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99-year-old Sam Meyer of Meyer the Hatter to receive France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor

99-year-old Sam Meyer of Meyer the Hatter to receive France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor

Next week, in a ceremony at the National World War II Museum, Samuel Meyer will receive the French Legion of Honor for his long-ago service in World War II. It's the highest award bestowed by France, to be given to the 99-year-old lifetime New Orleanian for his service in World War II.

New Orleans may not have been aware of his military history, but, in a way, everyone knows Sam. For 78 years, he’s been selling hats at the eternal Meyer the Hatter shop.

Sam’s been in the hat business in downtown New Orleans since Truman was president. Back then, everybody wore a hat. Now, hats aren’t a fashion must, they’re a fashion statement. Stetsons, Meyer said, used to cost $5; now they're $200 and more.

Now, they’re “for the classes, not the masses,” he said.

Meyer the Hatter, at 120 St. Charles Ave., is old-school, but it’s not some sleepy throwback. It’s a bustling business where sales people and Meyer family members — get this — indulge questions, offer advice and otherwise cater to the steady stream of tourists and regulars.

On a recent afternoon, not one, but two UPS trucks pulled up to the store, unloading stacks of square, lightweight boxes filled with style and cachet. The cartons will carry Meyer the Hatter’s Stetsons, fedoras and pork-pie hats to customers far and wide.  

But Meyer the Hatter isn’t just a store; it’s a destination, a real New Orleans institution. People who don’t even wear hats come in for a visit, Sam said. The date the place opened, 1894, is inscribed in the terrazzo out front. 

The walls behind the counter are a checkerboard of photos, showing the movie stars and musicians who’ve walked out wearing a Meyer hat.

Sam said Fats Domino bought his chapeaus there — likewise Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and James Taylor. The British rocker Elvis Costello bought a couple of homburgs last month when he played the Orpheum. His photo is signed: “To Meyer, the only good place for a lid.”  Costello wears his homburgs backward, Sam noted.

A lifetime of memories

At his age, Sam said he’s “forgetting every damn thing.” But the truth is, he remembers plenty.

Sam said his grandfather, also named Sam, started working in a downtown men’s store and hat shop when he was just 14, delivering hats on foot, sometimes great distances from the shop. The son of German immigrants, the teen worked 12-hour days for a $1.50 a week. “One dollar and fifty cents a week!” Sam repeated with disdain.

Eventually granddad struck out on his own, opening Meyer’s Hat Box, a tiny, cramped shop, not far from the current location. It was the source of countless straw boaters, and the beginning of a five-generation legacy.

In time, Sam's father Andrew took over grandpa’s business, eventually buying the building where the shop is now.

Andrew apparently had a good head for numbers. Sam said his father spent his days buried in the books at a desk in the back, and his off hours playing bridge and analyzing the stock market. He analyzed it correctly, as it turned out. Andrew Meyer made a small fortune buying oil-related stocks.

He wasn’t a terribly attentive dad, though. Sam said that as a kid, he used to cut school and bicycle around town, day after day, and nobody even noticed. He attended Fortier High School, not far from the family’s Robert Street home. Soon after his school days came to an end, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the world changed. In 1943, at age 18, he was in the Army.

Making sure the guns fired

Sam is a great story-teller. As he recounted episodes from the distant past, he peppered his recollections with choice vulgarities, like splashes of Tabasco. 

After some training, he found himself with “something like 8,000” other GIs, sloshing through 50-foot waves aboard the Mauretania ocean liner heading to Europe. 

Sam’s son Paul said that his dad is “always telling stories about it, his experiences in England, France, Belgium and Germany."

Sam was an aircraft armorer, responsible for loading P-38 fighter planes with bullets, bombs and “anything that fired.” He was chosen for the Legion of Honor because making sure the guns fired and the bombs fell helped liberate France from the Nazis.   

To this day, Sam's memory is alive with the challenges of the task. 

If you filled the machine gun trays with too much ammo, the guns would jam in combat, but if you cut back, the pilot could run out when he needed it most. You had to tighten the wing nuts on a 500-pound bomb just so, not too little, not too much. If someone came along behind you and tightened the nuts too much, guess what? The bomb wouldn’t drop.

Sam would like to forget the time the feet of the pilot of the plane he worked on were frostbitten when the temperature dropped to 40 below zero at high altitude — something no one had counted on.  

Post-war hat boom

Back from the war, Sam and his brother William partnered with their dad in the family hat trade, which boomed. Marriage and kids followed. Later, divorce and a second marriage.

His second wife, Marcelle, is from Nice, though the couple met in New Orleans in the late 1950s. They keep an apartment in France, and Sam said that over the years he’s revisited the country where he served in World War II, 40 times. He'll celebrate his 100th birthday in August. Asked the secret of longevity, Sam said simply, “having a French wife.”

“She can cook for 12 people,” Sam gushed. “I love that little lady, she’s so cute. She is my angel.”

Marcelle is two years younger than Sam and just as active. Like Sam, she puts in two or three days each week at the shop. The couple sells hats alongside his sons, Michael and Paul, and grown grandsons, Cedric and Christopher.

Asked what’s its like to work with his father and his family, Michael Meyer laughingly said that generally speaking, it’s fun. “Somedays you get sunny weather, some days you get storms. You know; let’s be truthful here.” 

With its glazed wooden cabinets, display racks and billowing hat steamer, Meyer the Hatter couldn’t be much more picturesque. Visitors crane their necks to take in the variety of headwear, which includes the flamboyantly colored wide-brimmed fedoras favored by second-liners, the green bowlers for St. Patrick Day parades, and the classy cream-colored straw hats that make a statement at Jazz Fest. Visitors come to realize they’ve found themselves in a cultural touchstone.

Sitting in the back, where his father once sat, looking out into the bustling shop, Sam said he’s “blessed with this business, going like it is,” even though he wishes somebody would straighten up the back room a little.

There are three hats right over there, waiting to be boxed up for Houston. There are always hats waiting to be boxed up. There’s just never enough time.

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