Frank Lucas Told Me Not to Forgive Anyone
Frank Lucas. Photo: David Howells/Corbis/Getty Images

Frank Lucas Told Me Not to Forgive Anyone

So I never forgave him. Asked to say some kind words at his funeral, I respectfully declined. Here is the eulogy I should have delivered.

I’m doing this for Ray Lucas. Not for anyone in this room. And especially not for the man in this coffin.

I have to be honest. I don’t want to be up here. At funerals, the eulogy should be given by someone who cares about the person. It should be given by someone who can talk about what a good person the deceased was — or tried to be. The eulogist should be fair and balanced. They find the good in the recently departed and allow us to celebrate their spirit.

I can’t do any of that.

Because Frank Lucas was a jerk. He was rude and hurtful toward many of his loved ones. And although he had moments of care and concern, he was mostly a brute who liked to shout at people. If he was waiting for paperwork from his attorney, the man got cursed out before he could hand it over. If his wife was a few minutes late making breakfast, he threatened to divorce her. If one of his children came over and didn’t have a quick answer to whatever random task he’d assign, the shouting would commence. He was used to bossing people around.

Now, for decades, he was a heroin supplier. We know that in the ’60s and ’70s, hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives to addiction — many directly connected to Lucas’ million-dollar drug empire. He asked for forgiveness later in life. But the fact remains: Frank killed people, directly and indirectly.

Mr. Lucas and his wife Julie. Archival photos were provided by Frank Lucas to the author during the course of working on ‘Original Gangster.’

So, how do I eulogize someone like Frank Lucas? Everyone gathered here had a different connection to this complicated man. His children, loyal and forgiving. His wife, Julie, his caretaker for decades.

There are people here who are saddened by Frank’s death.

I’m not one of them.

I’ll say this again, I am only standing here speaking to you because of his son Ray. Let me explain.

The last time I saw Frank Lucas was in his kitchen 10 years ago. Ray was there, trying to listen to our conversation, as always, although Frank often shooed him away when I came to work. Frank and I had just finished the last chapter of his book, Original Gangster, and it was time for me to move on to my next project.

“You can still come by next week,” he said. “We can start another project.”

“I’m not coming back. Ever.”

Frank chuckled.

I said goodbye to his Ray, who hugged me tightly. And then I went to my car and sped off. I never saw or spoke to Frank or Ray again. Before I can explain why, I should explain who I am.

My name is Aliya S. King. I am a writer.

I met Frank Lucas in his attorney’s office in 2008. He wanted to write a book about his life. It was a few months after Denzel Washington played him in the movie American Gangster, which had been nominated for Academy and Screen Actors Guild awards. Frank was concerned about how he would be remembered. The movie got a lot of facts right — he’d served as a consultant — but there was one thing missing: why he became Frank Lucas.

He felt that because his story began with him as a hardened criminal, history would not be kind. He has children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren — many gathered here today. No matter what the movie showed, he wanted his own story, not a fictionalized version, to remain after he was long gone. He told his team to find a writer to collaborate with.

Because my literary agent was friendly with Frank’s agent, it was agreed that I would meet with him out of respect. There was no assumption we would work together.

I didn’t even want to take the meeting. I was working on my first novel, which had recently sold to Simon & Schuster. My first book, Keep the Faith, had just landed on the New York Times bestseller list, and I was trying to take things easy and not take on too many assignments. I had a husband and two young daughters at home, and life was good. I’d heard that Frank Lucas was difficult to work with, and I didn’t need any drama.

Mr. Lucas, his wife Julie, and his daughter Francine

I went to the meeting and immediately disliked Frank. During that 20-minute meeting, he repeatedly called me Alisha, although I continually corrected him. He looked at me, with his eyes squinted, judging me. He spat out questions about my background and my career. When I told him I didn’t bring a resume, he exploded, yelling about how I was wasting his time. I kept my teeth clenched, my hand on my bag, and my eyes on the clock.

