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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Mario Puzo (1920-1999)


American novelist, best-known for his Godfather saga. Puzo's novel stayed on The New York Times' best-seller list for sixty-seven weeks. This work had a deep impact on American society through its film adaptation, and the saying "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" has became a cliché. However, Puzo always claimed that he had never met a gangster in his life before writing his cynical bestseller.

"Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself. It was not necessary that he be your friend, it was not even important that you had no means with which to repay him. Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, now matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man's troubles to his heart. And he would let nothing stand in the way to a solution of that man's woe. His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of "Don," and sometimes the more affectionate salutation of "Godfather."

Mario Puzo was born into an immigrant family in New York City in the area known as "Hell's Kitchen". Both of his parents, Antonio and Maria Le Conti Puzo, were illiterate immigrants from Avellino, a town outside Naples. His father worked as a railway trackman for the New York Central Railroad. Puzo's mother had four children from a previous marriage; her first husband had been killed in a dokcs accident. At one time or another Puzo and his brothers also worked for the railroad. "But everybody hated their jobs except my oldest brother who had a night shift and spent most of his working hours sleeping in freight cars," Puzo recalled. ('Choosing a Dream' by Mario Puzo, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1999)

When Puzo was in his early teen, his father deserted the family and they moved to a housing project in the Bronx. His brother Antionio was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized. The discovery of public libraries and the world of literature led Puzo in the direction of writing, although his mother wanted him to become a railroad clerk, and had no understanding of his omnivorous reading. After graduating from Commerce High School, Puzo worked as a switchboard attendant for the railroad.

During World War II Puzo served in the US Air Force stationed in East Asia and Germany. For his combat service, he earned numerous decorations, though he never fired a shot – he had poor eyesight. After the war he stayed in Germany as a civilian public relations man for the Air Force. Puzo then studied at the New School for Social Research, New York, and at Columbia University. During this period he took classes in literature and creative writing. Puzo admired Tolstoy, Dickens, Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky. His first published story, 'The Last Christmans', appeared in American Vanguard in 1950. Puzo worked for 20 years as an administrative assistant in government offices in New York and overseas. In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske, whom he had met in Germany; they had three sons and two daughters. After Erika's death in 1978, her nurse, Carol Gino, became Puzo's companion.

At the age of 35, Puzo published his first book, Dark arena (1955). The novel dealt with the relationship between Walter Mosca, a tough and embittered ex-GI, and Hella, a German native, his mistress. Hella dies of an infection, denied the drugs that would have saved her, and Mosca avenges her. From 1963 on Puzo worked as a free lance journalist and writer. He contributed to men's magazines, among them Stag and Male, and published book reviews, stories, and articles in such journals as Redbook, Holiday, Book World, and the New York Times. His second novel, Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) followed one family of Italian immigrants from the late 1920s through World War II. The plot centered round an Italian peasant woman, a twice-widowed matriarch Lucia, her perception of the 'American dream,' and juxtaposed her honest and determined progress with that of a corrupt climber.

Neither of Puzo's first two books gained financial success, though both received good reviews. "I didn't believe in religion or love or women or men," Puzo said of his life as a "failed" or "undiscovered" novelist. "I didn't believe in society or philosophy. But I believed in art for forty-five years. It gave me comfort I found in no other place." (The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became "Our Gang" by Christian K. Messenger, 200, p. 4)

Puzo's fourth work, The Runaway Summer of David Shaw (1966), was a children's book. After an expensive medical emergency – a gallbladder attack – Puzo decided to write a novel that would also be a commercial success. While working in pulp journalism, he had heard Mafia anecdotes and begand to collect material on the East Coast branches of the Cosa Nostra.

"A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns."

