Frank Lucas, the Harlem dope-dealer who Denzel Washington made famous in American Gangster, is remembered by his friend, Mark Jacobson, the man who first told his story as “The Return of Superfly” in New York magazine and then stayed friends with his subject over the years until his death this month
The other day, after reports of his death began to circulate on the internet, I was thinking about the first time I ever met Frank Lucas, the old school Harlem drug pusher portrayed by Denzel Washington in the movie American Gangster. According to current IMDB box office reports, the 2007 film has now grossed in excess of $266 million dollars which doesn’t include numerous spin-offs like the soundtrack album made by Jay-Z and who knows how many bootleg whatevers. That said, back in the winter of 2000, when I knocked on the door of Lucas’ publicly subsidized apartment across from Newark’s gold-domed City Hall, the prospect of such riches seemed exceedingly far-fetched.
It wasn’t that Frank had never been rich. Once, when the DEA raided his house, his wife threw a suitcase with $564,000 out the window. That was “shit money” to Lucas then, just what he had lying around. But in 2000, nearing his 70th birthday, Lucas, like much of Newark, was on his ass. His place was big, but empty. He didn’t have much furniture, a bed, a trio of mismatched leather-covered bar stools that looked like they’d just fallen off a truck. During his heyday as a reigning dope king of 116th Street, Lucas had a dozen cars, but now he was down to one, a beat 1980’s vintage Caddy with a leaking transmission he couldn’t afford to fix.
But Frank had something far more valuable than any commonplace material possession. He had his story, his unbeatable gangster saga of how he’d come up dirt poor in the backwoods of North Carolina where he saw his cousin killed by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1946, when he was 16 with cracker policemen on his tail, Lucas made his way to Harlem, a place he called “Nigger Heaven.” He lived the hustler’s life, catching on (he said) as the driver for the Ur-uptown hoodlum, Bumpy Johnson.
By the 1960’s, when Lucas was ready to make his move, he picked out a fearsome street guy named Tango. “He was about six five, 270 pounds, quick on his feet . . . He killed two or three guys with his hands. Had this big bald head, like Mr. Clean. Wore those Mafia undershirts…He was a gorilla. One of those silverback gorillas. Everyone was talking about him, Goldfinger Terrell, Willie Abraham, Hollywood Harold. So I figured, Tango, you’re my man.”
One bright, crowded afternoon, right in front of Wyatt Tee Walker’s New Canaan Church on 116th Street, Lucas called out Tango. When the big man ran at him, Frank pulled out his piece and blew the guy’s head off. That was “the beginning of me taking over there,” Lucas told me that day in his empty Newark apartment. “Because when you wanted to be what I wanted to be, you got to be Johnny on the spot, show what you’re willing to do.” Soon enough, Lucas and his Country Boy crew which included his brothers Ezell, Vernon Lee, John Paul, Larry, Shorty, and Leevan were filling the streets with Blue Magic, their signature dope brand, making what Frank claimed was “a million dollars a day.”
“If I wanted to be rich, white boy, Donald Trump rich, what else was I going to do but sell drugs? I wasn’t going to be the President of AT and T.”
Right off, Frank told me he’d been waiting a long time for someone exactly like me to come knocking on his door. Like he once made use of the silverback gorilla Tango, he needed someone to write down his story, put it out there, get the ball rolling on the movie of his life he’d already envisioned in his head. He thought it might call it, “The Haint of Harlem,” owing to the fact that downhome people believed in “haints,” ghostly figures that controlled the lives of men. Often wearing disguises to spy on his street sellers to make sure they didn’t steal, Frank fancied himself such a spirit. But he wasn’t going to write the story himself. Out of school since the third grade, he never learned to read or write, and still couldn’t. (I always had to read the menu to him). Besides, who the fuck was going to listen to an illiterate old black man on crutches, with a gnarled left hand that looked like Captain Hook? What he needed was a Boswell, someone who’d been around enough to translate his ultimate street story into a package he said, “white people will pay through the nose to hear.”
