Saying Goodbye to Mario Puzo
By Jules Siegel
never knows what the mail will bring.
From: David Kipen, Books Editor, SF Chronicle
To: 'Jules Siegel' <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Friday, July 02, 1999 3:01 PM
i hate to tell you this, but mario puzo just died.
i seem to recall you two were acquainted.
We were more than acquaintances. We worked at
adjoining desks at Magazine Management Company in 1964-65. Bruce
Jay Friedman was the editorial director. They published dozens
of men's adventure magazines -- the kind of pulps with covers
of eight girls in bikinis with machinguns storming out of black
helicopters. I gave him some research materials on the Mafia
in Sicily -- Norman Lewis's book, The Honored Society,
among other items -- and he wrote a fictional adventure story
based on it -- presented as fact in the shamelessly corrupt
policy of the company's products. This went through the roof
on all the marketing survey categories -- they read it, remembered
it, liked it, wanted more of the same.
My girlfriend, Nina Watkins, was then reading
manuscripts for Saul Braun, who was running a $230,000 best
novel contest sponsored by movie producer Joe Levine, G. P.
Putnam's Sons and McCall's Magazine. They had been looking
for a winner for almost a year with no results that would satisfy
all the sponsors. Nina came home and said, "Mario could do it."
I passed this along to Mario with the advice that he should
write a novel about the Mafia. Mario knew Saul well, as he often
wrote for Magazine Management. Saul offered to try to keep the
contest open for another year if Mario could come up with a
Mario wrote a 5,000-word outline. William Targ,
Putnam editor in chief decided to forget about the contest and
he gave Mario a modest advance to write the book.
Stories I told Mario about my father, a petty
criminal, the gangster saint, immortalized in my memoir "Family
Secrets," influenced Mario's concept of Don Vito Corleone, in
the sense of his sensitivity and intelligence, and his love
of family and justice. Mario later told Camille Paglia that
Don Vito was based on his mother. I'm sure his mother was a
great woman, but my father was a criminal. Mario was a great
friend in many ways, but not the kind who would be capable of
the generosity required to acknowledge my influence. He often
said to me, "You have to write a novel about your father. If
you don't, I will." I urged him to do so. I knew very little
about my father and was stuck with a reality that resembled
Willie Loman too much to make a successful grand novel. Mario
was free to invent whatever he needed.
This is not to say that The Godfather and
Jimmy Siegel were all that directly connected. It was just a
matter of nuance. Before The Godfather, who knew that
criminals had families and believed in justice? The greatness
of The Godfather is that, except for the material derived
from The Honored Society and some Congressional hearings,
it is entirely a work of fiction, the invention of a great story
teller. It's really a shame that it caused people to believe
that crime was romantic and honorable and heroic, that the Mafia
was ever anything more than guys hustling lots of cheap scams
in order to be able to live in Kew Gardens, Queens.
But Mario didn't really know much about crime.
I did, and so I see the book as a great work of art, while others
want to see it as some kind of history.
There's a Dr. Jules Segal in The Godfather,
a gynecologist. I often have thought that this was Mario's idea
of an inside joke, as he always thought of me as being obsessed
with that portion of the female anatomy to the exclusion of
all other normal interests.
In any case, Mario had a far greater influence
on my style than I ever had on his, if indeed I had any. No
one had a greater influence on my writing style than Mario Puzo.
He wrote sentences as if carving steel. My mother used to love
his imagery -- the table at the end of a family feast in his
masterpiece, The Fortunate Pilgrim, looking like a battlefield
covered with bloody bones and carcasses. He taught me to write
clearly, as if I were talking, dramatically, as if I were telling
a story. He taught me to include the simple sensual details
of food and light and smell that made a story come alive.
He once told me that The Godfather wasn't
about crime but about power and justice. He said that the Kennedys
were an important influence in the characterization of the Corleones,
and mentioned their compound at Hyannisport as an example of
how he used elements of their lives in the novel.
He told me he was proudest of the opening scene
of The Godfather, the judge rolling up his sleeves, the
cinematic introduction of all the main characters and themes.
He said that scenes such as the punishment of the blue suede
scam artists who tried to cheat the mother by taking apart her
furnace and then demanding a blackmailer's ransom to put it
back together again, were there to drive home the way the lack
of official justice creates a need for men like Don Vito Corleone.
Mario worked harder than any writer I knew. He
used to turn out a minimum of 30-40 thousand words a month under
four or five names at Magazine Management Company, then go home
and work on a novel or major magazine assignment. Before the
success of The Godfather, he was deeply in debt -- mortgage,
credit cards, personal loans. He kept his accounts in a legal
sized manila folder with lines and lines of different payments.
He said that just the postage for sending in the payments was
a significant expense. He said that he never added it all up
because he was afraid to see how much it amounted to.
Mario told me that when Candid Donadio, his agent
(and mine at the time), called him with the news that Bantam
(I think) had offered $360,000 for the paperback rights to The
Godfather, he added up his debts for the first time. The
total was around $70,000 (not including the house, I imagine)
-- a mere nothing. Whew! What a relief. The following day, Candida
called back. There was a little hitch in a few details. Stand
by and wait for further news. But she turned it around in a
few days and sold the rights to Fawcett for $405,000.
Anita (my beautiful wife) reminded me of another
anecdote. In 1967, I brought a check for about $1500 from the
Saturday Evening Post to the bank and the assistant manager
wouldn't cash it for me. I had to let it clear. Usually they
just accomodated me, but this guy was a jerk. I got annoyed
and told him that someday I was going to have a best seller
and I would not bring the check to that bank.
I told this to Mario some years later. He replied,
"Wrong. I brought the check for The Godfather paperback sale
right to the guy who used to sneer at my overdrafts and reluctantly
cash my pay checks and remind me about my late payments. It
was so satisfying to watch him grovel.
Now that Mario is gone, I can tell one of the
saddest stories I know about fame and success. When The Godfather
exploded, I called him and asked, "How does it feel to have
the number one best seller in the nation?"
"I am still fat," he replied.