SARANAC LAKE - Hats have been a part of Ursula Wyatt Trudeau's life since she was a little girl growing up in Montreal.
Only back then, the hats she wore weren't nearly as stylish as the colorful, wide-brimmed ones she wears about town these days.
"When I was a kid, we had what you called Red River suits," Trudeau said. "They were the ugliest thing known to man. They were a blanket coat made of red wool, with a sash and a hat, or a tuque, to go with it. It was an awful outfit. But that's what we wore."
Ursula Wyatt Trudeau stands next to part of the exhibit showcasing her collection of hats in the John Black Room of Historic Saranac Lake’s Saranac Laboratory on Church Street. An opening reception for the exhibit, dubbed “A Life in Hats,” will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Going without a hat wasn't an option when she was young because of her fair skin, Trudeau explained.
"We didn't have much choice," she said. "My mother would say, 'Thou cannot take the daylight. Thou cannot take the sun.' And there was no sunblock. So we, my twin and I, were told, 'Hats it is!' It started that way, not that I had any love of any of them. But somehow, an affinity grew."
Trudeau's affinity for hats will be showcased tonight when Historic Saranac Lake opens a new exhibit in the John Black Room of its Saranac Laboratory Museum on Church Street. "A Life in Hats" features Trudeau's extensive collection of dozens of hats of all shapes, colors, styles and sizes. It's also an exhibit that celebrates the life of one of Saranac Lake's most recognizable citizens, a talented artist who's part of the village's first family.
Ursula Trudeau is the second wife of the late Dr. Francis B. Trudeau, who was the grandson of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, the village's founder and a groundbreaking tuberculosis physician and scientist. She's the stepmother to Frank Trudeau's three children from his first marriage: Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Jeanne Fenn and Michelle Trudeau.
"The Trudeau name is obviously very important in Saranac Lake," said Historic Saranac Lake Executive Director Amy Catania. "And Ursula has played such an active role in the community. She's been here since the late '60s. She embraced her role as Frank's wife here in town. She goes to every art opening and every opening at Pendragon (Theatre). She's just such a supporter of everything, and everybody sees her all the time in these hats, so she's really kind of symbolic of who we are."
It was Catania who came up with the idea of devoting an exhibit to Trudeau's hats. That was last winter, when she saw Trudeau at an event at the laboratory with her dog, a black and white border collie-papillon mix named Monsieur Max.
"Ursula was here with Max, and I looked, and she had on a black and white hat that matched Max," Catania said. "There they were, all color-coordinated, and I thought, 'It would be so great to see all those hats in one room.' And this was an obvious place for that, as Ursula is our Trudeau in town."
It took a while to talk Trudeau into opening her closet and putting her hats on display for the community, Catania said. She said it wouldn't have happened if local artist Diane Leifheit hadn't agreed to help out.
"When Ursula knew that Diane was going to be involved, she trusted that it would be at an artistic level, which maybe just the historical society that we are could not have pulled off," Catania said.
Putting the exhibit together took weeks of work, Catania said. Leifheit inventoried Trudeau's hats; then Catania went to Trudeau's house several times to get the backstory about each one. Those stories have been summarized in the exhibit on sheets of paper next to each hat. HSL Program Manager Libby Clark organized and cleaned the hats, and helped place them in the exhibit. Leifheit designed a pair of panels that feature photos, a portrait and a brief biography of Trudeau.
Trudeau walked through the exhibit Monday afternoon with an Enterprise reporter. There are summer hats and winter hats; hats from China, Morocco and Turkey; from designers in Montreal, Paris and New York; and from hat shops closer to home, like Altman's in Saranac Lake. The red, cowboy-style hat Trudeau wore to the opening ceremonies of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid is there. Some of Frank Trudeau's hats are also displayed.
"Frank wore hats very well," Trudeau said. "He had a square-shaped face that looked good in a hat."
Trudeau said she had a few cocktail party hats in the 1950s but really didn't start collecting hats until she came to Saranac Lake the following decade.
"I got carried away living here," she said. "I had the space, unfortunately, a big house with lots of space and lots of ditzy hats that I seem to have collected over the years, but they're all from my travels. I had some wonderful times."
Catania said the exhibit has been a wonderful opportunity for her to get to know Trudeau better. Now the community will be able to do the same, she said.
"Ursula is a combination of so many different things about what makes our town special," Catania said. "It's not just the arts and culture. She's an outdoors person, too. She's a great skier. She still kayaks out on Lake Flower. There wouldn't be many other small towns in upstate New York that would have a person like Ursula as a representative of who they are."
Trudeau said she's delighted with how the exhibit has turned out.
"'A Life in Hats' is true," she said. "I'm surprised and flattered that people are interested."
An opening reception for the exhibit will be held tonight from 5 to 7 p.m. The Saranac Laboratory Museum is located at 89 Church St.