I’d had enough. I stood to go.

“So I’ll see you on Tuesday, Alisha.”

I looked around the office. Had there been an Alisha in the office the whole time?

“I’m not working with you,” I said.

“Yes, you are. Starting Tuesday.”

“No, I’m not.”

We went back and forth this way for a good 15 minutes: me explaining why I couldn’t do it, him explaining why I had no choice. At one point, I felt warm, like I was suddenly running a fever. I knew I could just turn around and walk out the door. But something about his intensity made me keep talking back instead.

“I’m not working with you, Mr. Lucas.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I’m very busy.”

“I’ll see you Tuesday.”

I started to think I was literally never going to be able to leave — that I’d be trying to get out of it until deep into the night. I just wanted to get out of there.

Finally, weak and exhausted, I gave in.

“Fine. I’ll see you Tuesday.”

Frank Lucas was able to break me down. He seemed physically imposing while sitting in a wheelchair at damn near 80 years old. I’ve never wanted to admit this, but I was afraid of him. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I kept saying no. So I said yes, planning to bail out the next day.

My agent persuaded me to stay on board. If it got too out of control, I could always quit. And then he warned me that if I did this, I’d need hazard pay. “Let’s get you as much money as we can,” he said. At that stage in my career, I could command about $30,000 to ghostwrite a book.

I told Frank, through my agent, that my fee would be $50,000.

Frank’s book proposal made the rounds at several publishing houses. The final deal wasn’t nearly as large as expected (mainly because publishers believed folks would not be interested in reading about him after the movie), and Frank would not be able to afford my fee.

I walked off the project even though we had already started. I knew if anyone would understand, it would be him. This was business — never personal. This man had made history in bypassing the Italian mafia and going straight to the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia for heroin. He knew about getting the most for his money.

He called me the next day, and I explained why I wasn’t doing the book.

“I’m not getting enough money, Frank. I’m not dealing with you for less than $50,000.”

“This is only the beginning,” Frank said. “There will be other projects. And you’ll be a part of them.”

“No, thank you. Good luck to you on your book.”

And then, Frank Lucas did something I’d never suspected he was capable of. He begged. His voice dropped to a whisper, and I could hear him moving his wheelchair to a quiet part of the house.

“I can’t start this over with anyone else,” said Frank. “I gotta get this book done.”

“I’ll help you find another writer.”

“I don’t want another writer. I want you, Alisha.”

This time, I didn’t even bother correcting him.

“You always say the most important thing in business is honesty,” I said to Frank.

“It is,” he answered.

“So be honest,” I said. “If I was Ray, would you let me do this deal for less money?”

It was quiet. Then Frank grunted.

“Be honest, Frank.” I said.

“I wouldn’t let you do it,” said Frank. “You’re worth more. I’d tell you to walk away.”

We were both quiet.

“So what do you want?” Frank asked.

“Royalties and back end,” I said. “If you can’t afford my full advance, I should get royalties.”

Frank laughed.

“I don’t do that,” he said. “You get a flat fee, and that’s it. Book royalties go to me.”

“Good luck with your book, Frank,” I said.

And then I hung up.

A few days later, I got a call from my agent. Frank had agreed to split all royalties, bonuses, subrights, and foreign sales until I recouped my entire $50,000 advance. We started working on his book the next day, and it dropped a year later.

Of the five books I’ve written and published, Original Gangster is my highest-selling title and continues to pay out royalties every quarter.

It’s very strange to get payouts from someone like Frank Lucas, a one-time near-billionaire who was ruthless in business. It’s also kismet I suppose.

So, do I have anything affirming and positive to say about working with Frank?

Let’s just say it was a long 18 months.

Frank wouldn’t start the day if I didn’t bring him coffee and a bagel each morning, as if I were his personal assistant and not his co-writer.

And no matter what I did, I was always wrong. Either the coffee wasn’t hot or the bagel was stale. There would be too much cream cheese or not enough. I was just forever on his bad side.

