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To hear him tell it, crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall is something of a square.
The self-described “exercise freak” rarely stays up past 9 p.m. (what he terms “an act of degeneracy”); can measure in one glass his cumulative, life alcoholic consumption; and much to his chagrin has “utterly failed to get involved in a major sex scandal” in 22 years in Washington.
Unlike most card-carrying “squares,” however, the 41-year-old married father of two has a fictional alter ego in the person of Jonah Eastman, a disgraced Republican pollster who regularly breaks many, if not all, of the rules in the pursuit of extracting high-profile clients — ranging from a Mafia boss to a domestic diva — from viscous situations.
“One of the things about fiction is you can take a guy very much like yourself and make him tougher, smarter, handsomer,” Dezenhall quips in reference to his literary doppelganger.
And in Dezenhall’s latest release, “Shakedown Beach,” Eastman, who also appeared in Dezenhall’s earlier novels, “Money Wanders” and “Jackie Disaster,” is once again tasked with damage control duty. This time, however, the client is a former Philadelphia 76ers basketball player turned New Jersey governor caught in a tight race for U.S. Senate and with more than a few skeletons in his closet.
At its core, “Shakedown Beach,” much like Dezenhall’s previous books, is pure madcap mystery adventure, set against an Atlantic City backdrop and packed with colorful underworld characters (mainly benevolent), scantily clad vixens and scheming political handlers, not to mention a plot that clips along with all the velocity of Smarty Jones, pre-Belmont Stakes.
“I like the idea of pollster as action hero because it makes me laugh,” notes Dezenhall, who says his most recent book is a must read for “anyone who has ever worked in politics and wanted to strangle their boss.”
On the surface, Dezenhall has much in common with his protagonist Eastman. Both grew up in South Jersey, attended Dartmouth, and worked for then-President Ronald Reagan — though Dezenhall points out that his posts in the White House offices of communication and presidential personnel were relatively low level. (“I don’t want to imply that I was a great power in the White House — although the end of the Cold War, that was totally my idea,” he jokes.)
And while Dezenhall may not have been the scion of a “legendary Atlantic City gangster” as is Eastman, he readily concedes that many of his extended family members likely had “contacts” with unsavory individuals.
“The beauty of my family is you don’t have to be particularly creative, you just have to bring a pad.”
At the tender age of “8 or 10” he recalls meeting a friend of one relative who later served as inspiration for a character who appeared on the first two seasons of the popular HBO mob drama “The Sopranos.”
Oh, really, and which character was that? Dezenhall demurs. “I’m really sort of prudish around women.”
No, go ahead, it’s OK.
“Big Pussy,” he finally divulges, after about 30 seconds of prodding. “He was loosely based on a big guy [Pussy Russo] who had that name and one of my uncles was very close to him.
“When I met this guy I couldn’t believe his name and I asked my Uncle Moe, ‘Don’t people make fun of him because of his name?’ And my uncle said, ‘No.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, his friends must be very nice that they don’t make fun of it.’”
Over the course of researching his books, Dezenhall, who in 2002 co-produced a Discovery Channel documentary on organized crime, said he’s also gone back and interviewed a variety of gangsters.
“I’m far more comfortable around organized crime figures than I am around Hollywood people,” he laughs.
Nevertheless, Dezenhall maintains that despite regularly being mistaken for real world individuals, his fictional characters are wholly “a combination of composites and fabrications.”
“People desperately want to believe they are based on people,” he says, noting that a former hit man in the Federal Witness Protection Program who had killed 25 people phoned him one day to inquire whether he had served as the template for a particular character.
“I said to him, ‘Do you want it to be based on you?’”
But in all seriousness, Dezenhall says, “We’re not talking about everyday contact with people. I’m not a total badass who deals with these people on a regular basis.” After all, the Justice Department is “a former client.” And Dezenhall is also quick to highlight the fact that “about five minutes” after he obtained Meyer Lansky’s diaries, from which he later published excerpts, from the infamous gangster’s granddaughter (who, by the way, threw a book party for Dezenhall after the publication of his first novel), “the FBI was in my house ... at my request,” to review the materials.
As the head of one of the nation’s top crisis management firms, Dezenhall, like Eastman, also knows something about controversy.
His firm, Dezenhall Resources, is known for its “reputed” aggressive tactics when it comes to defending its predominantly corporate clients (the firm also handles the occasional celebrity scandal) — including employing former intelligence and law enforcement officials to investigate the opposition.
“Being controversial can be lonely and the fact is I spend my career in very divisive fights where one side is the natural enemy of another,” he says. “We are not talking about PR firms who do catered events for trade association members who are coming to Washington for the first time.”
Moreover, Dezenhall asserts that the lengths he will go to on behalf of clients has been wildly inflated by opponents.
“The whole intelligence community thing has been exaggerated by activist groups who don’t like our firm. We did have several clients who came up against a terrorist organization and a gangland cartel, and we did bring in former intelligence and law enforcement,” he says, adding that in one of those cases his firm was aiming to counteract individuals who had “blown up a house with a 12-year-old child in it.” (Fortunately, the child lived, he says.)
Given Dezenhall’s potent brew of unorthodox experience and fertile imagination has he ever considered making the transition to full-time wordsmith?
“Absolutely,” he says. “But there are a lot of things I fantasize about that don’t happen, including Charlize Theron.”
Still, Dezenhall’s creative output shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
“Sitting on my table right now is a contract for two more Jonah Eastman books,” he says, adding that Eastman’s next client will be a rock star. (Considering that Paramount Pictures optioned the rights to “Jackie Disaster” late last year and that his agent is currently meeting with different production companies about the possibility of optioning “Shakedown Beach,” Dezenhall may soon be spending more time with Hollywood types than he would like.)
“What I learned through my day job is I can sooner bring peace to the Middle East than control what happens in Hollywood,” says Dezenhall, who despite repeated rejection eventually secured a literary agent after he sent out a humorous “death threat” cover letter along with his manuscript. “If you need anybody killed, let me know.”