Mario Puzo was, by his own admission, “going downhill fast.” The only thing that wasn’t clear was which of his vices would kill him first.
Maybe it would be the food: pasta and other Italian fare he’d grown up with; Chinese takeout, always served with a side of spaghetti; late-night snacks that had him struggling with diabetes and fighting off heart disease.
Maybe it would be the gambling: a lifelong addiction that began with pitching pennies as a kid, graduated to poker, and culminated with betting on the ponies and ball games, bets that had him constantly in debt to loan sharks and borrowing money from friends and family.
Or maybe it would be the writing: the endless drudgery and humiliatingly low wages for literary fiction, the kind that took forever to write well, to which the market responded with polite reviews and thin sales, nothing near enough to support his growing, hungry family and his even more insatiable gambling habit.
By the time Joseph Valachi, the mid-level mobster turned F.B.I. informant on all things Cosa Nostra, testified before Congress, in 1963, Puzo was $20,000 in debt, soon to be rejected by his publisher. None of the bookies he frequented would have given odds on him becoming one of the best-selling authors in America, setting a new record for paperback rights, and co-writing screenplays that would lead to eight Academy Awards.
Hell’s Kitchen to Hollywood
Puzo grew up poor, in a tenement flat in Hell’s Kitchen, then the roughest part of the city, its name a testament to its depravity. But his story, like those he spun, had its roots in the Italian countryside.
His mother, Maria Le Conti, grew up in the hills outside Naples. Her family was so poor that Maria was not allowed to even sample the ham produced from the lone pig the family slaughtered each year—it was far too precious to eat themselves.
Fleeing the poverty of her homeland, Maria moved to New York, and on October 15, 1920, her son Mario, the future writer whose parents were both “illiterate, as were their parents before them,” was born.
Soon there were seven kids in the cramped apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, overlooking the stockyards of the New York Central Railroad, which Puzo would remember as “absolutely blooming with stinking boxcars freshly unloaded of cattle and pigs for the city slaughterhouse.”
During Prohibition, the neighborhood was overrun by illegal distilleries and ruled by gangs, which would evolve into organized-crime families. By the time the Great Depression arrived, Hell’s Kitchen was known as the “most dangerous area on the American continent.”
Once, Mario’s school asked students to bring in a can of food to help feed the poor. “The teachers didn’t seem to realize we were the poor,” he recounted in a 1971 essay entitled “Choosing a Dream: Italians in Hell’s Kitchen.” “We didn’t, either.” So each of the Hell’s Kitchen kids “went out and stole a can of food from a local grocery store.”
Crime paid. It was the route—for some, the only route—for the poor, stuck in dead-end jobs with lousy pay, to move up to the middle class. And yet, surrounded by opportunities to enrich himself through crime, Puzo remained on the straight and narrow. “I had every desire to go wrong, but I never had a chance,” he wrote. “The Italian family structure was too formidable.”
The toughest, most formidable person in his life was his mother. Maria was known to brandish a policeman’s club with which she threatened to discipline her rowdy brood. Puzo said that without his mother, he never could have created Don Corleone, much of whose voice and language came straight from Maria.
“Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother,” Puzo wrote in the preface to the 1996 reissue of his novel. “I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time.”
She even provided him with some of the tale’s grislier material. “Many parts are true stories my mother told me,” Puzo told Life magazine. “The man holding his hat to catch the blood from his cut throat, for one.”
Family life proved difficult for the gambling, food, and action addict who aspired to write. Puzo, who married Erika Lina Broske in 1947, took a job as a civil-service clerk at a Manhattan armory. On the side, Puzo pursued his dream of writing: he took university classes in literature and creative writing, and spent nights and weekends trying to turn all the observations and notes he had gathered into a novel.
What small change he managed to make, he gambled away. “He liked to do things first-class, even though we only had fifth-class money,” his son Anthony told the New York Post. It was a vicious cycle: His gambling, and the debts he accrued, forced him to work longer hours, which in turn robbed him of the time he might otherwise have spent writing.
On Christmas Eve 1955, Puzo suffered what he would call a “severe gallbladder attack,” which drove him into the cold New York night alone in a taxi in excruciating pain. He directed the cab to the Veterans Administration hospital on East 23rd Street. Upon arriving, he opened the taxi door and stepped onto the street.
Just then, the pain struck. “I got out and fell into the gutter,” he remembered. Writhing in agony, his mind turned to his failed ambitions. Here I am, a published writer, he thought, and I am dying like a dog.
Faceup in the gutter, he made a vow.
“That’s when I decided I would be rich and famous.”
It was time, Puzo concluded, to give up on art. It was time to write for money. “My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up,” he wrote. If he was going to spend his life in the gutter, he might as well make use of the trash.
“My father knew he could write a bestseller,” said his eldest son, Anthony. “He was an avid reader [who] learned there was a formula for writing a bestselling book.”
Soon, Puzo’s office and home were awash in research material: transcripts of congressional testimony, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and books about the Mob. “I have a picture of him sitting in a chair with not one but six volumes in his lap, wetting his finger and taking ‘tastes’ of each one,” Bruce Jay Friedman would say.
