Q&A with Eric Dezenhall, author of The Devil Himself

  • July 21, 2011

The Devil Himself, Eric Dezenhall’s sixth action novel, draws from a stranger-than-fiction episode in World War II, when the U.S. Navy called upon the patriotism of New York City’s gangsters to help plug security leads to Nazi Germany.

The Devil Himself, Eric Dezenhall’s sixth action novel, draws from a stranger-than-fiction episode in World War II, when the U.S. Navy called upon the patriotism of New York City’s gangsters to help plug security leaks to Nazi Germany. Because the hoodlums controlled the docks, they were the best allies in this clandestine struggle, though the government would deny the alliance for many decades after the war ended. Dezenhall’s protagonist, Jonah Eastman, the grandson of an Atlantic City wise guy, learns the story from none other than the notorious Meyer Lansky.

David Stewart Q&A’s with Eric Dezenhall

Q.  How much of your effort for The Devil Himself involved historical research about the events during World War II?

I did exhaustive research on the events depicted in the book. The “macro” narrative is pretty accurate – the U-Boat attacks, the destruction of the Normandie at Pier 88, the factors that brought the Navy to the mob’s doorstep. The “micro” story – the relationships between mobsters and the Navy, the dialogue – are fictionalized, after all, we can’t be certain about who whispered what to whom.

A lot has come out about the historical events in recent years. The government denied the Navy-Mob partnership for almost 40 years, but there is now solid documentation about the program, although there is some disagreement about its value. Since 9-11, more documents have been declassified about domestic terrorism, which included planned Nazi attacks on railways, bridges, chemical plants and Jewish-owned department stores. There is also some good new data about gangland activities.  As the mobsters aged and died off, they and their families became more talkative about their memories.

Q.  The book has scenes in two different historical periods – during World War II and in the 1980s. When writing dialogue in those different periods, did you rely on your own ear, or did you look at books or movies from those eras?

I was born in 1962, so obviously I had to do some homework on how people spoke in the 1940s. Our elders spoke more formally. For example, Meyer Lansky refers to his navy handler as “this navy fellow.” We don’t use “fellow” very much anymore; we use “guy.” I also did a lot of research on how Lucky Luciano spoke. Whereas Meyer Lansky actually read the dictionary cover-to-cover and made notes in a diary on how to correctly pronounce words, Luciano would say “dis,” “dem,” “dose” and “dat,” which is reflected in The Devil Himself.

There’s also a scene where Meyer asks his young interviewer, Jonah, what it means that a reporter called him “the mob’s Yoda.” Meyer mistakenly thinks Yoda is a form of exercise rather than a Star Wars character. While I invented that dialogue, I wanted to convey that Meyer was oblivious to late 20th Century popular culture and was, quite literally, dying off.

Q.  The portrait that emerges of Meyer Lansky is a very benign one. He seems an honorable fellow and a tough businessman, and frequently dismayed by the violence of his associates. What made you willing to portray a major mob boss as such a mild fellow?

I think there is a continuum of evil. While Meyer was surely a mobster, he was not the mastermind of global evil that he’s made out to be. If you ignore the true crime books and Hollywood movies and look at the banalities of Meyer’s life from the perspective of a family member or friend, it’s a very sad story. This story included a first wife with acute mental illness, a paraplegic son, Buddy, with cerebral palsy, the murder of his stepson, estrangements from children, an old age globetrotting on the lam from the law, and spending what was left of his fortune on lawyers. Meyer didn’t attend the graduation of his other son, Paul, of whom he was immensely proud, for fear that his presence would hurt Paul’s reputation.

It was an amazing thing going through Meyer’s book collection once he and his wife were gone to find the Classics highlighted and with notes scrawled in the margins. Meyer tried to better himself, which is a lot more than can be said about most mobsters who, in my view, had few redeeming qualities. Still, the image of a kindly and diminutive Jewish grandfather should be embraced with limitations. It was Meyer’s men who eliminated the old Sicilian mafia dons that were an impediment to modern racketeering.

Q.  The Devil Himself uses your protagonist from earlier novels – Jonah Eastman of Atlantic City – to carry much of the story. In some ways it seems a prequel to the earlier Eastman books. Do you find yourself discovering more about the character as you write additional books featuring him?

I learn more and more about what motivates Jonah with each book. The key lesson is that no matter how far Jonah tries to run from his background, he can’t escape it because everybody around him can’t get enough of it. People want Jonah’s life to be more interesting than Jonah thinks it is. So much of human perception is anchored in what people want to be true rather than what is true. Jonah sees himself as an orphan trying to lead a quiet life, make a living, enjoy his family. Those around him, even his superiors at the White House, insist upon seeing some combination of Michael Corleone, George Soros and Karl Rove — puppet masters that make the world dance.

Q.  A poignant part of the novel is that the navy officer who coordinates with the mobsters on the New York piers ends up unhappily. The Navy hides his achievements and turns its back on him. Was that true in real life, or based on your appreciation of how large bureaucracies work?

The fate of Commander Haffenden is based in fact. While I personalize some of the details, I believe the government had buyer’s remorse about the mob program. The only thing worse than the mob partnership failing was the mob partnership succeeding. The government wanted the right version of history to be written and that history didn’t include Jewish and Italian wise guys. I’ve seen this kind of thing play out in Washington and in corporate life. Somebody is called upon to take a risk, the risk becomes public, and they are disavowed. The more I learned about this episode, the bigger the character I made Haffenden who died after a disappointing postwar career as a Dictaphone salesman. The scene I wrote with Haffenden trying to sell a Dictaphone to Frank Costello left me numb.

Q.  In your “day job,” you advise businesses and individuals on protecting themselves when they are under attack. In your novel, the government turns to mobsters in order to fight Nazi subversion and spy efforts. Had you been advising the Navy in 1942, would you have counseled that course?

Given the colossal threats the U.S. was facing and how ill-prepared we were, I probably would have counseled the Navy to grab any weapon it could. Remember, it wasn’t just the Navy that facilitated the mob collaboration, it was New York law enforcement, too. Such a thing would not work in today’s climate. In FDR’s day, the president could appeal to the media’s sense of patriotism and certain things would not be reported. Nowadays, we’re told that nothing is more patriotic than taking down our government or other successful institutions.

In one of the stranger historical coincidences, FDR was very close to Walter Winchell, the most powerful journalist in the country in those days. Winchell’s neighbor and friend in same Central Park West apartment was Meyer Lansky. Imagine such a triangle in this day and age. Also, the young mob prosecutor who introduced Navy Commander Haffenden to Meyer Lansky was Murray Gurfein who 30 years later was the judge on the Pentagon Papers case.

Q.  When the Nazi saboteurs and spies are discovered in The Devil Himself, the gangsters are regularly disappointed that they are nebbishes and weaklings. Was that true to life, or your own imagining of the bravado of the gangster?

As much as it would have suited my purposes for the Long Island Nazi saboteurs and American Bund members to have been bad asses, they weren’t exactly Hitler’s first string. I decided to change course and use humor to describe how the American mobsters reacted upon meeting their nemeses. There’s a scene where I have an exasperated Bugsy Siegel interrogating a Nazi spy then turning to one of his fellow gangsters saying, “I can’t believe we’re losing to these guys.” That said, I portray the U-Boat threat quite differently. Admiral Donitz and Field Marshall Rommel were very lethal adversaries, which was why the Navy decided to meet Meyer Lansky for that fateful breakfast.

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