When I would gently let him know that a certain prison wasn’t yet built when he claimed to be incarcerated or a certain actress wasn’t yet born when he claimed to have dated her, he would be enraged.

If I dared to take a few days off to travel or work on another project, my voicemail would be full by the time I returned with nothing but messages from Frank, ranging from annoyed to pissed off to furious.

“Alisha. I thought you was coming over at 10! You late!”

“Alisha, this is Frank. Call me immediately!”

“Alisha, bring me two coffees when you get here. And hurry up!”

Some days when I arrived to work, he wasn’t even awake. Some days, he stopped early with no explanation.

Every day, he yelled about something.

Already near 80 years old, I tried to make sure Frank’s facts were straight. When I would gently let him know that a certain prison wasn’t yet built when he claimed to be incarcerated or a certain actress wasn’t yet born when he claimed to have dated her, he would be enraged. And then I’d show him proof. And when I would correct him, he’d end up turning it on me. As if I were the one with the faulty memory. He could never just, you know, apologize.

I would never work for Frank Lucas today. Not for any amount of money. He didn’t deserve to have this book written for him, and I’m still not sure why I stayed.

There was one instance when he yelled directly at me. I was late for our appointment, I’d spilled the coffee before I came, and my laptop wasn’t charged.

“Well, what the fuck you come here for if you can’t get shit done!” Frank screamed at me.

On any other day, I would have rolled my eyes at Frank and got to work. But that day, I’d had enough. I gathered my things and headed straight back out the door.

“Fuck you, Frank. I’m done.”

I slammed the door on my way out. I called my agent and quit the project. He agreed that I’d done my best.

Frank called me a few days later.

“I’m sorry, Alisha.”

“Frank, my name is Aliya for God’s sake.”

“I shouldn’t talk to you like that,” he said. “I appreciate what you’re doing for me. This is for Ray, you know?”

He knew I had a soft spot for that boy. Knowing Ray would be able to read his father’s story kept me on the project — sometimes.

“Frank, I just…”

“Please, Alisha. Let’s finish this.”

Like a classic battered wife, I returned. I continued bringing his bagels, yelling back when he got an attitude. He’d been in a wheelchair for years, and his hands were stiff from some sort of palsy. Sometimes, he asked me to walk over to the stove, hold a Newport over the flame, take a quick puff, and maneuver it into his hand. As a former smoker who could no longer tolerate the smell, I hated him for even asking. I hated myself even more for doing it.

Every time I arrived to work with Frank, I would look around his tiny kitchen, neat and orderly. His wife, Julie, who he called “The Puerto Rican,” would be shuffling around the space, making scrambled eggs and toast for me and Frank, as she did every time I visited. Just a few feet away, Ray’s mother (who I think was his ex-girlfriend) would be sitting on the sofa, eyeing me.

There were three women in that house, three different generations, all doing Frank Lucas’ bidding. One was his wife and caretaker; one was the mother of his child.

And then there was me. Writing his life story. (And lighting his cigarettes.)

I would stare at Frank sometimes while he took a break from talking to me. He had to stop every day to watch Tamron Hall deliver the day’s news. “That’s a bad bitch,” he would say every single morning. One day, after Tamron was done, I asked him a pointed question.

“Do you ever forgive people who have done you wrong?” I asked.

It was one of the few times he needed a minute to think.

“I don’t forgive,” said Frank. “Ever.”

“What if the person wants forgiveness?”

“Fuck ’em.”

“Haven’t you been forgiven?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Do you want to be?”

Frank dragged on his cigarette. He rolled his eyes upward. That generally translated to “Alisha, please stop with this shit.” He stubbed out his cigarette and glared at me.

“If you know you might want to be forgiven, don’t do no fucked-up shit. You can’t guarantee forgiveness from nobody. If you need to be forgiven, just don’t do shit.”

