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By Eric Dezenhall
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Eric Dezenhall
All rights reserved.
The Intern: Jonah Eastman,1982
When you grow up with these guys, you know they’re nothing special. Everybody on the outside, the vast consumer public, though, assigns all these mystical skills to them. My favorite is that they killed President Kennedy. You know, the mob. Mafia. Whatever.
If you actually knew them, you’d know there was no way. A crime like that was way above their pay grade. All the mob ever was, was a loose affiliation of crooks that only wanted to steal as much as they could steal for as long as they could without ending up in the clink or on a slab. Assassinate the president of the United States—whose brother was the famously vindictive attorney general—and keep it quiet for twentysome years? Come on, the only people on the grassy knoll that day in Dallas were the wackadoos who needed their world ordered in such a way as to ascribe all forms of inexplicable mendacity to a shadowy group that couldn’t step forward to defend itself. (Mafia: “Help, I’m being defamed!”)
There’s another banal reality: If the mob killed President Kennedy, the guy who pulled the trigger would be in a strip joint that night going up to strippers: “Yo, Bambi, Tiffany, you hear the news?” The strippers would say, “Oh, it’s so awful they killed the president.” The triggerman would fiddle with his collar, sniff that wiseguy smirk: “Awful, huh? You wanna know what really went down?” Then, impressed, the two whores would go in the back room and get to work on Vinnie Bag-a-Donuts, or whoever he was, then tell everybody they banged the guy who iced the president. The moron would be in custody before sunrise.
Look, it wasn’t like these gavones had the choice between Yale Law School and breaking kneecaps, and chose breaking kneecaps. Different skill set, and sometimes the cliché of squandered talent collapses under the weight of no talent at all.
These guys were in my life before I could walk. I’m Jonah Eastman, and my grandfather is Mickey Price, the Atlantic City mob boss known as the Wizard of Odds. Gambling is his thing. Well, after booze was his thing. When Prohibition ended, he shut down his stills in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and focused on gambling. His investments extended from the back alleys of Philadelphia and Newark out to the “carpet joints” of Saratoga, and to the “class” strongholds of Las Vegas and Havana. Most of those places are all gone, at least as far as Mickey’s involvement is concerned. When New Jersey okayed casino gambling, Mickey opened up his own boardwalk place in 1978 in Atlantic City, the Golden Prospect Hotel and Casino. He isn’t the owner of record, of course. Official filings listed him as the bell captain. Heh. Mickey and my grandmother Deedee raised me after my parents died, and they’re still there. As am I when I’m not at Dartmouth or working on an internship like the one I’ve got now in the White House.
My whole life I’ve been running from my primordial borscht, not because of the cinematic suffering of my “inner child,” but because what I come from is so damned small-time. I would love to have a little inside knowledge that my grandfather’s friends took down a president, but the reality is an endless procession of desperate little ganefs—and most of them are very small—trying to stay one step ahead of cops in suits from Sy Syms.
Maybe everybody goes though this at some point: that awful feeling that what you come from is staggeringly unspecial, that desire to be from someplace exotic, to descend from someone really cool. I remember a dream I had the summer before I went to college in 1980. In my dream, my grandfather was Jonas Salk, a somewhat more respected Jew than Mickey. My last name even was Salk. Jonah Salk. Clever. So I’d get to school, and people would ask, “Are you related to the guy who cured polio?” “Yeah,” I’d say, and wouldn’t have to do anything else. That would be it: Yeah. Kiss my ass. Skate through life.
Dreams of trading on the polio cure quickly gave way to the crucible of having to make it in this world by myself in spite of who Mickey Price was and is, and who I am and am not. I’m doing okay. I’m starting my junior year at Dartmouth after the New Year in a few weeks, right after I wrap up this internship I’ve got working for Tom Simmons, President Reagan’s “image-maker-in-chief,” as the press calls him.
I love my job, which consists mainly of helping to develop media strategy for the president. This isn’t entirely true since I’m regarded as just another smart kid, not anybody with real influence. Still, I get to escort the press in and out of the Oval Office, direct reporters to the right spokesperson, and get to see President Reagan almost every day. I don’t think he knows my name, but he recognizes me, I think, and he’s got a way of tilting his head in the kind of deference that says, “Appreciate all you’re doin’, kid.” Or maybe he’s just a politician.
One day a few months ago, I made a comment about a Remington sculpture the president had in his office. His eyes brightened, and he said, “You know about horses.” I answered, “Yes, I cared for horses when I worked at the Atlantic City Race Track,” which was true. He offered to let me ride with him on one of his Wednesday outings, which I did twice. It was a thrill, believe me, and it made Tom Simmons take note of me over the other political Smurfs.
Simmons was a tennis nut. Sometimes he’d grab my friend and immediate supervisor, Doug Elmets, and me to play on the White House court. Doug and I always kept our tennis gear in our offices just in case.