The themes of love, crime, family bondage, Old World morals – including the concept of individual honour – were further developed in Godfather (1969), Puzo's international breakthrough novel. Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth," Puzo said years later, "in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at that time. The Don's courage and loyalty came from her; his humanity came from her." (Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge by John Gennari, 2017, p. 69)

With this work Puzo achieved his financial goals, but he also said that he wrote below his gifts. The central character, Don Corleone, is a sentimental bandit, individualist and ruthless scourge inside a tightly structured crime syndicate. Along with Captain Ahab, Norman Bates, Joker, and Hannibal Lecter, Don Corleone is one of the greatest American fictional villains. His values are at the same anti-social and those of a bourgeois person; he is a conservative fundamentalist and his illicit activities spread corruption and violence. The Corleones family layer says, "Italians have a little joke, that the world is so hard a man must have to fathers to look after him, and that's why they have Godfathers." Puzo describes Don Corleone's rise among the underworld bosses into power, and how family values are transferred from one generation to the next and how they change under social pressure. Puzo also referred to real-life events and persons, but in general the historical frame remains mostly in the background. One of the characters had similarities with the famous singer Frank Sinatra, who verbally attacked the author in a restaurant in 1972.

Puzo's international bestseller was also adapted into films. Noteworthy, many who have seen them, have never read the book. Director Francis Ford Coppola did not like the book at first, but his Godfather and Godfather Part II, received several Oscars, including best picture and best script (written by Puzo and Coppola). The production was beset with difficulties. Before shooting began, the Italian-American Civil Rights League held a rally in Madison Square Garden and raised $600 000 towards attempts to stop the film. Finally Coppola agreed to eliminate the words "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the screenplay. Coppola's unlinear narrative technique and flashbacks in Godfather II puzzled critics. He cut back and forth between the late fifties and the late 1890s and early 1900s. Robert De Niro ais the young Vito is an immigrant in New York, and Michael (Al Pacino), his son, gets mixed up with the downfall of Batista's Cuba. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times (December 13, 1974): "It's a Frankenstein's monster stitched together from leftover parts. It talks. It moves in fits and starts but it has no mind of its own... Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film, but like many people who have nothing to say, Part II won't shut up... Looking very expensive but spiritually desperate, Part II has the air of a very long, very elaborate revue sketch."

The third part (1990), which was not based on the original book, was written by the director Coppola and Puzo, starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, and Eli Wallach. Coppola's well-made film was a self-conscious mafia opera but did not find the critical or commercial success of the earlier pictures. The story was set in 1979, Pacino is now an aged don who wants to leave the world of crime behind.

Compared to the movies, the book was less romanticized and it had more graphic sex and violence. Concerning the portrayal of women, feminist readers have seen Puzo's work as reactionary, even misogynist. Coppola's attitude toward the corruption is more cutting and he draws parallels to contemporary politics: the Watergate scandal was simultaneously revealing the reach of criminality into the highest levels of government. In the film, civil servants and Cardinals of Vatican are as tough negotiators as the mobsters.

In the mid-1970s, Puzo worked on the scripts of Superman 1 and 2. His next novel after Godfather was Fools Die (1978) set in Las Vegas, Hollywood, Tokyo, and New York during the 1950s and 1960s. The protagonist is a dishonest fiction writer who considers himself a modern-day magician. Eventually Merlyn writes a bestseller that becomes a hugely profitable movie. May readers found the work aimless and dull. The Sicilian (1984) was based on the life of Salvatore Giuliano, the so-called Robin Hood of Sicily.

The Fourth K (1991) was a global political thriller in the spirit of Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follet. In The Last Don (1996) Puzo returned to the world of Godfathers. The head of the most powerful Mafia family in the country, Don Clericuzio, decides to make his enterprises legal, and the story follows how the don's plan for his family future succeeds. Clerucuzio's daughter Rose Marie marries a member of the enemy family; she gives birth to a son who grows up into a rough man. Other central characters are Pippi De Lena, a hitman, and his son, Cross. Puzo died from heart failure on July, 1999, at his home in Long Island, after completing his final organized crime book, Omerta. This work came out in July 2000. Puzo depicts a family whose members represent the legitimate world and organized crime. Finally the right and the wrong side of the law come into conflict.

His last years Puzo spent collecting material and writing The Family, dealing with the Borgias, masters of intrigues and one of the most influential families in Renaissance Italy. The book was completed by his longtime companion, Carol Gino. "The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it -- the very qualities that always raised Puzo's work to a higher plane. Neither exists here." (William Heffernan in The Washington Post, January 6, 2002)

Puzo was 58 old when he met Gino; she was 37, twice married, and a feminist. "In the time we spent together, he taught me much more about life, love, power and writing than I had ever hopes to learn," Gino said in her book of memoir, Me and Mario: Love, Power & Writing with Mario Puzo, Author of The Godfather (2018). She tells that Puzo used an old black metal Underwood or Royal typerwriter; he hated computers: "If it knows how to spell, it can learn how to plot, and I can't write with something in my room trying to out plot me." 