Truth be told, I’d been looking for Lucas too. For years I’d heard the story about a Harlem dealer who supposedly traveled to Southeast Asia in the middle of Vietnam War and shipped thousands of keys of heroin back to America in the coffins of dead GIs. Even in a conflict full of soul-shattering horrors, the My Lai Massacre just one of them, the dope-in-the-coffins meme (some said the drugs had actually been shipped inside the body cavities of the GIs) stood out, a mocking irony worthy by the Devil himself. I didn’t believe it. Some urban legends are too awful to be true. Yet here was Frank Lucas, in his Newark crash pad, saying it was so.
“We did it, all right . . . ha, ha, ha . . . ” Frank told me. “Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier’s coffin? Ha ha ha.” Frank’s laugh, straight out of Dante’s funhouse, was always the scary part, sonic accompaniment to who knew how many fools’ last breath. When I first brought home the tapes of our interviews, my wife asked me, “Who you doing a story on? Satan?”
A faithful student of the Godfather movies, Frank had the scenario pretty well down by then, beginning, middle and end, with all the surreal, gruesome detail. Every bit of it was exactly as it had happened, 100% bona fide, Frank swore, knowing that that there was nothing Hollywood liked better than “a true story.” His facility to reel off scene-setting stage directions like, “It was so quiet you could hear a rat piss on a piece of cotton in China” didn’t hurt.
There were, however, a couple of caveats. The first was that even if someone was using a ball-peen hammer to “slam bamboo rods” under my fingernails, I was not to reveal Frank’s location. Number two was there was to be “none of the bullshit about being buddy-buddy with the cops.”
This last point became an issue between us. Arrested in the middle 1970’s and among the first to be prosecuted under the recently passed “continuing criminal enterprise,” a.k.a. RICO statue, Lucas was looking at 30 years in a federal joint like Allentown or Leavenworth. Yet he served barely seven, most of that time spent living as large as a man can behind bars. He spent no time in the Twilight Zone Witness Protection Program. He was walking around Newark seemingly as free as bird when I met him, his real name on the gas bill.
There was only one way this could have happened: Frank had sung like a canary, long and loud. “I don’t know anyone who made more cases than Lucas,” Federal Judge Sterling Johnson, a former special narcotic for New York City told me. “He gave up everyone.” Frank even gave up own mother, whom he loved more than anyone on earth and called everyday just to say hello.
This was a problem. There was no need to believe everything Frank said to do a magazine piece on him. For every seemingly outrageous, impossible to check comment, all you had to write was “Frank claims” or “Lucas asserts.” Perhaps it was so that Frank had fudged a few details in his account of a gunfight deep in the Thai jungle when the Harlem gangster, in all his street finery, was forced to hide behind a hollow log while shooting it out with a group of local brigands trying to steal his dope. But this was a new kind of fib, one few people had ever heard before. The self-aggrandizing tales of Mafia guys had become commonplace in the post-Joe Valachi era, but outside of the opening chapters of Malcolm X’s autobiography, Iceberg Slim, and Chester Himes novels the inner workings of black organized crime was relatively unknown at the time.
After the appearance of my magazine piece, “The Return of Superfly” for New York magazine, and the release of the movie, American Gangster, based on it, many Harlem traffickers derided Frank’s story, claiming he made up large swathes of it. Bumpy Johnson’s widow said he was a worthless braggart. But much of this was sour grapes. Frank might have been a liar, but these naysayers, dealers, con men, would-be Stagger-o-lees, were not exactly a fact-based crew themselves. They might have moved more weight than the Country Boys did. They might have paid off more crooked cops. But none of them ever claimed to have smuggled a hundred keys into the country on Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic plane and challenged you to prove it wasn’t so. In the movement for Harlem drug dealers to wrest their own narrative from FBI apologists and the like, Frank was not only first, but he brought more to the table.
“I don’t know anyone who made more cases than Lucas,” Federal Judge Sterling Johnson, a former special narcotic for New York City told me. “He gave up everyone.” Frank even gave up own mother, whom he loved more than anyone on earth and called everyday just to say hello.
Snitching, however, was another matter. Snitching is serious business. How was I to explain away such street-cred-demolishing elements from his resume, I asked Frank.
He looked at me with one of those practiced blood-stopping stares. “You’re the writer, you’ll think of something,” he said. I was not to cross him on this point, Lucas said, because “I am a busy man, and I have no time, no time whatever, to go to your funeral.”