During one of these doubles games—the fourth guy was somebody from the national security adviser’s office—Doug started ribbing me about being Mickey Price’s grandson. Fascinated, Simmons peppered me with questions about my background, the symbiosis between the Kosher and Cosa Nostras, which I answered without trying to make it seem too sexy. It’s strange the way my roots come back up at me like the taste of corned beef and coleslaw when it wants to, not when I want it to.
* * *
I never thought I’d have to discuss Mickey with Tom Simmons again, but the prospect hit me at the gonad level when one afternoon after Thanksgiving, Simmons’s assistant said he wanted to meet with me alone, something that had never before happened.
Simmons had been with President Reagan since his days as governor of California. He still referred to Reagan as “Governor.” More than any other person in Reagan’s orbit, with the possible exception of the president’s wife, Nancy, Simmons was the guardian of Reagan’s reputation.
I showed up to Simmons’s office, which was the one next to the Oval Office, located in the southern section of the West Wing, a few minutes early.
A small, balding man, bespectacled and bemused, Simmons gestured to the burnt-orange sofa in his office and took a seat in a striped chair facing me. He looked me over, his eyes blue and searing like stolen sapphires.
“Doug tells me you’re doing good work,” Simmons said.
“Thank you, I hope I am.”
“We’ve had good luck with Dartmouth students. They’ve got that newspaper there, what, the Review?” This was the conservative, unauthorized paper that was causing a national sensation. I had never written for them, which was something that came up during my interview to get this job. I sensed that the interviewer didn’t peg me as a “true” conservative. I wondered if my less-than-reactionary pedigree was the subject of our visit. But if I were getting axed, the task wouldn’t fall to somebody as high up as Simmons.
“I’ve never written anything for them.”
“Oh, I know,” Simmons said. “Probably better to do more listening than pontificating at your age.”
“It’s a lot of fun to read, I’ll tell you that much. Those guys are never boring.”
“If they were boring, Jonah, they wouldn’t have everybody in the Ivy League crapping their pants.”
Something about the reference to people crapping their pants relaxed me a little. I find second-grade humor hilarious, especially when I’m a few yards away from the man who can end civilization if he spills his coffee on the wrong telephone.
“You’re probably wondering why I wanted to speak with you,” Simmons said.
“I was a little nervous, to be honest.”
“Nothing to be nervous about, Jonah. Are you interested in national security issues?”
“Of course. I’m not an expert, but I follow defense.”
“What about terrorism?”
“Scares the hell—sorry—scares the heck out of me.”
“Me, too. The president, too,” Simmons said. “Ever since the Iranian revolution, it’s a whole new environment. This year alone, we had a colonel, Charles Ray, assassinated in Paris by a group tied to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. You may remember last March when we announced a Libyan plot to blow up an American recreational center in Sudan.”
“And last July, David Dodge, the president of the American University in Beirut, was kidnapped by Hezbollah. Then we had an American Express office blow up in Athens to protest U.S. support for Israel’s foray into Lebanon.”
“I don’t remember that one.”
Simmons continued, “A bomb went off last August at an American military barracks in Frankfurt. We found PLO propaganda at the bomb site. And we’re not done with the Iranians and Libyans, Jonah. A leader of an Iranian Islamic sect here in the U.S. was found with his throat slit in Connecticut, we believe at the direct order of Ayatollah Khomeini. I could go on and on, but you get the point.”
“I get the point. We’re hearing footsteps.”
I did, of course, get the point, but not what it had to do with me. I figured that maybe he wanted me to compile a book of news clippings or something. But somebody far lower down could have given me that task.
“Here’s the thing, Jonah: The president is looking at options for dealing with these bastards. This is a different kind of battle, not a conventional war because terrorists, well, terrorists hide in different places, so you have to … ah … handle things sometimes—”
Simmons was visibly uncomfortable. “In theory. And that’s all we’re talking about here, an academic theory. Do you follow me?”
“I think so, Mr. Simmons—”
“Tom … but I don’t know how I can help.”
“Jonah—and understand I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable, but—”
But. My life story: But. Only one thing followed But, and that was Mickey Price.
“But,” Tom continued, “the most interesting precedent we’ve found for this kind of assertive action is what happened during World War Two when President Roosevelt reached out to a man I believe you know, a man named Meyer Lansky. You mentioned your grandfather when we were playing tennis a few weeks ago. By any chance, while you were growing up, did you meet Mr. Lansky, who was supposedly a partner of Mr. Price in Cuba?”
“Of course. My grandfather and he are good friends.”
“What about you and Mr. Lansky?”
I felt my heart skip in my chest. Was I under investigation? Was the Secret Service about to kick the door down and shout, “Spread-eagle, reprobate!?”
