PALM BEACH, Fla. - Palm Beach publishing heir Peter Pulitzer, scion of two prominent American families, died Saturday at home, surrounded by his children. He was 88 and had been in excellent health until recently.
“We always thought he would be eaten by a shark or killed by a bear in the woods or fall out of a seaplane,” said his daughter, Liza Calhoun, of the sportsman and adventurer. “We were all together on Easter Sunday when he suddenly got very tired. A few days later, hospice was called in.”
A college dropout who turned $500,000 in family money into a wide-ranging business fortune, Pulitzer was perhaps best-known for his acrimonious divorce from his second wife, Roxanne Pulitzer. Lilly Pulitzer, his first wife, launched what would become a fashion empire of bright cotton dresses during their marriage.
Born Herbert Peter Pulitzer on March 22, 1930, he was the son of Herbert Pulitzer, known as Tony, and Gladys Munn. His maternal grandparents were Charles and Carrie Louise Gurnee Munn. His paternal grandparents were newspaperman Joseph and Katherine Davidson Pulitzer.
Like most children of wealthy Palm Beachers, he was raised primarily by nannies until he went off to St. Mark’s in Southborough, Massachusetts, a feeder school for the Ivy League.
He went to college but soon became bored, using a half-million dollars of his family’s money to seed a career that began with a liquor store and bowling alley and grew to include citrus groves, cattle ranches, a popular Palm Beach restaurant, wide real estate holdings, and hotels.
Along the way, he gained a reputation as a ladies man.
Laura Clark, a friend of the woman who would become his first wife, described Peter Pulitzer to Vanity Fair as “very beautiful to look at” with “great personal charm, the kind of charm that you knew he was waiting all his life just to talk to you.”
Society bandleader Peter Duchin said of Pulitzer: “He was racy -- I mean in the sense of just jumping into his plane and flying off. He eschewed the normal social crap.”
In 1950, he met his sister Patsy’s friend, a prim Miss Porter’s alumna — from a Northeastern family as prominent, and certainly as rich, as his own — named Lillian McKim, known as Lilly.
The two eloped, surprising everybody.
“Peter was drop-dead gorgeous and very charming and a real turn-on,” Susannah Cutts, a friend of Lilly’s, said at the time. “She was raised in a very proper way, a very proper background, and I think he was the forbidden, the exciting someone who was encouraging her to take a romantic leap of faith, to run away from it all.”
He helped her build her wildly successful fashion business as he continued building his own empire.
In the late 1960s, with his friend, war hero Joseph Dryer, Pulitzer founded an international hotel group with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. “They said they might consider participating in a new hotel (in Amsterdam) if a business study proved positive and if a well-known American hotel chain would manage it,” Dryer would later tell a newspaper reporter.
The pair had already built a Howard Johnson’s in Miami and were able to enlist the help of its founder. The new partnership purchased six old canal houses near Amsterdam’s Dam Square Royal Palace and, with architect Bart Van Kasteel, turned them into the Hotel Pulitzer.
“The six houses we started with eventually turned into 25 houses, a five-star hotel, and the largest national historic monument of the Netherlands,” Pulitzer would later say. “This was the beginning of the Pulitzer empire.”
It was also the end of the marriage. The couple divorced around the same time as the hotel opened. Lilly Pulitzer died in 2013.
Pulitzer would marry twice more — to Roxanne Dixon in 1976 and to Hilary King in 1986. His divorce from Roxanne in 1982 became tabloid fodder when their 21-day divorce trial even drew coverage from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone, as each seemed to try to top the other in vicious accusations. Ultimately, he won custody of their twin sons.
His marriage to Hilary has been his longest, at 32 years.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, grandchildren, and a wide circle of friends and extended family.
Funeral services are pending.