Puzo quickly zeroed in on Frank Costello, the crime boss who, when arrested and put on trial, refused to answer questions or even show his face on television. With his raspy voice, his easy access to politicians, and his disdain for drug dealing, Costello was the clay from which Puzo would fashion his protagonist, the all-powerful leader of the top New York Mob family.
Writing fast and furiously, he cobbled together a 10-page outline. It would be a story of the Mob, yes, but told through the prism of a Mob family, whose name he took from one of the most notorious Mafia-infested towns in Sicily—Corleone—which he came to know through The Honoured Society, a 1964 nonfiction book about the Sicilian Mafia.
There were tough-talking gangsters, guns, and gambling. And, at every turn, sex. Because, as Puzo had learned, sex sells.
When the outline was done, Puzo began shopping it around to publishers. “Nobody would take me,” he complained. “I was ready to forget novels except maybe as a puttering hobby for my old age.”
Then he met Saul Braun, a young editor just out of Yale, who was working for G. P. Putnam’s Sons publishers. To his surprise, the publishers gave him the go-ahead. “They also gave me a $5,000 advance, and I was on my way, just like that. Almost-almost, I believed that publishers were human.”
In September 1966, Puzo wrote to the I.R.S., requesting a three-month extension on paying taxes he owed. “I am now a freelance writer and expect advance on book which has been contracted for,” Puzo assured the government. “Will use that money to pay tax.” He sat down at his cherished 1965 Olympia manual typewriter in the basement of his home, in Merrick, New York, and began to dream.
Puzo had been around mobsters all his life, but he’d always observed them from afar. He had “never met a real honest-to-God gangster,” he would say, but his fertile imagination, fueled by his research, was more than able to conjure up their world, maybe even a world bigger and more grandiose than the one they actually inhabited. He wouldn’t so much write chapters as “accumulate notes. Then I come back and try to fix it up, put hooks in it so you can go from one place to another.”
His gangster tale would be filled with hooks, snagging the reader from the first sentence and keeping them hooked until the final word. It would be the story of a Mafia don, Vito Corleone, “a man to whom everybody came for help,” and his three sons.
As for plotlines, all Puzo had to do was draw from his extensive research on the Mob. The wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter was said to resemble Joseph Valachi’s in 1932, complete with live entertainment and envelopes stuffed with “gifts” for the bride, noted film historian Peter Cowie.
The scene where the Godfather is gunned down while buying fruit from a grocery in the Bronx parallels the hit on Mob boss Frank Scalice in 1957, and the assassination of Moe Greene in the movie would mirror that of the crime boss Albert Anastasia, who was shot while sitting in a barber’s chair in the Park Sheraton Hotel that same year.
The manual typewriter clattered with authentic characters and irresistible themes: the Corleone compound (“modeled on the legend of the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port,” wrote M. J. Moore in his 2019 biography, Mario Puzo: An American Writer’s Quest); the subplot of Johnny Fontane (“a variation on the legendary rise, fall and renaissance in the career of Frank Sinatra in the early 1950s”), the dramatic turning point in which Michael Corleone blows away the drug-dealing Sollozzo and the crooked police captain Mark McCluskey in an Italian restaurant and becomes the heir apparent to his father’s throne (“as well as the subplot detailing Michael’s exile in Sicily,” Moore added).
With his structure set, the writing raced and rolled, fiction that the world would accept as fact.
Puzo looked for inspiration anywhere he could find it. One evening in 1966, the author Gay Talese, then a reporter for The New York Times, and his wife, Nan, soon to be a celebrated publisher of some of the greatest authors of her time, went to dinner at the Long Island home of Talese’s aunt, Susan Pileggi. That night, assembled at the table, sat the future of Mob literature: Talese, who would write the organized-crime classic Honor Thy Father; his first cousin Nick Pileggi, who would write Wiseguy (the basis for the film Goodfellas); and Puzo, who was in the process of writing The Godfather.
Talese had met Puzo after reading The Fortunate Pilgrim. The New York Times reporter had been conducting research in Hell’s Kitchen when he had “come across Mario’s wonderful descriptions of that neighborhood in his book,” he said. The two Italian American writers met for drinks and dinner and became fast friends.
Now, sitting down to dinner on Long Island, Puzo’s eyes fell on Talese’s wife. Dark-haired and attractive, Nan Irene Ahearn Talese possessed the kind of Upper East Side sophistication that would have struck an immigrant’s kid raised in Hell’s Kitchen as the epitome of class.
The daughter of a banker, she attended Rye Country Day School, in New York, and became a Westchester Cotillion debutante who bucked her family’s expectations when she married Talese, the son of an Italian-immigrant tailor from Ocean City, New Jersey. (“Nan,” her mother pleaded with her, “you don’t know what it’s like to live with a writer.”)
