Chapter 1: The Early Years
My name is Lukki now but I was born Gertrude Bernice Styme in
Chicago in 1909. I'm an Aquarius through and through. My momma
raised me on her own since my poppa died on February 13th, 1 day
before I was even born. He was returning home after telling the
doctor that momma thought the baby was coming. He got ran over
by a milk truck. The news of his death caused momma to go into
labor. I was born the next day. Momma says that I was born on
Valentine's Day because I am all heart.
My momma was a seamstress and a great one at that. She made beautiful
ball gowns for the society ladies and extravagant costumes for
all the burlesque stars. I went to school in the mornings and
in the evenings I helped my momma sew clothes. I started mending
when I was 4 years old. I hated the monotony of stitching over
and over. Momma loved it, and would get so wound up in it she
could sit for hours, stitching and humming. We had a comfortable
life as momma's reputation kept her busy beyond hours in the day.
My favorite part of helping momma was when we delivered the costumes,
or the ladies would come to our house for fittings, dripping with
furs and diamonds and smelling like flowers and cotton candy rolled
into one. The ladies would pat me on the head and say, "you
gettin' big, suga!" and I would strut my 8-year-old stuff
around the room. The ladies loved my act and would roar with laughter,
slapping their hands on their thighs, egging me on.
This was my first introduction into show business. I loved the
backstage buzz with ladies applying makeup and snapping on garters,
dancers stretching in dim, dusty corners, folks practicing singing,
juggling, fire eating, whatever their thing was. Momma's costumes
were primarily made for the glamorous-type showgirls. Momma was
working on an extravagant gown for Texas Guinan. We went to meet
Texas to see how she fit; it took the two of us just to carry
the gown. I couldn't comprehend how one woman could carry so much
weight on her. And when we walked in, I understood. Texas Guinan
had presence. The room was filled with beautiful ladies but all
eyes went to her. She had magnetism, a gift for giving and getting
attention. I was in awe. And I knew instantly that I wanted to
be just like her.
It was 1922 and I was 13 years old. My limbs were growing nicely
but I had not quite developed yet. After strapping her into the
costume and making a few adjustments, Texas Guinan turned to me,
cupped my face in her large, soft hands, and said, "Kid,
you are a lucky girl. You got just what it takes. I can see it
already. They ought to call you Lucky. Look me up at the El Fay
Club in New York. If we get closed down, just ask in the streets
for Texas' new joint. I am going to help you become a star!"
Texas swung around to greet a gentleman visitor, barely visible
under a huge bouquet of long-stemmed red roses and an ice decanter
nestling a bottle of champagne. "Hello sucker," she
greeted him and slipped momma a fresh 20 dollar bill as a tip.
I never forgot what Texas said.
I spent the next 5 years tagging around speakeasies and clubs.
I remember momma resisting me for a while, but she saw how much
money the bigger performers made, and she knew that I hated the
tedium of sewing. So she gave me her blessing or at least tolerated
my dream. I would come from school, help my momma until 8 pm,
and then run, literally, to the clubs. Some nights I wouldn't
get home until 12 or 1 in the morning. Momma knew all of the performers
so she trusted them to get me home safe. Usually one of the girls
would escort me home with one of her admirers in between sets.
I was generally a nuisance but was tolerated because I made myself
useful. I sewed buttons and loose fringe on costumes, helped the
girls with quick changes since I knew all the routines. In return,
I learned how to put on makeup, how to walk with my hips, and
was allowed to practice the girls' routines in the wings. This
was the beginning of my own performance training.