For further reading: The Immigrant Experience, ed. by T.C. Wheeler (1971); The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (1972); The Italian-American Novel by Rose B. Green (1974); New York and the Literary Imagination: the City in Twentieth Century Fiction and Drama by Edward Margolies (2008); The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became "Our Gang" by Christian K. Messenger (2002); 'Vito Corleone: The Godfather' by Dinah Roe, in Books, edited by Lucy Daniel (2007); 'Mario Puzo's The Godfather: Immigrants' Home Country Reterritorialised in the US' by Irina Kabanova, in Topographies of popular culture, edited by Maarit Piipponen, Markku Salmela (2016); Me and Mario: Love, Power & Writing with Mario Puzo, Author of The Godfather by Carol Gino (2018); The Godfather and Sicily: Power, Honor, Family, and Evil by Raymond Angelo Belliotti (2021)

Selected bibliography:

  • Dark Arena, 1955
    - Musta areena (suom. Jyrki Lindström, 1975)
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, 1965
    - Mamma Lucia (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1972)
    - The Fortunate Pilgrim, TV mini-series (1988), prod. Carlo & Alex Ponti, Rete Europa, dir. by Stuart Cooper, starring Sophia Loren, Edward James Olmos, John Turturro
  • The Runaway Summer of David Shaw, 1966
  • The Godfather, 1969
    - Kummisetä (suom. Pekka Hakala, 1971)
    - Films: Godfather (1972), dir. by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Marion Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, music Nino Rota. The film depicts events, when the Mafia's New York head dies of old age, and his son takes over reluctantly but later learns how to kill. Godfather Part II (1974), dir. by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall. Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro. In 1958, Michael Corleone reflects on the problems of himself and his father before him. Godfather Part III (1990), dir. by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia. Eli Wallach, Bridget Fonda, written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Operatic tale, where Michael Corleone attempts to become a legitimate businessman while grooming his brother's violent and illegitimate son as his successor
  • The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, 1972
  • Earthquake, 1974, (script, with George Fox)
    - Prod. Universal Pictures, The Filmakers Group, dir. by Mark Robson, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene
  • Fools Die, 1975
    - Narrit kuolevat (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1979)
  • Inside Las Vegas, 1977
  • A Time to Die, 1982 (story: 'Six Graves to Munich')
    - Film prod. Carnation International Pictures (CIP), screenplay John F. Goff, Matt Cimber, Willy Russell, dir. Matt Cimber, Joe Tornatore, starring Rex Harrison, Rod Taylor, Edward Albert, Ralf Vallone
  • The Sicilian, 1984
    - Sisilialainen (suom. Aulis Rantanen, 1984)
    - Film: The Sicilian (1987), prod. Gladden Entertainment, dir. by Michael Cimino, screenplay by Steve Shagan, starring Christopher Lambert, Terence Stamp, Barbara Sukowa; Gore Vidal lost his suit to receive screenplay credit for the film. "I don’t need a screen credit or money or publicity. But it’s my script and I like it and I want my name on it." ('Vidal Sues to Get Credit on 'Sicilian'' by Roderick Mann, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1987)
  • The Fourth K, 1991
    - Neljäs K (suom. Hanna-Liisa Timonen, Tuija Rovamo, 1991)
  • Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (screenplay with others, also the story)
    - Film: Prod. Quinto Centenario, screenplay John Briley, Cary Bates, Mario Puzo, dir. John Glen, starring Tom Selleck, Marlon Brando, Georges Corrafe, Rachel Ward
  • The Last Don, 1996
    - Viimeinen kummisetä (suom. Pirkko Biström, 1996)
    - Films: The Last Don, TV mini-series (1997), dir. Graeme Clifford, starring Danny Aiello, Joe Mantegna and Daryl Hannah; The Last Don II, TV mini-series (1998), dir. Graeme Clifford, starring Patsy Kensit, Jason Gedrick and Kirstie Alley
  • Omerta, 2000
    - Omertà: vaikenemisen laki (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 2000)
  • The Family, 2001 (completed by Carol Gino)

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