by | Jan 12, 2021 | Mystery Minute | 9 comments

by Z.J. Czupor

He Did it For the Money

In 1920, he was born to poor, illiterate Italian immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood 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 his family’s 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 stationed in Germany and India as a public relations officer. After the war, he returned to New York and attended the New School for Social Research and Columbia University.

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 similar reviews, but only earned him $3,000. The New York Times called the latter novel a “small classic.”

Still in need of money, he found work writing and editing for a line of pulp magazines like Male, True Action and Swank,where he wrote adventure stories based on real events, such as WWII battles.

In the late 1960s, Mario Puzo (1920-1999) was married with five kids and living in Long Island. He was virtually broke. His eldest child, Tony, said, “His father liked to do things first-class even though we only had fifth-class money. He ran up a lot of debt.”

Puzo’s editor told him his last novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, might have done better if it had more Mafia in it but he ignored the advice for he did not want to write about organized crime. 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. 

“I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist…It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce* once advised,” Puzo wrote in his memoir. 

So Puzo wrote a ten-page outline for a novel based entirely on research. He called it The Godfather; a fictional account of 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. 

The advance was a strong motivation—an offer he couldn’t refuse—so he set out to turn his outline into a novel. In 1965, 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 often go downstairs and play loud games. Tony said his father would say, “Keep it down. I’m writing a best-seller.” 

While he worked on The Godfather, Puzo was also writing three stories a month for Magazine Management, along with book reviews for The New York Times, Book World, Time magazine, and a children’s book The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw (Platt & Munk, 1966). Puzo said, “I must have knocked out millions of words. I tell ya, it’s absolutely the best training a writer could get, to work on those magazines. You did everything.”

He finally 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 after he turned the novel into his publisher, he was not happy with the finished manuscript and thought he would do one more rewrite when he returned to America. 

But he was in deep debt. Writing in his memoir, The Godfather Papers and Other Obsessions, he admitted owing $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 did not know that when they came home Puzo planned to sell the house. 

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 his manuscript, figuring his publisher wouldn’t like it and would take the money back.

Published in 1969, 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 catapulted The Godfather into 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. 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.”

Following on that success, Puzo wrote screenplays for the first two Superman films (1978, 1980) and an uncredited version of The Cotton Club (1984).

On his nationally syndicated television show on CNN, Larry King Live, King asked Puzo, “Why do we like the family Mafia theme so much?” Puzo answered, “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.”

He added, “The Godfather was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel.” 

Despite the novel’s success, Puzo still considered The Fortunate Pilgrim his best work. In his memoir, he wrote, “The book (The Godfather) got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I’d written it better.”

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.

He continued to live in the same house in Bay Shore, Long Island, the one he almost had to sell. But he did remodel it and doubled it in size.

Puzo was born poor and never felt like he had enough money. When he died of heart failure in 1999, at the age of 78, his net worth was around $20 million.

*Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925-1966), better known as Lenny Bruce, was a stand-up counterculture comedian, satirist, and social critic.

Some of Mario Puzo’s most famous lines are:

· “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.” (based on Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”)

· “Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you can’t start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.”

· “Moodiness is really concentration. Accept it because concentration is the key to writing.”

· “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.”

Thank you, Z.J. Czupor for bringing the genius behind The Godfather back to life! Readers, do you have a favorite tale written by or about Mario Puzo?
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  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a fascinating recap of an incredible author's life and challenges. I loved reading about the origins of THE GODFATHER — and all the years it took to reach such heights in the publishing world. Thanks for this great post….Karna Small Bodman

  2. Lisa Black

    My husband’s favorite movie! I have seen it more times than I can count!

  3. Jenny Milchman

    "Keep it down, I'm writing a bestseller." Words to live–and write–by! Terrific post.

  4. ZJ

    What struck me most about Puzo is his "stick-to-it-iveness." He worked on his craft beyond great risk and persevered. –ZJ

  5. ZJ

    Yes, I love that comment of his. I also found it interesting that he wished he could have written THE GODFATHER better. — ZJ

  6. ZJ

    Haha. Your husband has good taste! — ZJ

  7. Michelle Rodenborn

    I so enjoyed this portrait of Mario Puzo. I had little knowledge of his personal story, which is very inspiring. Love that, “if you can’t start the day fresh, get ride of the wife, (or whoever/whatever’s) in your way…” Thanks for this article.

  8. Linda Charles

    Thank you for this article – I really enjoyed it.

  9. Kalisha Buckhanon

    Well my last agent you know swore by this novel and Mr. Puzo's case for all writers and he was definitely on to something for us all there. It just reaches a point…