Living Legends My Cousin Corky

If you want to know Dallas, you have to know the Campisis.You have to know why Campisi’s is called the Egyptian, why Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, how the Dallas Cowboys signed all those free agents in the Tom Landry era. But there are a few things you can’t know.

CORKY CaMPISI WAS IN A HURRY. HE USU-ally is. He burst through the padded front door of Campisi’s Egyptian on Mockingbird as I was listening to Richard Cole, a long-time Campisi’s employee, tell me that Joe Campisi, the late patriarch of the Campisi family, had arranged for boxing great Rocky Marciano to write Cole in Vietnam. Campisi knew what a note from Marciano would mean: Cole had won the Dallas Golden Gloves open division four times. Cole comes from a family of boxers. “Keep your chin up,” the note read, “and keep punching.”

Suddenly Corky was standing in front of me. “Hey Jeff,” he said sotto voce. “I’ve got to take a pizza to my postman. Can you hold on a minute?” He disappeared into the back hallway where for 20 years 1 have peeked and peered, discreetly trying to catch glimpses of the back-office card games where one-armed Dee Downs used to show up every two weeks, his paycheck in his pocket, to play poker with Joe and the boys. They kept a 2×4 in the office so Downs could prop his cards on the table.

I’ve always wanted to know: What really went on in that back office? Are the Campisis, you know, connected?

Evidently people ask from lime to time. Enough that one of Corky “s daughters did a report on the family for a college term paper. “She got an A on the report,1’ Corky told me proudly. When I reported that to my sister, she said. “Sure she got an A. If she had gotten a C. the professor would have gotten a visit.”

When Corky came out of the kitchen he was carrying a pizza and moving in quick jabs. He is short and trim. In conversation, he cocks his chin slightly upward, a posture that seems to measure whoever sits or stands before him. We rushed to his red Suburban, where he cranked up the air. and thundered east on Mockingbird to a shopping center post office. “Another daughter just called from college and needs some money,” he said, explaining our delivery. “The postman said he hadn’t had a pizza in a while.” Corky shot a grin at me. “This’ll help get it there faster.” Evidently Corky was sending cash. He likes cash. If gold coins or pieces-of-eight were still in circulation. Corky Campisi would walk around town with his pockets jingling. He understands what the rest of us have forgotten: Paying with cash is drama. He once bought a country club membership with cash, counting it out on the desk of a wide-eyed membership director.

The postman fed, the package shipped, Corky jumps back into the Suburban. For a few minutes we talked about pizza crust. About dry yeast and warm water. Then Corky listened intently to my idea for our day together. “Let’s say.” I explained as we headed back in the direction of Central Expressway, “that I’m in from Chicago. I need someone to show me around Dallas, someone to catch me up on the family. Who do I call? Corky. Cousin Corky.”

With one hand propped on the steering wheel, Corky Campisi studied me through round-rimmed glasses. His hair is closely cropped, like Sinatra’s.

“Your dad still living in Florida?” he asked.

We hadn’t talked about my dad. I felt like 1 had been investigated by people who dug up street addresses back when it wasn’t so easy. “Go ahead,” he seemed to be telling me, “write some screwball story. Say you’re family, even. Just don’t plan on hiding in the Sunshine State.”

I regained my poise at a red light after Corky explained thai he had spent the prior evening with a mutual friend from Waco. “How about you just show me your Dallas and tell me stories?” I backpedaled.

Having asked him to show me his Dallas. I immediately proposed our going to the Sixth Floor Museum to clear up the connection between Joe Campisi and Jack Ruby. But first. I wanted to know how the Campisis got their start.

MY FATHER OPENED A LITTLE PLACE ON Main Street, in 1948.” Corky explained as we made our way to the West End. “The place didn’t have ten tables.” Campisi doesn’t drive so much as attack. He carried on animated conversations with me-and most of the other southbound drivers. In 1950, Joe Campisi and other family members leased the spot on Mockingbird, just down from the Levee Club. Corky stalled working for the family when he was eight years old. He’s 52 now.

“Tell me something. Corky.” I asked, “where does the name ’Egyptian’ come from?” I suspected an ancient Middle Eastern connection-mysterious herbs. sauce secrets of the pharaons.

“When we leased the place on Mockingbird, il was called the Egyptian Lounge. The Par Five Club was next door. My daddy didn’t have enough money to take down the whole sign, so he look down the ’Lounge’ part. He thought that the word ’Lounge’would turn away families who didn’t want their children eating in a bar. We just left the ’Egyptian’ part up. Been there ever since.”

When we pulled into the Sixth Floor Museum parking lot, there was a crowd hanging around the front door. The parking lot was jammed. A space opened up behind us. Corky backed for il. A small black car pulled up behind us, blocking our path. “What?” Corky shouted into the side mirror, “you not gonna lei me park?” He threw up his hands and demanded an answer. Suddenly the driver of the black car came to his senses and backed away. Two seconds later. Corky was laughing. He laughs easily and often. “I ought to be nicer.” he winked. “People come to see us after they leave here. They want to sit in Jack Ruby’s booth.”

