In years gone by, when someone unknown rang your doorbell, he or she was usually selling household supplies (who remembers the Fuller Brush Man?) or magazine subscriptions. The manager of a team of door-to-door salesmen conceived the idea of selling subscriptions through the mail. That innovator was Harold Mertz, the founder of Publishers Clearing House. Mertz had a talent for direct-mail advertising and, with his daughter, Joyce, and wife, LuEsther, sent out 10,000 letters offering subscriptions to 20 magazines. When he received 100 orders, he knew he was onto something.
As the business grew, the little company moved to a building at 382 Main St., which, in 1969, was donated to the community and renamed The Harold E. Mertz Community Center. In the mid 1960s, a new building was constructed on a 14-acre site at 382 Channel Dr. The marketing of subscriptions of as many as 350 magazines was the exclusive business of PCH until 1985 when merchandise was introduced. One of the first and most successful products was Hershey’s Chocolate Cookbook. Many more products such as household supplies, books and kitchen gadgets are now marketed and generate the largest share of revenue. By the time of LuEsther’s death, annual sales had reached $500 million and later doubled to $1 billion. TV advertising was utilized effectively beginning in the 1970s, but it was the Prize Patrol that garnered the most publicity beginning in 1988. The surprised and thrilled expressions of winners were enjoyed vicariously by millions of TV viewers. In Darrell Lester’s book, The Naked Truth About the Publishers Clearing House, he reveals a delightful incident in the history of the Prize Patrol. In 1996, in a small town in Missouri, an 18-year-old woman was taking a shower when she heard persistent knocking on her front door. Thinking it was her younger brother who often forgot his key, she stepped out of the shower and, wrapped in a bath towel, opened the door to a member of the Prize Patrol holding a TV camera. Her mother was the $1 million winner. Lester, former senior vice president of PCH, used the photo of a model posing as the shocked 18-year-old on the cover of his book.
LuEsther Turner Mertz was always an important part of the company, having served as general partner and member of the executive committee until her passing in 1991 at the age of 85. She was born in 1905 in Cincinnati, the youngest child of a Methodist minister and his wife. She grew up in Williamsport, PA, and attended Syracuse University, where she studied library science. She graduated with honors and married Harold Mertz in 1927. They had two children, Joyce and Peter, who died in an accident at Swarthmore College where he was a student. In 1969, Mertz withdrew from the active management of PCH and moved to Florida. He and his wife divorced.
LuEsther resided at 9 Beacon Hill Rd. and was active in community affairs. She was a trustee of the Port Washington Library, a founding member of the Port Washington League of Women Voters and a generous donor to the Community Chest. She was chairman of Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare Festival for many years, underwriting several of its productions. She donated to the NY Botanical Gardens and Lincoln Center and received awards from the mayor of New York City and the governor of New York for her many contributions. She was a supporter of the Joyce Theater, which is named in memory of her daughter, Joyce Mertz Gilmore, who died of cancer in 1974. She chaired the Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation, which supports environmental and human rights foundations.
LuEsther Mertz suffered from macular degeneration and established the Lucerna Fund to finance Choice Magazine Listening, an organization which provides free cassettes of recorded articles from contemporary magazines to people who are unable to read regular print. The LuEsther T. Mertz Retinal Research Center at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital is named in her honor. A waiting room at the Cancer Institute of St. Francis Hospital bears her name. In 1991, the short street next to the post office in Port was officially named the LuEsther Mertz Plaza. It is an appropriate name in the right location considering all the revenue PCH generated for the post office.
Forty percent of the profits of Publishers Clearing House go to the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, which annually donates to 14 named beneficiaries. Sadly, she had no immediate survivors, but countless people and institutions continue to be the beneficiaries of her largess. Feb. 5 will be the 25th anniversary of her passing.