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The Devil Himself

Eric B Dezenhall In late 1982, a spike in terrorism has the Reagan Administration considering covert action to neutralize the menace before it hits our shores. There are big risks to waging a secret war against America’s enemies — but there is one little-known precedent.

Young White House aide, Jonah Eastman, grandson of Atlantic City gangster Mickey Price, is approached by the president’s top advisor with an assignment: Discreetly interview his grandfather’s old friend, Meyer Lansky, the Jewish mob boss who partnered with the U.S. Navy during World War II to catch Nazi saboteurs on New York’s racket-controlled piers, about “the ferret squad,” the unlikely fellowship of mobsters Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Frank Costello, and naval intelligence officers. There just might be something to learn from that operation.

In 1942, German U-boats had been prowling the Atlantic, sinking hundreds of U.S. ships along the east coast, including the largest cruise ship in the world, Normandie, destroyed at a Manhattan pier after Pearl Harbor. Nazi agents even landed on Long Island with explosives and maps of railways, bridges and defense plants. Desperate to secure the coast, the Navy turned to Lansky, a newly naturalized American whose fellow Eastern European Jews were being annihilated by Hitler.

Forty years later, what does Lansky have to say about his service? The notoriously tight-lipped gangster, dying of cancer in Miami Beach, is ready to talk and tells Jonah, “We weren’t yeshiva boys, kid.”

Joining him on walks with his beloved Shi-tzu, Bruzzer, for hot pastrami at Wolfie’s, and nights on the balcony of Lansky’s condo, Jonah gets a riveting — and darkly comic — history lesson. The mob caught Nazi agents, planted propaganda with the help of columnist Walter Winchell, and found Mafia spies to plot the invasion of Sicily, where General Patton was poised to strike at the soft underbelly of the Axis. Based on real events, the heat was on Lansky as “my boys” stopped at nothing to sabotage Hitler’s push toward American shores.