One of my longtime favorite friends is Len Finocchio, who besides being a bigshot health expert with a doctorate in public health is a former chef, father to a young son, jazz aficionado, wandering hiker and biker, skilled photographer and much more. I knew a bit about his fabled family history in San Francisco but a couple of times he mentioned going to visit his father’s grave in Mendocino County, so I finally asked him for more details on why and where. When he said the grave was in the Anderson Valley I proposed a little interview, which he somewhat reluctantly agreed to, not only as he’s such a busy guy but because he figured the details of this long relationship might be overly fuzzy for such a meticulous, data-oriented professional. But I convinced him this was just a casual chat for the AVA, so here it is.
What are your first recollections of visiting the Anderson Valley?
My first memories are of my dad Arnie taking my brothers and I to the ranch to visit the Zenis and go camping on their ranch property. The Zeni Ranch is on Fish Rock Road, northwest of Yorkville. He had first been there as a young boy himself.
We spent time with George Zeni and his family in the ranch house and hiking around the ranch vineyards and old logging roads. My dad taught us how to camp, shoot his Winchester 30-30 rifle, and dive into a swimming hole. One time we went to the ranch with other Finocchios and we camped out. The two Finocchio brothers, my dad Arnie and uncle Robert, told an old ghost story about Joe Fuentes who had burned his face in a fire and haunted one part of the ranch. We didn’t sleep much that night!
So, what was the original connection of the Finocchio family of San Francisco to the Zenis of Anderson Valley?
I’ll share what I can recall - some of the details may not be 100% accurate. The Finocchio-Zeni connection started at the Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue in North Beach. It was a hotel and restaurant owned by Alessandro Finocchio. His brother Joe established the famous Finocchio’s Club on Broadway, which pioneered cross-dressing performances, drew people from around the world including many famous movie stars and the like, and ran for decades. Finocchio’s Club is memorialized in the San Francisco GLBTQ Historical Society. The Savoy Tivoli served recently immigrated Italians and helped them get oriented to California, San Francisco life and opportunities.
Eduino Zeni had spent time at the Savoy Tivoli and the Finocchios helped him understand Northern California and homesteading laws. At some point the Finocchio-Zeni friendship also became a business relationship. The Finocchios at Savoy Tivoli would arrange for San Franciscans hungry for a taste of country life to spend weekends at the Zeni Ranch. The Zeni property was a “dude ranch” where you could ride horses, hunt, drink wine and hike among the redwoods. But you had to work to get fed!
The Zeni Ranch was a vineyard (mostly Zinfandel) and grew many vegetables and sold them to the Savoy Tivoli - “farm to table” before Chez Panisse! During Prohibition, the Zenis produced grappa, a distilled brandy made from grapes. The ranch also grew chestnuts and there is still an annual chestnut festival there. Filomena Zeni, Eduino’s wife, ran a school on the property - the Lombardi School District - that served locals but also “delinquents” from San Francisco.
Do you know how the Zenis first settled there?
You’d have to ask them for details, as I only know pieces of the story. Eduino Zeni first came to the US in the 1890's. He found a piece of property to homestead in Mendocino County. He wrote to his mother in Italy asking her to place an ad in the local newspaper for a wife to come to California. Filomena Leonardelli answered the ad and got on a ship to San Francisco with Eduino’s mother, Catterina, in 1901. The Finocchios facilitated their travel to the US, orientation to San Francisco and took them to Mendocino County.
Eventually, Eduino and Filomena had children and owned three properties but had to sell one to pay for funeral expenses for several family members who died from trichinosis poisoning in 1921. They homesteaded these properties; homesteading allowed for three 40-acre parcels if you could demonstrate improvements over one year. One had to go to Ukiah to stake your homestead claim.
The Finocchio/San Francisco - Zeni/Mendocino connection lasted over many generations. Four generations of Finocchios all spent time at the Zeni Ranch - to get out of SF, San Jose and Marin where they lived. They’d go to hunt, play, eat & drink, and play pedro. My father Arnold first spent time at the ranch when he was 9 or 10, and then most summers through high school. The Zeni Ranch had a deep impact on his worldview and who he became. He was a good shot with the rifle. Some of the euphemisms and “colorful" expressions that come out of my mouth I’m sure originated at the Zeni Ranch.
Does your family still spend time there?
Well, the Finocchios of my generation lived for many years in Southeast Asia as my dad Arnold worked for Bank of America, a San Francisco bank started by A.P. Giannini as Bank of Italy. Arnold’s brother Robert, his dad Alec and his uncle Joe also worked for BofA. Alec was hired by A.P. Giannini himself as a messenger. Since then my family members have passed on or scattered a bit so we have not been there much anymore. But my father loved it there enough to be buried there in 1995, so obviously it was an important place and time and connection for him. George Zeni is the namesake of my older brother George Finocchio, who also spent some summers working at the Zeni Ranch.
Italians have historically been very Catholic, obviously. What did the Zenis, and Finocchios for that matter, think of the cross-dressing aspect of the famed Finocchio’s club? Did you ever hear any questioning or conflict about that?
Among the Finocchios, I think the acceptance of Finocchio’s Club was generational. My generation went to shows there and were proud of Finocchio’s Club. Some in older generations felt differently. I recall my grandmother, when asked about the club, exclaiming rather scornfully, “That’s the wrong side of the Finocchio family!” I don’t know what the Zeni’s thought about the club. I remember George Zeni being rather libertarian so probably thought, “if that’s what those men want to do in their free time, fine by me.”
Anything else to add?
I’d probably think of more over time, but now not really. We’re still connected to the Zeni family, and my brother George and his sons visited them at the ranch recently. I’m hoping to take my son, Alessandro, up there to visit sometime soon. It can be hard to recollect or extract too many details from those who might have been around then, and many are now gone. Especially since, as one of the Zeni’s told me, “To the old timers, the story wasn’t important since they lived it!”
Great story, enjoyed learning more about Len and George’s background. Sure beats my horse theives and cattle rustlers past. ?