Dean of the Dons
For the first time in this life, Mario Puzo is doing the whole ball of wax--book signings, TV appearances and interviews--to promote his new Mafia novel, “The Last Don.” The reason for his sudden shift on publicity? Simple.
“I got nothing better to do,” he said. “[Random House] convinced me you gotta do some marketing so they’ll know your book is out there. I always used to think, ‘If you write a good book, they’ll find it, they’ll buy it.’ But now, it’s occurred even to me that you sorta got to take a hand in it.”
Don Corleone wouldn’t be caught dead discussing the family business in the light, bright, airy room where Mario Puzo works. The 75-year-old author of “The Godfather” is wearing a thigh-length green polo shirt and baggy sweat pants. He chews on an enormous stogie but never lights up.
Puzo is a man who has remained in the shadows throughout his long career as a novelist and screenwriter, only rarely speaking to the press.
“I believed in an old-fashioned tradition: That a writer should be mysterious, that the book should speak for itself, that publicity was vulgar,” Puzo said. “When I was growing up, the biggest insult that you could throw at a writer was that he would sell his book to the movies. That was a fighting insult.”
Puzo’s slowness in absorbing modern marketing techniques certainly doesn’t apply to “The Last Don.” The novel, which has earned generally positive reviews, brings together three AAA-bonds of commercial success: Hollywood, Las Vegas and the Mafia. To this Puzo has added a dash of romance and a dollop of mob assassinations. The author has wisely topped it all off with a Happy Ending.
The don is Don Clericuzio, the ruthless head of the most powerful Mafia family in America. Don Corleone might have your legs broken, but with Don Clericuzio, forget it, you’re dead. Don Clericuzio’s grand plan is to make his family completely legitimate.
The protagonist is the don’s grand-nephew, Cross De Lena, who manages the family’s interest in a Las Vegas casino-hotel. Cross falls in love with America’s most beautiful movie star, Athena Aquitane. Unfortunately, the don’s brutal grandson, Dante, is scheming to bump off Cross.
Well, you can see what’s brewing here. The road to that Happy Ending is paved with corpses, sex, gambling, high finance and the sleazy shenanigans of Hollywood studio executives.
All this from a man who declares: “Myself, I would hate to live in such a world, a world without law. But I take a view--it’s my character’s view. In my own personal view, everybody should get the electric chair, everybody should go to jail if they do something. Unless they’re friends of mine.”
Mario Puzo’s world is a modest suburban home in Bay Shore, Long Island, the land of the tract house. The only concession to his “Godfather” wealth is the addition of several rooms and a tennis court that is squeezed close to the house. Puzo’s one-acre lot (“It’s a big acre,” he says) is large in comparison to his neighbors’, but the studio executives, casino czars and Mafia bosses who people the pages of “The Last Don” would surely turn up a collective nose at the author’s digs.
“My wife didn’t want to move,” Puzo explained. “Big money came in and I wanted to move to California. But she didn’t. It’s funny how your mind works. I thought, what if we move to California, and she gets cancer? It’d be my fault. She got cancer anyway. She died. Imagine if I’d moved to California. I’d have been convinced it was my fault because I made her move to California.”
(His German-born wife, Erika, died of cancer in 1978. They have five children.)
Puzo works at a small desk in a spacious upstairs room of his home. For 50 years, he has banged out nearly all of his prose on an old black Olympia typewriter that he purchased in Germany after World War II. The man who sold 13 million copies of “The Godfather” is, by his own account, an “undisciplined” writer.
“I write in streaks,” he said. “I will write a lot for two months and then I won’t write anything for a month or two. I’m not the kind of guy who puts in four hours a day and quits. If I’m going to write, I’ll hang around the typewriter all day. It’s like hanging around the phone waiting for a call.”
When he’s in a writing mood, Puzo gets up about 9 a.m. and reads the newspapers. Then he’ll work on the manuscript and write as ideas pop into his head. When he’s on a roll, he may not finish writing until 2 or 3 in the morning.