Now, nearly twenty years later, I was attending Lucas’ funeral. The end came when he was found “unresponsive” in the three-story house supposedly purchased for him by Denzel Washington off I-280 in Newark. His half-page New York Times obituary (featuring a large close-up of the leathery-looking deceased in wraparound sunglasses) said he was 88, but some of those assembled said he was over 90, proving, yet again, that the bad die old.
The ceremony was held at the welcoming St. Luke’s AME church across Clinton Street from the Divine Rivera Hotel. Built in 1922, the hotel had once been a showplace for the Jewish community. The Prohibition-era gangster Abner “Longy” Zwillman lived there, Philip Roth’s parents spent their honeymoon in the Bridal Suite. By 1949, however, with the demographics beginning to flux, the hotel was sold to Father Divine (hence the Divine Rivera name), the classic African-American revivalist known only as “God” by his thousands of followers. Barely surviving the 1967 riots that continue to haunt the City, the Divine Rivera has recently reopened, billing itself as “a landmark of Newark history,” which of course it is.
Frank was late for his own funeral. The service was set for 11 AM, but apparently the funeral parlor bill had not been paid. The undertakers would not release the corpse of the world-famous American Gangster until they got their money.
The delay gave the gathering crowd time to reminisce about Lucas’ fleeting heyday when, as he said, “I had so much fucking money I didn’t know what to do with it.” Bold face names were thrown around. The old-timers recalled how Frank had once lived with Billie Mays, daughter of the Say Hey Kid Willie Mays. He’d stolen Billie away from then Knick star Walt (Clyde) Frazier, Lucas always said. There were recollections of the time, when Lucas was living in Teaneck, that Aretha Franklin drove her car into a tree on his front lawn. He just let it grow crooked after that, a souvenir of the evening. Also recalled was how Joe Louis, the great Brown Bomber, sat in the gallery throughout Frank’s trial, barely missing a day.
I’d come over to the funeral along with Richie Roberts, the former Newark cop, Essex County Narcotic Squad prosecutor and long-time criminal defense lawyer portrayed by Russell Crowe in American Gangster. In the movie, Richie’s character arc follows a typically conventional Hollywood trajectory. He’s the lawman who is so honest that he turns in a stray million dollars (a true story). He chases and arrests the criminal Frank only to have them recognize each other as different sides of the same coin, winding up bosom buddies. Forty years of knowing the real Frank Lucas was a decidedly bumpier path, said Roberts, the one-time star halfback at Newark’s storied Weequachic High School and United States Marine who still looked pretty spiffy in his pinstripe suit and rakish goatee.
There was only one time he ever heard Lucas express any remorse for the effect his dope had on the Harlem community, Richie said. “We were at his trial and a woman told this horrible story about her addict daughter. Everyone was crying. The jury was crying. The judge was crying. I was crying. I look over and Frank is sitting there at the defense table and he’s crying too. Later he told me, ‘I just never thought of it like that.’ But he never stopped. He was trying to make deals all the way through.” Still, Richie was happy to attend Lucas’ last rites, calling the gathering “my kind of crowd, a room full of people with criminal records.” In his varied career in the Newark legal system, Roberts thought he must have either prosecuted or defended half of the attendees, even if he couldn’t quite recall which half was which.
It was about then Lucas pulled up in the back of a snow-white hearse. No one would be stuffing any Chinese Rock into his coffin. Made in the form of a white Caddy, with a 1970’s vintage Seville grille affixed to the front and a “Frank Lucas” vanity plate on back, the lid featured an air-brushing of the American Gangster dressed in his infamous $125,000 chinchilla coat and matching $40,000 hat. Lucas wore the get-up as he sat ringside for the iconic 1971 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight title bout at Madison Square Garden, a bit of vanity he came to regret, saying it was the coat that caught the eye of the authorities who soon began to follow him, tap his phone and shake him down.
The coffin was the work of Fletcher “Big Show” Collins, owner of the Glorious Custom Design, a funeral product concern located in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Frank’s coffin could hardly compare with that of Willie the Wimp Stokes which featured the murdered Chicago dealer propped up the steering wheel of a full-sized Caddy with $100 bills stuck between each of his fingers, but that was not expected. Given that he had only three days to construct the box and drive it up I-95, Big Show, who built his first coffin for his own father, was satisfied with final product. He didn’t get that many orders for Cadillac coffins anymore. “I get a lot of kids. So many children are dying,” he said solemnly, showing pictures of coffins in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine and Sesame Street characters. “It gives the parents comfort, thinking of their kids having fun,” said the casket maker, who was “turning right around” after the funeral to drive Lucas’ body down to North Carolina for a viewing.