As we bought our tickets and headed up the elevator. Corky wasn’t thinking about Ruby or Ruby’s booth. He had his eye on the swarm of tourists. “Somebody is making a killing off this place.” He was right. The museum was packed yet eerily quiet, the visitors lost in their own private audio lour,

NEWS ACCOUNTS PLACE JACK RUBY IN a comer booth at Campisi’s on the eve of John Kennedy’s assassination. “It wasn’t the night before,” Corky clarified, as we picked our way through the crowd, “It was maybe three nights before. And look, restaurant people and club people all knew each other. They ’d eat dinner at one place, then have drinks somewhere else.” Ruby owned the Carousel Club. He was known tor his temper. “I heard all the stories,” Corky said, “People loved to go to the Carousel Club and watch Jack throw people out. They’d go up to him and say. “Jack, that woman over there is bothering me.” And Ruby would toss her out the front door.”

“So why’d Ruby do it?” I asked. “Why did he kill Oswald?” We were nearing the sniper’s perch.

“It really bothered him thai Mrs. Kennedy was widowed. That’s it. He thought he should do something about il.”

When we finally found the displays thai discussed Ruby and his motives. they matched Corky’s explanation word for word: Vengeance Tor Jackie Kennedy. No clear connection to the New Orleans mob or any other mob. Alter Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Campisi visited him in jail. That visit and their friendship got Campisi investigated. “He look me with him to see Jack,” Corky said. “( was fourteen. I don’t remem-ber much. I said hello, then sal off to the side while they chit-chatted.”

LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING,” CORKY told me as we drove away from the School Book Depository, headed in the direction of Lower Greenville. I was asking about whether the New Orleans or Chicago boys ever operated seriously in Dallas. “Sheriff Bill Decker used to run this town. Him and Henry Wade. My daddy always said that. He and Sheriff Decker were close. The way it worked back then, the police didn’t come to get you if you were doing something wrong, like say, a little burglary. You just got a message from Decker. And you went to see him. believe me. Things are different now.”

“Listen,” Corky continued, “my 72-year-old mother got robbed the other day. This guy talks his way into her house, saying he grew up with the Campisi kids. He said that he needed to use the phone, He calls a buddy out in a car. The buddy comes in. they pull up masks, and hold her up-at gunpoint. They were wearing a bunch of jewelry, these guys. The robbers tell mom they want all her jewelry. She tells ’em, ’All my jewelry’s fake, and 1 can tell from here that yours is fake, loo. You don’t need any more fake jewelry.’”

Corky finished the story about his mother at Rose’s on Greenville, where Rose and her sister Ollie have been grilling cheeseburgers for 58 years. They greeted Corky warmly. When we left. Rose didn’t charge us. “Anyway, the robbers get mad and tell mom to gel her purse. She gets ii, opens it, and pulls out some money. She leaves the $1 bills. ’Give us the ones!’ they yell at her. Only she yells right back, ’I’m not giving you my ones!’ One of the robbers gets mad and puts her in a head lock. She bites him. ’You bit me!” he screams, ’You bit me!” He can’t believe it. ’I know it,’ she says, ’you were hurting me. And let me tell you another thing, I’m in the mafia and we’re gonna get you.’” At that point the robbers ran out the back, Mrs. Campisi out the front.

The police haven’t caught the robbers yet. They ought to turn themselves in. “The ’mafia’ thing made it on the police report,” Corky said chuckling, eating a jalapeno. “She told “em that herself.”

AFTER LUNCH WE DROVE TO TWO secret locations to look over Corky Campisi’s prized collections-his basil patch and his trophy room, Both receive patient tending. “My daddy grew basil for the restaurant,” he explained. “If growing his own was good enough for him. it is damn sure good enough for me. There’s an Italian saying, ’The eyes of the master will fatten the horse.”” The Campisi basil patch is located in East Dal las on what might be considered semi-private land. I won’t say where exactly. Corky has negotiated a kind of easement, not with the owner, per se, but the owner’s agent. He’s had it for years.

The trophy room is extraordinary. a miniature sports hall of fame. There are dozens of jerseys signed by professional football and basketball players, even one by the sprinter Michael Johnson; signed footballs, baseballs, basketballs; a shrine to Nolan Ryan. who fortified himself with Campisi’s steak between pitching outings. Corky is friends with hundreds of athletes. He stays friends long after their playing days are over.

Surrounded by the overwhelming private collection, Corky begins telling me about his relationship with the Dallas Cowboys when Gil Brandt and Tom Landry ran the show. He was a kind of free agent scout. “There was a group of business guys who were close to Gil Brandt. Mr. Gil would call us on draft day, when he could see which players were not going to be drafted and would become free agents. He’d call up and say, ’Corky, get on a plane to Colorado Springs. Call me when you get there.’ He sent me to Fargo, North Dakota once. 1 got lost. I’d rent a car and find some punter and try to talk him into coming to Dallas and trying out for the team. If he made it, 1 got a little bonus. That’s how the Cowboys tied up all the free agents. I did it for three years.”

There were people waiting on Corky when we pulled up at the Egyptian late in the day. Just before I got out of the car, he leaned over to me. We had been talking about golf. He grew up playing at the old Glen Lakes Course. “You wanna play next week?” he offered. “At the country club?” He meant the one where he paid for the membership in cash. “Well,” 1 said “maybe so. I’ll have to check.”

“Jeff,” he said, a big grin on his face, “we kinda do it this way: We invite you a couple of times and then we come looking for you. That sound okay?”

What it sounded like was Sheriff Bill Decker.

“I’ll hit some balls,” I said, returning his smile. I’ll be playing golf next week. With Corky. Cousin Corky.


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