet the philanthropy for each came from a different patron, albeit with unusually similar names.

The support that turned the Joyce from a run-down movie house to a theater expressly designed for dance came from LuEsther Mertz, the first wife of Harold E. Mertz and a co-founder of Publisher's Clearing House; that venue, which opened in 1982, is named after their daughter, Joyce. The Sarasota theater, which opened in 1990, owes its existence to Esther Mertz, Harold Mertz's second wife, who inherited a large chunk of the PCH fortune upon his death in 1983.

A simple case of inherited wealth, you say? Yes. But in this case there is a little-known twist.

LuEsther Turner Mertz

LuEsther Turner, the youngest of six children born to James Elmer Turner, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Lulu Esther Smith Turner, was born in Cincinnati in 1906. LuEsther's mother died when she was just four; after her father remarried and the family moved to a German-American neighborhood in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, he died as well. Raised by her stepmother and inheriting her father's love of literature and poetry, LuEsther attended Syracuse University to become a librarian.

At 21, LuEsther married Harold E. Mertz, an up-and-coming magazine publishing executive from Williamsport, with whom she had attended high school. Mertz was a born entrepreneur; his first job was delivering bottles on his mother's milk route -- at age 6. The couple had a daughter, Joyce, in 1929 and a son, Peter, six years later.

The family moved to Port Washington on Long Island and it was there, in the basement of their home, that Harold, former manager of a door-to-door sales team for magazine subscriptions, began a sideline business in 1953, selling subscriptions to multiple publications through direct mail soliciting.

Harold, LuEsther and Joyce were partners in the business, which became a marketing legend after its annual televised sweepstakes event made PCH a household name. But their success was balanced by sorrow; Peter Mertz died in 1954 at Swarthmore College in a fraternity hazing initiation, a tragedy LuEsther rarely spoke of for the rest of her life.

To channel the accumulating riches of their venture toward charitable interests, the family founded The Mertz Foundation in 1959 and when Joyce married Robert Wallace Gilmore in 1964, her husband became the organization's president. In accordance with personal interests, the foundation committed resources to social issues, arts institutions and the preservation of the environment.

Esther Ott Mertz

Nine years after LuEsther's birth, Esther Mae Ott was born in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Like LuEsther, she became acquainted with the Mertz family and went to school with Harold's younger brother, Joseph E. Mertz. They married young and had two children, Richard (who died in 1993) and Susan (now Susan Moon, living in Georgia). In 1957, the family moved to Winter Park, Florida.

Joseph Mertz died in Orange County just seven years later. Naturally, the pain of his passing struck both families; for Esther, the loss of her husband and her children's father; for Harold and LuEsther, the loss of a brother and brother-in-law respectively.

What happened not long thereafter few still living, if any, are willing to say. But the facts reveal that something clearly transpired within the family dynamic. By 1969, Harold and LuEsther had divorced and Harold had withdrawn from active management of PCH. LuEsther remained in Port Washington; Harold moved to Winter Park, Florida -- where Esther Mertz, his former sister-in-law, became his second wife. …

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