By the time the coffin was wheeled to the front of the church, a fairly large, mostly elderly crowd filled the pews. Following a stately version of “Amazing Grace” and the reading of a letter of condolence from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Pastor Jamal Bryant of the New Mission Baptist Church located in small hamlet of Lithonia, Georgia stood behind the pulpit to deliver the American Gangster’s eulogy.
We did it, all right . . . ha, ha, ha . . . ” Frank told me. “Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier’s coffin? Ha ha ha.”
Perhaps the congregation was wondering why “a Georgia preacher” had flown all the way up to New Jersey to speak for a drug dealer like Frank Lucas, the studious-looking, bespectacled Bryant asked. The answer was easy. Bryant’s grandfather and Lucas’ father were brothers, the two of them had left their then North Carolina home together on the epic journey North, the so-called Promised Land of the 1920’s and 30’s, where they hoped to find a better life. So it was a family thing, a generational thing. If anyone was going to stand before the Lord to plead the case why Frank Lucas, the American Gangster, might be spared the fires of Hell, it might as well be him, Bryant said.
Picking up gospel fervor as he went along, Bryant pulled out all the stops to portray Lucas in his best light. He invoked scripture, seeking to connect Lucas’ chinchilla to Joseph’s coat of many colors spoken of in Genesis 37. He quoted Oscar Wilde. But mostly he drilled down on the vicious canard of American race relations, the lack of opportunity for the black business mind no matter how brilliant.
It was like Lucas himself told me back in 2000: “If I wanted to be rich, white boy, Donald Trump rich, what else was I going to do but sell drugs? I wasn’t going to be the President of AT and T.”
During his heyday as a reigning dope king of 116th Street, Lucas had a dozen cars, but now he was down to one, a beat 1980’s vintage Caddy with a leaking transmission he couldn’t afford to fix
Now Bryant was pushing the drug argument further. For years blacks have been arrested for pot at a far greater rate than whites. So now that weed has morphed into the billion-dollar cannabis industry, blacks are barred from dispensary ownership because they have records. It was typical hypocrisy, Pastor Bryant said with dripping contempt, pointing out that for years the white community was saying that the only thing blacks were good at was selling drugs.
It wasn’t until late in his speech that Pastor Bryant hit upon his most resonant theme. “This isn’t a funeral for an individual, it is a funeral for the end of a cycle,” the Pastor declared. When American Gangster came out, Pastor Bryant said, “There was a lot of debate, about what was true and which parts were fabricated.” But this wasn’t the point Pastor Bryant said. The important thing was that the story was told. What would happen from now on was up to the next generation. Joseph Kennedy was a bootlegger yet his son became President. Shouldn’t Frank Lucas Jr. be allowed the same opportunity regardless of what his father did? This offered “hope,” Pastor Bryant said. Whether the painting of Lucas as a necessary figure in the passage of the black man through a white hell would free Frank Sr. from eternal damnation was yet to be determined, but it was worth a try.
As everyone stood on line to get one last look at the old gangster, it was easy to see the wisdom of Pastor Bryant’s “end of a cycle” comment. The world that produced Frank Lucas and his fellow mid-20th century street capitalists was long gone. Twenty keys was a big shipment back in the Harlem of the 1970’s. By the 1990s Columbian cartels were going global, moving then unthinkable loads of contraband. Only a few months ago, I covered the trial of Joaquin Guzman Loera, the famous El Chapo, who routinely smuggled tons of cocaine in 747s and submarines. The feds made a big show of portraying Chapo as the jefe of all jefes, but that was a canard especially with the minions of Big Pharma pushing their FDA-approved opiates. Compared to that, Lucas might have been running a lemonade stand.
Looking down at the motionless visage of the dead drug dealer, plenty of Frank stories flooded back to me. There was the time we drove around the Newark ghetto and Lucas told me to speed up to a group of young men on a street corner and slam on the brakes. “Freeze, police,” Lucas shouted out the window in his best policeman imitation. The young men looked at me, the white man with the cop’s moustache. A suspenseful pause ensued. It was only when Frank sprang up from beneath the passenger side dashboard where he’d been hiding that everyone started laughing. “Oh, Uncle Frank, don’t fuck with us like that,” the street guys yelled.