It made sense to me. Which is why I’m here today. I listened to Frank’s advice. I’ve never forgiven him for 18 months of bossiness. I’m not forgiving him for months of lighting cigarettes and being cursed out for no reason. I’m not forgiving him for anything — just the way he taught me.

But then there’s Ray. Again, why I’m here.

I met many of Frank’s children at the house. And I often spoke with his daughter Francine, who was very helpful in filling some of the gaps in her parents’ memory as I put their lives together.

But young Ray, born when Frank was already late in life, was his light. We all knew it. And so did Ray.

Back in 2009, every day after school, 10-year-old Ray would run into the house, toss off his backpack, and listen to Frank talking to me about his life. We talked about people with names like Icepick and Redtop while Ray’s eyes grew wide.

Mr. Lucas in Manhattan with his wife, Julie, and his son Ray. Photo: David Howells/Corbis/Getty Images

Frank and I would tell him to leave the room since we were talking about things a 10-year-old should not hear. Ray wouldn’t move. He always said he wanted to get to a part that included him. He was adorable and smart and often asked about my job and why Frank chose to work with me.

“’Cause Alisha was the right woman for the job!” Frank would yell out.

And then, under his breath, Frank would whisper, “Alisha, get to know Ray. You gon’ be his stepmother when we done with this book.”

“I’m married, Frank,” I would say every time.

“You let me worry about him,” he’d say every time.

I always hoped Ray didn’t hear that nonsense. Though I suspect he did.

Frank poured everything into Ray. Best schools, activities, sports, everything. I knew Frank wanted to get it right with the kid. Do it clean. Do it the way he couldn’t or wouldn’t with his other children.

After the book was done, it was Ray I thought of, much more than Frank. I watched through social media as Ray graduated eighth grade, went to high school, went to prom, and went off to college, growing more handsome every step of the way.

If anything humanizes Frank Lucas, it is the loss of Ray. If anything makes me feel true grief for the man in this coffin, it is knowing that he had to bury his youngest son.

Two years ago, I got a call from Frank’s attorney. It was the usual convo I have with Frank’s lawyers and assistants every few years. “Nah, I’m good. Don’t need to see Frank. Nope. Not working on nothing with Frank. Um, nah. Bye.”

Then I thought about maybe seeing Frank, mostly so I could see Ray.

The attorney mentioned that Frank had moved out of state.

“Who’s taking care of Ray?” I asked.

There was silence.

I was told that Ray, age 18, was dead. I didn’t ask how. I still don’t know. I don’t want to know. I just know Frank spent the last two years of his life without Ray. And I can’t even begin to understand how that must have pained him.

If anything humanizes Frank Lucas, it is the loss of Ray. If anything makes me feel true grief for the man in this coffin, it is knowing that he had to bury his youngest son.

I’m sure many would say that losing Ray was karma for the lives Frank destroyed. I don’t know if I believe that.

I do know that those who want to can be redeemed and forgiven. Did Frank work toward that? I don’t know that either.

Here’s what I do know. Frank loved Ray. I saw him make things happen for Ray when he couldn’t make them happen for himself. Frank was a very prideful man. The only time he dropped his ego was when it was for Ray.

Even though I vowed never to see Frank again, I regret that I was not there for him when he lost Ray. If I had known, I would have gone to Frank immediately.

When you lose someone, you want to bear witness to their presence with others. It’s part of the grieving process, and I wish I could have done that. Frank and I talked about Ray often, about how he wanted to redeem himself through his last-born child. His name, Ray, was so fitting because he was a literal ray of sunshine whenever he walked into a room. And he put that same light on Frank’s face.

We are here today to witness Frank. And I suppose I am too.

I’m here, though it’s his son who brought me.

A tribute from Mr. Lucas’s funeral. Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

Frank, wherever you are right now, wherever your final resting place happens to be, I know you have piping hot coffee, fresh bagels with the perfect ratio of cream cheese, and someone to light your Newports and take orders from you.

And I know Ray is nearby, shining his light.

Thank you.