At dinner, Puzo listened with rapt attention to her cultured speech, observed her refined mannerisms, and reveled in her understated beauty. He had found his Kay, the embodiment of culture and class who marries Michael Corleone over the objections of his family:
They were not impressed with her. She was too thin, she was too fair, her face was too sharply intelligent for a woman, her manner too free for a maiden. Her name, too, was outlandish to their ears: she called herself Kay Adams. If she had told them that her family had settled in America two hundred years ago and her name was a common one, they would have shrugged.
It would be years before Puzo confessed the source of his inspiration to Talese. “He later told me—after The Godfather was published—that his character Kay is based on my wife, Nan,” Talese said, recounting the story for the first time. “She went to convent schools, is of Irish Protestant background, and in marrying me—a kind of Pacino-looking guy—she definitely was descending in a social-status sense.”
Week after week, month after month, Puzo banged away at his typewriter in his basement, haunted by the Corleones and surrounded by packing boxes and a pool table and the deafening sounds of his five screaming kids. “Keep it down,” he would yell at them, “I’m writing a bestseller!”
In July 1968, Mario Puzo turned in his rough draft of The Godfather to his publisher—not because he was proud of the work, but because, as always, he was broke. “I needed the final $1,200 advance payment from Putnam to take my wife and kids to Europe,” he wrote. His wife, Erika, hadn’t been back to her native Germany since coming to New York in 1949, and Puzo had promised he would take her and the children on a vacation to Europe.
“Suddenly, one day he brought in the whole manuscript,” his Putnam editor Bill Targ recounted for True magazine in 1971, “a rough draft but complete.”
“Goodbye,” said the author. “I’m taking my family to Europe tomorrow.”
Targ felt sure that was a veiled request for cash. “But Mario, we can’t give you that much money,” he said.
Puzo assured him he had “plenty of credit cards.”
“Mario, the day of reckoning must come,” said Targ.
The Godfather will take care of it. “Or I’ll sell my house,” said Puzo. Credit cards in hand, Puzo, Erika, and their four children went straight to the airport. “I need six first-class seats to Rome,” he told the attendant at the Alitalia ticket counter, according to Life photographer Robert Peterson. Informed that there were only two first-class seats left, Puzo slid $200 across the counter. “I found four more seats for you,” the attendant informed him.
Puzo and his family flew off to Europe—London, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Wiesbaden—where Puzo financed the trip (and the gambling) by cashing $500 checks against his American Express card.
As he usually did when he had access to cash, Puzo headed straight for the casinos. He proceeded to gamble away his advance at the best resorts on the French Riviera. “Things did not look good,” said his son Anthony.
“I had failed as a father,” Puzo later wrote. “I wasn’t worried. If worse came to worse we could always sell our house. Or I could go to jail. Hell, better writers had gone to jail. No sweat.”
When the family got home, Puzo owed the credit-card companies more than $8,000. “I was in debt up to my ass and I had no job,” he admitted.
As for the novel, Puzo felt it was yet another failure. If he had ever thought he was writing a masterpiece, he said, he would have written it better. He felt The Godfather was just another example of what he had always done: dreaming up worlds for a paycheck. Instead, his agent Candida Donadio informed Puzo that Putnam had just gotten an offer of $375,000 for the paperback rights to The Godfather.
Puzo was dumbfounded: $375,000! At the time, the record for a paperback sale was $400,000. Puzo didn’t believe it. He had every reason for doubt. Eight publishers had rejected his outline for The Godfather.
That was when Targ gave him the news: Clyde Taylor had closed the deal that morning. Fawcett had bought the paperback rights to The Godfather for a record-breaking $410,000.
According to his 1972 memoir, The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, Puzo called his mother, the fiery, endlessly quotable Maria Le Conti Puzo, whose spirit and speech had fueled her son’s depiction of Don Corleone. He told her his book had sold for $410,000.
“Forty thousand dollars?” she blurted.
No, Puzo told her. Four hundred and ten thousand dollars.
“Did you hear?,” Puzo asked his older sister over the phone.
“You got forty thousand dollars for the book,” she said flatly. “Mama called me.”
“No!” Puzo said, exasperated. “It was four hundred ten thousand dollars.”
When he called his mother back to ask how she could have made such a mistake after so many explanations, she scoffed. “I no maka a mistake,” she explained. “I don’t wanta tell her.”
The next day, Puzo called Putnam and asked Targ for a $100,000 advance. Driving back to the city, he picked up the check from the publisher and took it to the bank where he had so often bounced checks on his overdrawn account.
“I brought the check to the guy who used to sneer at my overdrafts and reluctantly cash my paychecks and remind me about my late payment,” Puzo told his colleague Jules Siegel. “It was so satisfying to watch him grovel.”
He paid off his debts, his agent’s commission, and the 10 percent cut to his brother.
After only three months, Puzo was back at Putnam asking for another $100,000. Bill Targ was stunned. What had happened to the $100,000 he had just given Puzo?
“A hundred grand doesn’t last forever,” Puzo said.
Mark Seal is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of many nonfiction books, including The Man in the Rockefeller Suit and Wildflower, the tragic story of slain Kenyan wildlife activist and filmmaker Joan Root