“Uh, Tom, I’m not sure where this is going. Am I in trouble here?”
“No, no, absolutely not, Jonah,” Tom said in a way that struck me as being earnest. “I was wondering if you knew Mr. Lansky well enough to speak with him about this.”
“Well, it’s not like I could just call him myself,” I said. “He’s like my grandfather; he’s not big on the phone. Besides, what would I talk to him about?”
“Fair enough. Were you aware of Mr. Lansky’s work with the navy in World War Two to help look out for Nazis on the New York waterfront?”
“Nazis on the New York waterfront? No.” I laughed a little.
“The Nazis sank hundreds of U.S. ships off the coast of New York. The navy thought the Germans had spies on the waterfront, but they couldn’t access it because the mob controlled the docks. Roosevelt demanded the navy do what was necessary to secure the ports, so they reached out to Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.”
The parallels were coming into focus: FDR played rough with Nazis; Reagan was considering playing rough with Muslim terrorists.
“Since Vietnam, Jonah, Americans don’t believe we have natural enemies. All conflicts are misunderstandings that can be medicated with a sober exchange of facts, or they’re perils that we Americans brought upon ourselves by our boorish aggression toward gentler souls. So, Jonah, given what the president may have to do to defend our country, the million-dollar question: Will you speak with Mr. Lansky about his service? Think about it like a school report with Mr. Lansky as your primary source.”
I shifted uneasily on the sofa and pushed down on the pillows on either side of me as if I was shoring up my balance, which I was.
“What do you hope he could tell you that wasn’t in government files?”
“For one thing, we don’t imagine Mr. Lansky told the government everything they needed to know when the war was over. Hell, they probably didn’t want to know. But most of what we want aren’t facts, but insights. The man has seen it all, Jonah, and no doubt he’s … I don’t know … proud, bitter, patriotic, angry. Whatever. His, you know, story.”
Tom closed his eyes, hard, for about ten seconds. “Between us, okay, I have no problem blasting these terrorist pricks straight to Allah, but I’m not going to advise the president to go on some crazy-ass holy war if it’s going to blow him up politically. Again, I’ll ask you: Will you talk to Lansky?”
“You may end up with a bubbameisah—”
Tom laughed. “What’s that?”
“It means a ‘grandma story,’ a wives’ tale or a myth. Here’s the thing, Tom … it’s not a question of will I, it’s a question of will he?”
“I get that. How would you try to make it happen?”
“I’d go to my grandfather. He’d have to reach out to Unc—Mr. Lansky.”
“Were you about to say uncle?” Tom asked. Grinning like a kid that had just slipped a whoopee cushion on the teacher’s chair. I knew I had made a mistake, but had nowhere to hide.
“I call him ‘Uncle Meyer,’ but that’s a Jewish thing. We’re not related.”
The cliché one always hears is “my life flashed before my eyes.” Mine was flashing now; however, it was not my past kicking like a chorus line across my pupils. It was my future. Here I was, an orphan, raised by a mobster in Atlantic City; I had slugged my way into the Ivy League, and at this moment only a thick wall separated me from the president of the United States.
I was being given an assignment. At some point in his career, hadn’t Tom Simmons been given a career-making challenge? I bet it didn’t involve interviewing one of the most powerful gangland figures America had ever known. Still, I was lucky to be here, I wanted to stay here, and, even more, someday I wanted to be a man like Tom Simmons, or the guy on the other side of this wall.
I remember Mickey once telling me that I should never tell anyone with power what couldn’t be done; always tell them what could be. Sure, I didn’t like that my big break involved the very thing I wanted to obscure, but you can’t expect a custom fit in an off-the-rack world.
“I’ll need to go up to Atlantic City,” I said. “Talk to Mickey. Maybe I can get one of the other interns to cover for me here.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Tom said, standing up. “One more thing, Jonah: Don’t discuss this with anyone but me. Don’t write a memo with anybody’s name on it. Don’t update me on the telephone. And don’t let anyone discuss the White House’s interest in this on the phone.”
I was still seated when Tom told me these things, which was awkward, his looking down on me as if I had lime-green bird shit in my hair. I had a question on the tip of my tongue: What the hell was I going to say to pitch Uncle Meyer on this? But I thought better of it. Figure it the hell out, President Eastman. Life is improvisation.
“Tom,” I said walking toward the door. “It would really help if there is something in the government’s files about the World War Two stuff. You don’t approach men like Mickey Price or Meyer Lansky half-assed.”
Tom nodded. “I’ll get you something.”
“Now you go get me something.”
“I will, Tom. And I won’t discuss this with anybody here.”
“Of course you won’t, Jonah. Besides, who the hell would believe you?”
Copyright © 2011 by Eric Dezenhall
Excerpted from Devil Himself by Eric Dezenhall. Copyright © 2011 Eric Dezenhall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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