Maybe one reason Texans have a reputation for standing tall is their boots—as much a part of Lone Star life as Stetsons. But all cowboy boots are not alike. For many Texans, including LBJ, who had a closet full of them in the White House, and ex-Governor John Connally, the boots to swear by are made by San Antonio’s Sam Lucchese (pronounced “Lew Casey”).
Folk west of the Pecos are shod by Lucchese, too, including some of the biggest names (and masculine egos) in show business. Gene Autry bought his first pair 40 years ago and now owns 150. John Wayne is a regular (and likes only kangaroo, many species of which are endangered, but Sam says, “I have a small supply”). Wayne Newton, Telly Savalas, Bing Crosby and David Janssen all boast Luccheses, and the vogue has spread abroad. Actors Peter Ustinov and Marcello Mastroianni wear them, and even Egyptian President Anwar Sadat owns a pair. But when Cher tried to order $1,200 custom boots by mail, she was politely turned down. “Women’s feet expand and contract like an accordion,” says Sam. “Since my grandfather’s death, we have preferred not to make boots for women.” (Cher can get them, however, if she’ll come to San Antonio for a fitting.)
Sam Lucchese’s bootshop is six blocks from the Alamo. His immigrant grandfather founded it in 1883 to service nearby Fort Sam Houston. (An early customer was Teddy Roosevelt, who wore his boots up San Juan Hill.)
Sam Lucchese, 53, passed up law school to help run the family business when he left the Navy in 1945. The boom in fine cowboy bootery was just getting under way. Then as now, Lucchese boots offered fancy filigree, handstitching and exotic designs in a choice of 27 leathers, including elephant and jacuruxi, a species of lizard found in Brazil. Sam has turned out boots with inlaid toes of gold and silver and encrusted with diamonds and emeralds (provided by the customer; stitching on the jewels costs about $150 extra).
“The cowboy boot is a test of one-upmanship—to see how fancy you can get,” says Lucchese. “One feller has lizard, another orders snake, then somebody has to have anteater.”
Lucchese moved out of Texas for a while, signing on as a consultant to Blue Bell in Nashville, makers of Wrangler jeans. In 1970 the company made the boot operation a subsidiary. But when Sam was stricken by cancer of the sinus passages (he must now wear an artificial palate), he asked to return to San Antonio and make Lucchese “the Rolls-Royce of bootmakers.”
Production has doubled in the past two years to 120 pairs a day, sold nationally through 70 outlets. Seventy percent are ready-to-wear boots, costing $180 upwards. Custom-made boots have run as high as $2,500 and require a personal fitting.
The appeal of boots, Sam believes, lies in their style and comfort. On modern high-fashion boots, the heel parallels the spine, but on Western boots the heels are undercut. “That’s what makes you straighten your posture in walking,” he explains. “That’s why cowboys look so tall.”
Sam and his wife Jacquelyn have three children, aged 21 to 28, none of whom wants to follow in the business. Sam comforts himself with movie stills sent by customers like Slim Pickens, Harry Morgan and Duke Wayne wearing their Lucchese boots in front of the camera. “When I see such things,” Sam says, “I say a prayer of gratitude to my grandfather and father—without them I wouldn’t be a bootmaker.”