Originally presented to Rocky Mountain Chapter, Mystery Writers of America, October 2019. You can find more here.

Money can be a motivating factor
In 1920, he was born to poor Italian immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. At the age of 12, he dropped out of school to get a job after his father deserted the family. He worked as a railroad switchboard attendant to help put food on the table. Later, he graduated from City College of New York and joined the US Army Air Force in WWII. Because of his poor eyesight, he was made into a public relations officer stationed in Germany and India. After the war, he attended the New School for Social Research and Columbia University in New York.

His first published work was a short story, “The Last Christmas” which appeared in American Vanguard (1950) and at the age of 28, he wrote his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955), which received fine reviews but only earned him $3,500. Ten years later, his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, got the same results, and only earned him $3,000.

He found work as a writer/editor for a line of pulp magazines like Male, True Action and Swank. Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics-fame, was writing just down the hall.

He was poor until he was 48. Never took a vacation. Money became very important to him. His editor told him that his last novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, might have done better if it had more Mafia in it but he didn’t want to write about the Mafia. He wrote two more undistinguished novels before he decided to put his highbrow literary goals aside and set out to write a novel with commercial appeal.

Mario Puzo (1920-1999) wrote a ten-page outline for a novel—called The Godfather (1969) about the Corleone crime family; whose son Michael takes the reins after his father is murdered—but his publisher passed.

Later, a friend arranged a meeting at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, where Mario regaled the editors for an hour with Mafia tales. They gave him the green light and a $5,000 advance.

Fast forward to the late 1960s, we find Mario married with five kids in Long Island. He’s virtually broke. According to his eldest child, Tony, his father “liked to do things first-class even though we only had fifth-class money. He ran up a lot of debt.”

Eventually, Mario began to write his Mafia novel. He retreated to his basement nook, a broom-closet-like space that had enough room for a desk, typewriter, and little more. While he wrote away, his five children would come downstairs and play loud games. Tony said his father would say, “Keep it down. I’m writing a best-seller.”

He finished the novel three years later in 1968 because he needed the final installment of his $5,000 advance to pay for his family’s planned vacation to Europe. Even though he turned the novel into his publisher, he wasn’t happy with the finished manuscript and thought he’d do one more rewrite when he returned.

But he was in deep debt. Writing in his memoir, The Godfather Papers and Other Obsessions, he admitted he owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. The Europe vacation would cost him more money than he had. His wife didn’t know that when they came home, they were going to have to sell the house. Fortunately, it never came to that.

Upon his return, he had lunch at the Algonquin Hotel with his editor Bill Targ and was stunned to learn that the publisher sold the paperback rights for $410,000 to Fawcett Publishing before it was released in hardback. Back then, the record for paperback rights was $10,000. Today, that $410,000 would equal more than $3 million. Puzo said he didn’t dare rewrite it then, figuring they wouldn’t like it and would take their money back.

The Godfather became a phenomenal success and remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for sixty-seven weeks, sold more than 20 million copies, and is still in print. Puzo then collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on the three screenplays that make up The Godfather film trilogy. The first two movies won nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay for Puzo. The films made The Godfather a worldwide phenomenon.

The novel and films had a huge cultural impact in that this was the first time, Italian Americans were depicted as three-dimensional characters and not just cardboard foreigners who spoke in heavy accents. Even mob figures of the era liked the film and said it was “on the money.”

Mario Puzo was never affiliated with the Mafia. He based his story entirely on research. Incidentally, the word “Mafia,” never appears in the film script. He said, “I never met a real, honest-to-god gangster. I knew the gambling world pretty good, but that’s all.”

He also wrote screenplays for the first two Superman films (1978, 1980) and The Cotton Club (1984).

In a live interview, Larry King once asked him why do we like the family Mafia theme so much? Puzo said, “Well, because it’s wishful thinking. I think everybody would like to have somebody that they could go to for justice, without going through the law courts and the lawyers, you know.”
He said, “The Godfather was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel.”

Mario Puzo wrote eleven novels: The Dark Arena (1955), The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw (1966), Six Graves to Munich (as Mario Cleri, 1967), The Godfather, (1969), Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984), The Fourth K (1990) and The Last Don (1996). His last two novels, Omerta (2000) and The Family (2001) were published posthumously. He also wrote three non-fiction books and ten short stories.

Puzo was born poor and never felt like he had enough money. When he died of heart failure in 1999, his net worth was considered to be around $20 million.


Some of Mario Puzo’s most famous lines

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

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

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, lies in its loyalty to each other.”

“What is past is past, never go back. Not for excuses. Not for justification, not for happiness. You are what you are, the world is what it is.”

“Behind every successful fortune; there is crime.”

“Actions defined a man; words were a fart in the wind.”

“Italians have a little joke, that the world is so hard a man must have two fathers to look after him, and that’s why they have godfathers.”