Today, April 21st, is my late grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese’s birthday. I honor him, now more than ever.
My writing gene comes from Sam. As I’ve nurtured it this last decade, communing with the DNA he bequeathed me via my mother, I have connected to a man I never felt close to in life. Most significant, I’ve realized how that writing gene altered the course of my family for the better, pivoting the line away from darkness. I feel that significance, and I am so proud. My grandfather was a quiet, unassuming hero, the savior of my bloodline.
Sam F. Lucchese, as he was professionally known, was born in 1900, in Victoria, Texas, to Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Anna. Giuseppe and his brothers were renowned boot makers from Palermo. In the late 1800s, they’d come through the port of Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border.
Sam, however, cared nothing for boot making. For reasons we will never know, when he came of age, he chose to make a life as an American writer. He did not go to college, but rather taught himself.
His cousin, Cosimo, turned Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. (LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.) Sam, meanwhile, became a typesetter straight out of high school, and worked his way up to editor. In the 20s, he accepted a position on a paper in Georgia. In the Peach State, he met the beautiful, charismatic Genevieve Camp, my grandmother.
I never got a chance to know Sam. Although not unkind, he wasn’t really a kid person. My mother says he wasn’t “a hugger” in her youth, either. I don’t think Sam and I ever had a conversation. Yet, he was always around, a benign, calming presence, easy to take for granted. A diminutive Sicilian-American who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle, Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis. As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ bungalow home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was very affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, focused, tapping incessantly on a manual typewriter. To this day, the distinctive percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.
Before my birth, he primarily wrote arts-related features for Hearst-owned newspapers, most significantly the Atlanta Journal, for which he was entertainment editor most of his professional life. He was the publicist for Gone with the Wind and he interviewed the Beatles when they played the Atlanta Stadium in 1964. He retired from the Journal the year I was born (1965) but did not stop working; he wrote for Variety and other outlets, including the Atlanta Playboy Club’s At the Club publication. His writing put food on the table, paid the bills, kept my mom and her two sisters in saddle oxfords, and put them through college.
After a long decline, Sam died from Alzheimer’s in Atlanta in 1986, just before my 21st birthday. I was touring with the Fleshtones, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I flew home to help my brother and cousins carry the casket, my fingernails painted black, Mardi Gras beads dangling from the epaulet of my biker jacket.
Gammie did not speak much of her history until just a couple years before she passed in 2000 at age 94. While she displayed no photos of her family, the Camps, in the Lucchese house, she festooned the walls and surfaces with framed pictures of her and Sam’s progeny – their daughters, my brother, our cousins, me – and many movie stars they’d met on junkets. This lack of documentation of her pre-maternal life aroused no curiosity in me. Until Gammie, in the winter of her years, addled from falling down and hitting her head a few times too many, began to talk of the distant past.
Much is still shrouded in Southern Gothic mystery, but what emerged was a harrowing story of Gammie’s father, Josephus Camp, a hopeless alcoholic, failed attorney, likely bipolar. Darkly handsome. He would eventually blow his brains out in the 50s, and Gammie’s mother would insist she come help clean up the mess, which she did. He left behind a legacy of addiction, shame, and fear; carbons of letters thick with the scariest racism – i.e. hatred from the pen of an educated, eloquent, crazy person.
The Camps were devout Southern Baptist. Gammie’s siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified mentally ill; she with paranoid schizophrenia, he with what they called “dementia praecox,” which was likely schizophrenia with excessive manic features. Movie star gorgeous Imogene was able to function in society, but Joe spent most of his life institutionalized in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. Nannie, the febrile Camp matriarch, wrote of their relentlessly stressful life in journals now in my mother’s possession.
I knew none of this until my son, Jack, was born in 1998, and I was thirty-three.
In the middle of the maelstrom was Genevieve, my Gammie, eldest child and caregiver for her entire family. The rock. Yet, I imagine her desperate to find a way out of the doomed drama that was her family, a drama she would not speak of for decades.
To her racist parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, blue eyed, Catholic, Sicilian writer, Sam F. Lucchese. On top of all those qualities, Sam was a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning he would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The Camps, diehard conservative Republicans who loathed FDR, would refer to him only as “The Wop.”
According to Gammie, she had two suitors named Sam, so she called my grandfather “Casey.” This nickname would stick for the rest of their lives. Gammie’s parents desperately wanted her to marry the other Sam, a lily white Protestant guy whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa. The other Sam was, like the Camps, likely an apologist for the Confederacy, one who romanticized “the old ways.”
But no. Genevieve Camp chose the swarthy Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began the process of shutting them out from the family she created: three girls, whose father would be faithful, a solid man who would not be consumed with alcohol-fueled madness about race, religion, or some destructive fantasy about white supremacy.
And Sam chose her. He spirited her away to Texas, where they married among his kin, surrounded by the lilt of Sicilian dialects, excellent food, and hardboiled Texas folk, a bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double breasted white suit, my pale-skinned grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life in the New South. The writer. She married the writer, and put her faith in his ability to spin sentences into money. It was an excellent call.
Interestingly, while Gammie converted to Catholicism, she did not convert to the Democratic Party or leave behind the racism that her chronically terrified family carefully taught her. Not hardly. She remained a product of the pre-Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow South. In years to come, she and I would argue about civil rights, unions, and miscegenation, and she would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could live in relative peace with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. And I continue to marvel at how much Gammie’s love, despite her reprehensible moral and political beliefs, shaped me.
I have come to realize this: by accepting Sam Lucchese’s marriage proposal way back when, Gammie contributed to change almost in spite of herself. I recall how she did not make any great effort to convert anyone to her batshit crazy, backward views, smiling enigmatically as I grew ever more liberal, like her husband and like my mother. I prefer to think Sam appealed to the better angels of her nature, secret forces that helped her take baby steps toward the right side of history, an evolution her youngest daughter, my mom, would continue in passionate earnest, and which her great-grandson, my boy Jack, amplifies with captivating, inspirational vigor.
It all began with Sam F. Lucchese. He enabled the pivot that changed everything. Thank you, Granddaddy. And happy birthday.