Remembering Robert Leuci, Hail & Farewell

My good friend Bob Leuci passed away one month ago, on 12 October. The headline of the New York Times obituary extolled him — rightly enough — as the detective who, in the 1970's, bravely and famously exposed graft among his colleagues in the narcotics squads of the New York City Police Department. The Times went on to note how Bob’s exploits were later chronicled in Robert Daley’s 1978 bestseller Prince of the City, and made into a superb film by director Sidney Lumet, with Treat Williams playing the Leuci-based role. But only in a small throw-away paragraph at the very end of the Times piece, this written by Sam Roberts, was it noted that Bob subsequently became a highly-regarded crime novelist and much loved teacher of creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. Truth be told, it was as a writer and teacher (not to mention husband, father, and grandfather) that I believe Bob would most like to be remembered. That Prince of the City stuff had been another life.

Bob and I had become fast friends in recent years. He served on the editorial advisory board for my little publishing company, New Street. But we enjoyed another common bond that went well beyond writing and publishing. We were both from New York, with family roots in Brooklyn and Queens. Indeed, Bob and my mother had graduated from the same Queens high school: John Adams. The neighborhood was tough. Young men either grew up to be cops or criminals, and often a subtle combination of the two. Once, over lunch, I mentioned a next-door-neighbor to my grandmother who’d been mobbed-up and was found dead in the trunk of a car at JFK not long after the famous Lufthansa heist. Bob raised his hand before I went any further. “Don’t tell me the name. Just give me the address.” I rattled it off, and he shot back with the name.

Bob’s family hosted a memorial gathering at a popular restaurant and watering-hole here in our small Rhode Island town. This village had never before seen such a concentration of New York license plates. Bob’s son and daughter spoke, as did Robert Daley, Treat Williams, and others — all celebrating, variously, Bob’s love of family, his forthrightness, his great capacity for the art of friendship, his frequent and endearing political incorrectness, and (not least) his considerable skills as a writer and devoted teacher: skills developed in his “second life,” after his retirement from the NYPD, under the influence of Daley and other writers, as well as Esther Newberg, the near legendary agent at ICM who saw to it Bob’s books were published, and published well.

At the bar, over a glass of wine, Treat mentioned how he and Bob would frequently talk on the phone and commiserate on the ups and downs of their two careers after Prince of the City. I told Treat how Bob always took great pride in having been portrayed by him, although he’d usually go on from there to explain how Treat had done an excellent job despite the fact he wasn’t good looking enough for the part.

Most importantly, there was general agreement in the room that Bob’s first best destiny was what he ultimately achieved: becoming a top-notch writer and a top-notch teacher of writing. His gritty, tightly-composed novels — Doyle’s Disciples, Odessa Beach, Captain Butterfly, Double Edge, Fence Jumpers, The Snitch, Blaze, and Renegades — stand as classics in the genre of urban police procedurals. These books gained Bob respect and praise from the likes of Nelson DeMille, Robert Stone, and Nicholas Pileggi. And it was Stone who called Bob’s one adventure in nonfiction — the memoir All the Centurions — “unputdownable from the jump … thrilling, moving, and insightful.”

At the end of that book, Bob wrote: “I’m old now — a grandfather. Babyface is a long time gone. The years between then and now have passed swiftly. South Brooklyn is far away. When I add things up, I’ve lost many friends and a sweet brother to the drug war and other atrocities of life. Still, I’ve gained other friends … My life is good. I may have entered the writer’s life through the back door, but better to enter that way than not at all.”