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Novel Examines Navy’s Deal With the ‘Devil’

Courtesy Eric Dezenhall
“The Devil Himself” explores how the U.S. Navy sought help during World War II from the mafia in a collaboration dubbed “Operation Underworld.”

One might think that as the head of high-stakes communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Eric Dezenhall would have enough real-life drama. But helping celebrities, politicians and major corporations out of serious jams (don’t ask which ones; he isn’t saying) apparently doesn’t provide sufficient thrills — hence Dezenhall’s other job, that of novelist. 

In his sixth novel, “The Devil Himself,” Dezenhall explores how the U.S. Navy sought help during World War II from an unlikely source: the mafia. In the collaboration, dubbed “Operation Underworld,” mobsters such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky aided the Allies in one of the war’s stranger and lesser known chapters.

“The Devil Himself” blends two narratives. One is that of a young aide to President Ronald Reagan, a Harvard grad named Jonah Eastman, whose grandfather is retired Atlantic City mafioso Mickey Price. When the White House wants to research counter-terrorism strategies, the president turns to Jonah with a top-secret assignment. He must interview his grandfather’s old associate, Luciano, about the covert role the mob played in World War II. That story, laced with Lansky’s Jewish-gangster patois, makes up much of the book. 

Dezenhall talked with Roll Call about how his day job influences his work — and about which of today’s political scandals might be tomorrow’s fiction.

You write that the narrative is “based on” real events. How much of the story is fact, and how much is fiction?
Here is what we know for sure: Fearing that Nazi spies on the New York waterfront were getting information about Allied shipping routes to German U-boats, the Navy sought the help of organized crime bosses that controlled the docks. The Navy tapped mob boss Meyer Lansky because they knew he had attempted to join the Army, broken up rallies of Nazi sympathizers in New York, was concerned about the fate of Eastern European Jews under the Nazis and was friendly with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was needed to order the Italian racketeers to cooperate with the Navy. 

We also know that Lansky and Luciano’s Sicilian contacts assisted Naval Intelligence in finding contacts in Sicily to help with [Gen. George] Patton’s invasion.  There’s a lot of debate about the actual value of what was called “Operation Underworld,” but the government, after decades of denials, finally admitted — in bits and pieces — that this campaign happened.

Because I wasn’t alive in 1942 and the actual substance of the interplay between mobsters and the Navy is unknown, I took some liberties with the personal motivations and dialogue of the players.

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