Story Corps New Orleans: Ad exec Peter Mayer talks of childhood in New Orleans after emigrating from Hitler's Germany

Peter Mayer Advertising was a major influence on opening my own firm 17 years ago. I am reprinting a story that ran today regarding the Mayer family…..JB

By Bruce Nolan, The Times-Picayune

May 13, 2010, 6:00AM

Peter and Josh Mayer.JPGPeter Mayer, left, and his son, Josh.

It doesn’t take much to get Peter Mayer going. Probably never has.

At 80, the founder of the New Orleans advertising agency that bears his name is voluble, funny and engaged — and totally into his son, Josh’s, project to record a few of his father’s memories in a mobile studio that StoryCorps brought to New Orleans.

Mayer is retired now. Or maybe not. Josh and another son, Mark, run Peter A. Mayer Advertising Inc., which is bigger now than when the patriarch left it. “I still go to the office and ‘work.’ But I don’t work,” says Mayer. “I have a ball.”

When Josh asks his father to recall his childhood in 1940s New Orleans, Mayer is likely to begin with a delighted laugh, tickled anew by some rising memory: his 1936 ocean voyage from his native Germany to America as a 6-year-old; the child soaking up English from his playmates on Octavia Street; the way Erhard, his traveling-salesman father, would call home from the road by placing a person-to-person call to a non-existent “Mr. Goodman” — code to his wife, Hilda, that he had arrived safely in yet another small Mississippi or Alabama town with his line of women’s clothing.

StoryCorps New Orleans

StoryCorps New Orleans is a continuing series of oral histories by New Orleans area residents, in partnership with The Times-PicayuneNOLA.comWWNO-FMand StoryCorps.

As a stunt, years later a family friend called Hilda Mayer, an exceptionally nervous person, and sternly informed her he was from the telephone company and they were onto the person-to-person scam and the company wanted $6,822 in back charges.

“And my mother went crazy,” Mayer says with a huge laugh.

In his telling, it’s been such a delightful ride.

But the backstory is ominous.

The Mayers were Jews in a little town southwest of Mannheim now called Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. “Think of it as a Bogalusa to New Orleans,” he says.

In cities and small towns alike, Hitler’s Germany in the mid-1930s was turning viciously on its Jewish population. Mayer tells Josh he has no specific memory of Nazi anti-Semitism, he was only 5 or 6. But he does remember, in a child’s way, wanting to join the Hitler Youth, so he could wear the uniforms he saw the older children wearing.

Mayer also doesn’t recall whether any specific threat triggered his parents’ decision to flee Germany in 1936.

He knows that his father, a wine-broker, favored settling in Paris, where he had professional contacts. His mother the nervous one, was resolute. “If we’re going to go, let’s go all the way to the USA, where we have relatives,” she said.

Thank God, Mayer says today.

He remembers his father weeping inexplicably as their ocean liner drew past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. He remembers settling in New Orleans and running barefoot Uptown with his first friends, Red Hailey, later to become the Hailey in the Metairie law firm Hailey McNamara Hall Larmann & Papale, and Emile “Meely” Pfister, later to become a Jesuit priest and pastor of the Jesuit church on Baronne Street.

Among the 12-year-old boy-warriors in Mayer’s circle, Dec. 7, 1941 was “a day of great jubilation for me and my friends.” It meant America was in the war.

His parents had been hearing reports of friends and acquaintances disappearing into concentration camps in Germany. The full extent of the horror would not become evident for years, he said. “But my mother was very, very angry. There was great anger at Germany. And my father, too. We were pretty patriotic.”

In time, Mayer went to Fortier High School, then the University of Missouri, financed in large part by Hilda’s industry. She had turned her little kitchen into a bakery. Until she was 70, she baked and sold tens of thousands of schnecken, a German pastry, beginning at 50 cents a dozen.

In the end, Mayer considers himself a lucky guy. The family business is in good hands, and fortune took him to New Orleans.

It didn’t have to. The Mayers passed through Detroit and Chicago to see relatives on their way to settling in the Crescent City.

“It could’ve just as well been Omaha,” says Mayer. “We had family there. Yechh.”

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