This is how his wife viewed the Puzo creative process: “My wife claimed that she’d never seen me writing. All she’d ever seen me do was lay back on the sofa and stare at the ceiling. I don’t know what it is. You sort of go into a trance.”
Puzo grew up in the poverty of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen during the Great Depression. His father was a laborer. His mother was illiterate. Puzo took up writing because of the encouragement he received from schoolteachers who recognized his talent. His family was less enthusiastic about his artistic pretensions.
“My mother was very fond of me but she despaired of my ever earning a living,” he recalled. “My family sent me to Commerce High School, where they taught you typing. Years later, I reproached my sister about it. I was the famous author who had won two Academy Awards. I said, ‘How could you send me to a commercial high school?’ My sister was very tough. She looked at me and said, ‘Because you were too dumb to go to regular high school.’ ”
World War II changed Puzo’s life. He served with the Army in Europe, where he found his wife and the material for his first novel, “The Dark Arena.” The book, published in 1955, was well received by critics but made no money.
Over the next nine years, Puzo crafted his finest work, “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” an autobiographical chronicle of Italian immigrant life in New York. “I was going to write a masterpiece,” he said. “Money didn’t enter into it.” The novel received much critical praise, and little else.
He worked as a government clerk to support his family. He also needed to write and pursue his favorite hobby.
“You’re a very busy man when you gamble,” he said. “You gotta get up in the morning to read the papers to see who you’re going to bet. At 4 o’clock you go to see your loan shark for money to bet. Then you gotta go up there again at 7 o’clock to bet the night games.”
Things began to look up in the 1960s, when Puzo began to write for men’s magazines. His attitude toward writing had changed as well. Now, he would write for money. A minor character in “The Fortunate Pilgrim” was the neighborhood Mafia hoodlum. Puzo’s publisher expressed a wish that the author had said more about the Mafia in the book. “The Godfather” was born. Puzo wrote a proposal for a Mafia novel that was turned down by four or five publishers before Putnam gave him $5,000 to do the book.
Puzo used his credit cards to take his family to Europe to celebrate the completion of the novel in 1969. The paperback rights were auctioned off while they were away.
“The day I arrived back from Europe I was either gonna have to sell my house to pay my debts or find an article to write for a lot of money,” he said. “I called my publisher and learned the bidding on the paperback had reached $415,000.”
It was Fat City from that point on. Puzo began pulling down tons of money as a screenwriter: “The Godfather,” “Godfather II,” “Superman,” “Superman II.” Eleven screenplays in all. He also banged out three novels. (The paperback rights to “Fools Die” sold for a then-astonishing $2.5 million in 1978.)
As Puzo tells the story, his relationship with Hollywood was one of powerful men who insisted on giving him large amounts of cash. He had no interest in writing the screenplay for “The Cotton Club” and therefore instructed his lawyer to demand $1 million. It didn’t work. He got the million.
“Why are they giving me all this money?” Puzo asked. “There’s something I don’t quite understand about Hollywood.”
Despite the deeply contemptuous view of Hollywood that emerges from the pages of “The Last Don,” Puzo says the movies are a good way to make a living.
“Script writing, compared to novel writing, is much less labor intensive,” he said. “I wrote scripts in two or three months. It takes me five years to write a novel. If I had discovered screenwriting first and been successful at it, I never would have written a novel.”
These days, Puzo spends most of his time at home reading. A heart attack four years ago has slowed his pace, keeping him off his tennis court and away from the gambling tables.
He tried his hand at a book on the Borgias, but the project didn’t get very far. His latest dream is to write the mother of all Mafia books--a sweeping novel that will recount the long history of the criminal organization.
“I’d like to get rid of the whole thing in one big novel,” he said. “I figure I’ll be dead before it’s finished. Finito. But I’m going to try. I’ve got nothing else to do.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.