Sam the Writer changed everything

The writing gene pivoted my family away from white supremacy. It came from my Sicilian-American maternal grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Lucchese, someone I barely knew.

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 Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border. (Sam’s cousin, Cosimo, would grow Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.)

Sam cared nothing for boot making. He chose the life of an American writer, forsaking college for the linotype at the local paper. By 1965, my birth year, he was the retired entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a stringer for Variety. I remember him as a diminutive, kind-but-distant man who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis.

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As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ Atlanta home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, tapping on a manual typewriter, assiduously avoiding us. To this day, the percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.

Sam and Genevieve had connected in the Twenties, when he’d taken a position on a Georgia newspaper. Beautiful, charismatic “Genny” Camp came from Southern Baptist stock, a home haunted by mental illness, alcoholism, and racism. Her mother was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Her failed attorney father would eventually kill himself by shotgun, leaving behind carbons of letters thick with fear and hatred towards “the coloreds.” My grandmother’s younger siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified crazy. Imogene was functional. Joe spent most of his life in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. In my childhood, Gammie never spoke of these people, for whom she’d been primary caregiver. There were no photos.

Gammie was desperate to escape the doomed drama of the Camps. To her parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, Catholic, Sicilian-American writer Sam F. Lucchese, a Democrat. The Camps, diehard conservatives who loathed FDR, would refer to Sam only as “The Wop.” They demanded she marry a Protestant whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa.

Genevieve Camp chose the Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began shutting them out. She and Sam married among his Texas kin, bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double-breasted white suit, my grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life.

Gammie did not completely change, or renounce the racism her family carefully taught her. Years later, we would argue civil rights, unions, miscegenation. She would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could peacefully coexist with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. Yet Gammie’s love shaped me. And, crucially, her decisions shaped me.

Her acceptance of Sam Lucchese’s proposal, I believe, appealed to my grandmother’s better angels. It did not significantly alter her worldview, but her union with that particular man delivered her progeny to the right side of history. Her youngest daughter, my hippie mom, would continue steadfast in Sam’s progressive direction, and her great-grandson, my son Jack, is fighting for change at this very moment.

Sam F. Lucchese changed everything. When he died from Alzheimer’s just before my 21st birthday, I realized we’d never enjoyed a significant conversation. I wish I’d thanked him. But with these words, and every word I ever compose, I honor Sam, the writer.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.