- - Monday, November 14, 2011

By Eric Dezenhall
St. Martins’s Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 294 pages

Cloaking fact inside fiction can produce a fascinating product, and that is precisely what Washington, D.C., writer Eric Dezenhall has done in “The Devil Himself.” Mr. Dezenhall builds his tale on one of World War II’s forgotten stories: how Meyer Lansky, godfather of New York’s Kosher Nostra, cobbled together a network of thieves, murderers, union strong-arm hoodlums and other assorted felons to help the U.S. Navy find a German spy ring that was betraying information to the Nazi wolf packs operating just off American shores and sinking large numbers of ships during the first few years of World War II.

The vehicle Mr. Dezenhall uses to bring the story to life is the character Jonah Eastman, an Ivy League Reagan White House intern whose grandfather is Mickey Price, a retired Atlantic City casino operator known as “The Wizard of Odds.” Jonah works for Tom Simmons, “President Reagan’s ‘image-maker-in-chief,’ as the press calls him.”

Simmons summons young Jonah one day, swears him to secrecy and tells him that now that terrorism has become a priority issue, the president would like to use every weapon available to him to deal with the problem. Simmons has heard rumors about gangsters helping combat German spy rings during World War II; he also knows that Jonah’s grandfather’s best friend is Meyer Lansky, now living in Miami, wasting away, slowly dying of cancer.

Simmons asks Jonah to interview Lansky about what he did during World War II and bring back his findings. Perhaps, Simmons hints, they can help the president make the right decisions about how to counter the wave of terrorism facing the United States.

So, Jonah finds himself at 6 a.m. one autumn day in 1982 waiting in the lobby of Imperial House, a huge Miami Beach condominium on Collins Avenue.

“I heard a bell ding and saw in my periphery a green light above the elevator light up. The first live being that emerged was a tiny, panting shih tzu. The second live being, seemingly led by this weightless creature, was an exhausted old man who resembled a wisp of smoke.”

Lansky knows he’s dying. He also knows that because of Mickey Price, Jonah understands a little about the world from which they came. As Lansky puts it, “But you, Jonah, are not putting the arm on me. You’re not promising me anything. I like that.”

Lansky tells his story to Jonah, and Mr. Dezenhall gets to write most of it in Meyer’s voice.

The question, of course, is why the gangster agreed to help the Navy, represented here by Charles Radcliffe Haffenden. The real Lt. Cmdr. Haffenden was indeed the officer who ran what was known as the ferret squad, a naval intelligence task force that infiltrated the New York docks and broke up German spy rings. He was also the real-life contact with Lansky, a relationship that was kept secret because the government couldn’t be seen to have allied itself with such notorious figures as Lansky and Lansky’s partners in crime, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello and other gangsters.

It wasn’t that Lansky hadn’t engaged in anti-Nazi activities. According to some accounts, he and his gang, by the mid- to late-1930s, had begun breaking up Nazi rallies held in New York’s Yorkville neighborhood on the Upper East Side. But working directly with the government was something else.

Mr. Dezenhall answers the question in Lansky’s own voice. ” ‘Why help America? Is that what you’re asking?’ Uncle Meyer said. ‘More than anything else, I wanted to be an American.’ His voice echoed against the concrete. ‘More than anything. That’s why I tried to enlist in the army. Why I registered as a U.S. citizen.”

The book also brings to light some of the tensions between Jewish mobsters and the Italian mob. As Lansky, channeled by Mr. Dezenhall, puts it: “‘So the war comes along, and a lot of the Italians are thinking, ‘this ain’t our war. Let Hitler kill the Jews.’ “

Not all Italians: Lansky’s partner, Lucky Luciano, is willing to help because Lansky tries to make a deal that will end in Luciano being released from prison. As portrayed by Mr. Dezenhall, Lansky may not be above committing murder, but he also lives by a set of rules that includes loyalty to friends and keeping one’s word.

So Lansky does the right thing - even though he knows it’s probably going to cost him: When the government is involved, all too often no good deed goes unpunished.

But Lansky had allies, too - neighbors. One of them was the gangster Frank Costello. The other was the columnist Walter Winchell. All three lived at the Majestic, a block-long apartment building on Central Park West between 71st and 72nd streets. Winchell, a Jew born Walter Winschel, was a tough-talking newspaperman whose syndicated column had 50 million readers. Lansky leaked nuggets of information to Winchell and, in turn, Winchell wrote items that helped the gangster.

This unholy alliance worked in the government’s favor. Haffenden’s ferret squad broke up the Nazi networks on the East Coast. German spies were captured; most of them were executed. Lansky’s networks provided valuable information to the Navy and to the FBI.

In the end, according to Mr. Dezenhall, none of those involved with this successful intelligence operation was rewarded. Luciano was deported to his native Italy. Lansky was pursued by Hoover’s FBI. Cmdr. Haffenden was shipped off to the Pacific, where he was severely wounded.

But through it all, Lansky remained a patriot. As Mr. Dezenhall writes in Lansky’s voice: “I am a patriot. I recruited Charlie Luciano, Frank Costello and other Italians who needed to be reminded that America was their country. We all owed America a big debt. Of all the contracts people say I put on people, the contract to help America was the only one I ever really ordered.”

Revisionist? Maybe. Fiction? Of course. But Mr. Dezenhall has created a fascinating prism through which to look at a certain point in history. A prism that echoes a quote often attributed - but never confirmed - to George Orwell: “Peaceful men sleep soundly in their beds because rough men stand ready to do violence in their stead.”

John Weisman is the author of “KBL: Kill Bin Laden” (William Morrow, 2011).

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