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Feature Stories

Hamburger Henry Story: ‘Last Train Out of Berlin’

From Issue: Volume XIX - Number 7

Steve Propes

One of the more successful businessmen in the Long Beach area has written a self-published book that’s a road map as to how he worked and educated himself into his enviable status.

It’s the story of a Naples resident and Belmont Shore businessman known for decades as Hamburger Henry, but in his real life as Henry J. Meyer. It’s obvious Meyer’s intention in writing this tome was to document the barebones facts of his life for his children and future generations and that he has done in a sparse style leaving the reader wanting more detail, much more detail.

Speeding past themes that could easily be developed into more dramatic passages, his real life is drama enough. Starting with his grandparents in Berlin in 1905, by the end of the first 30 pages, the reader experiences the terror of Hitler’s Kristallnacht in November 1938, which made clear to the entire world how the Nazi intention was wholly anti-Semitic.

Life for the Meyer family was pretty idyllic prior to 1933. His father Erich, who had served in the German army during World War I, had his own jazz band and according to Meyer, was approached by Benny Goodman to join his big band. His parents’ reaction was “only thieves and draft dodgers go to America.”

During Hitler’s ascent, Meyer told of seeing him ride by in a motorcade with young Henry ducking into a nearby apartment building so he wouldn’t have to give the “Heil Hitler” salute that was required when Hitler passed by in his convertible.

Unable to obtain a visa or an “affidavit” from U.S. relatives who used to visit Germany to ask for financial help from Henry’s family, in 1939 when Henry was 15, the Meyers found a way to Shanghai, China on a boat that was later sunk during hostilities. They went from persecution to a luxury filled cruise to deprivation in the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, which he called “a stopover that lasted 11 years.”

However, Henry found a way. In Shanghai, he got a series of jobs at luxury hotels. After Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the Japanese occupied Shanghai, but when the war ended, within a few days, all Japanese had disappeared from Shanghai.

In 1947, Henry took a boat to San Francisco to fulfill three dreams: to get a haircut at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City; to get an American passport (his status to America was “stateless”) and to own a Cadillac. He doesn’t reveal it in his story, but these goals were probably achieved in short order.

As it turns out, from the day he passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Henry’s life was full of achievement with little in the way of either barriers or setbacks. Even political defeats and business failures were learning experiences that benefitted Henry.

Jobs at three prestigious hotels gave Henry experience he parlayed along with letters of recommendation obtained in Shanghai to get a job at the Rainbow Room at New York’s Rockefeller Center in the same room where the Rockettes took to the stage. From there, he moved on to hotels in Atlantic City, West Virginia, Chicago, Miami and New Orleans.

Back to San Francisco, he enrolled in culinary school after qualifying despite having no verifiable educational experience. By dint of doing, Henry often achieved, though not every attempt was a home run. Henry decided there is “no room for old hotel managers” when he worked at a hotel Santa Barbara, where the owner, who could attract Hollywood celebs was not accepted by locals as not having “blue blood.” That owner later committed suicide.

His earliest venture in Santa Monica called Flags By the Sea was destroyed in a landslide. He did better with a Costa Mesa bar. Then came Hamburger Henry on December 6, 1966. His interest was in the hamburger bun and he came up with dozens of creations: the Bombay, the Blue Max and the Queen Mary. He got robbed once by a sneak thief, who was foiled because his getaway driver wouldn’t leave until his burger was served.

He put phones at the table to call orders in to the kitchen, but the cook got flummoxed, so Henry had to hire an operator. At a second Santa Monica location, he got a beer and wine license and served saki, which was allowed, creating the Tokyo Bloody Mary.

Mistakes included changing the Hamburger Henry décor to Roaring 20s and installing a salad bar.

He ran for city council, came in second and learned that winning would have been a mistake. He has the date of his divorce, but not of his marriage. His four children (two daughters, two sons) are his pride and he remarried a woman from Shanghai. All in all, a pretty good life’s outcome from the pen of Hamburger Henry J. Meyer.