There was also the time Imagine Pictures flew the three of us, Frank, Richie Roberts and myself out to a meeting. About twenty people were seated around a long conference table, to talk about the deal that would become American Gangster. Frank grew impatient. He’d forgotten his underwear and needed to buy some new ones. He wanted to get to the point, have them write his check then and let him leave.
“Who’s the guy in the room with The Juice?” Frank whispered in my ear. “The one with the wacked off hair,” I said to Lucas, referring to Brian Grazer, Imagine boss and one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.
“That little piece of…?” Frank snapped, insisting that it was the guy on the other side of the table, a smooth looking exec with a Rolex.
“He’s some studio guy. He’s going to get fired next week,” I told Frank, but he wouldn’t believe it.
It took a letter from the Imagine office asking how he’d managed to run up a several thousand-dollar long distance phone bill at Beverly Wilshire before Frank allowed that Grazer was indeed the guy with The Juice. Later, as American Gangster kept piling up the box office receipts, Frank said he learned the limits of his hustle. Lucas might have sold a lot of heroin, but American Gangster was by far his greatest gambol. He’d reinvented himself as a perfect movie character, orchestrated the deal by telling the white people, myself absolutely included, what they wanted to hear. But Grazer and the rest were the ones making the real money. “I’ve been a criminal all my life, seen a lot of sharks, but never like these guys,” Frank later said, mournfully.
Now, lying there in Big Show Collins’ Cadillac coffin, his natural sneer deleted by the embalmer, Frank looked at peace. We’d spent a lot of time together, hour upon hour of Q and A. One thing continues to stand out, the reason Frank said he’d gotten over for so long, how he didn’t suffer the fate of fellow hustlers like Nicky Barnes, the way he was able to convince the makers of American Gangster to go with his astounding claim that he only informed on corrupt cops, not his colleagues and friends.
This was, Frank said, “People like me, they like the fuck out of me.” It was true too. I liked Frank. I liked the fuck out of him. It was all part of his immortal con, the one he always depended upon. You knew you were being conned and let it happen anyway, because you liked him, liked the fuck out of him. That made you complicit. Yet still, looking down at his dead, cold, yet still Imperial face, I liked the fuck out of him.
After the movie came out, I rarely saw Frank. There were phone calls, usually at 6 AM with Lucas croaking, “It’s your worst nightmare,” but that was pretty much it. I never found out what he thought of Ridley Scott’s relentlessly tame version of his wild life and times. But that had been part of the plan from the start. You didn’t get Denzel Washington and pay him $20 million to play a lowlife thief like himself, Frank said. You got him to play Denzel Washington.
Still, you had to wonder if Frank had reservations about the finished product, the unstoppable gangster meme he’d unleashed into the world. The night of the premiere at the Apollo Theatre of 125th Street (the party itself cost a million dollars) should have been Lucas’ great moment of triumph, his crowning stroll along the red carpet. But just as his car pulled up to the theatre, Lucas balked and told his driver to take him home, back to Newark. “It was like once he got it movie made, he didn’t want to see it,” said one funeral goer who’d been in the car that night.
I was thinking of last time I laid eyes on Frank. He called me up a few years ago and said he’d cut my liver out if I didn’t come see him. He missed me, he said. So I drove over to Newark and we went to lunch with him and his son Ray at Frank’s favorite place, some Applebee-type restaurant on Route 22. When Lucas entered the joint in his wheelchair, a murmur surged the room. The world-famous American Gangster was in the house!
We ate the usual fried shrimp dinner and drank some beers, then it was time to go. Lucas asked me to grab several of the empty beer mugs and put them into his bag. He’d dropped some glasses at his house and needed more. This was a laugh, the fearsome Frank Lucas, the King of 116th Street, stealing beer mugs from Applebees. I told him I wouldn’t have any part of it.
“Oh fuck you,” Frank snorted, lifting his body out the wheelchair to grab the mugs, stashing them in his bag. Then he wheeled himself out, The American Gangster waving to his public as they stood and cheered.