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A Literary Love Affair

 

 
 
Saying Goodbye to Mario Puzo

By Jules Siegel

One never knows what the mail will bring. 

Space

From: David Kipen, Books Editor, SF Chronicle  
To: 'Jules Siegel' <jsiegel@acnet.net
Date: Friday, July 02, 1999 3:01 PM 

dear jules,
i hate to tell you this, but mario puzo just died.  i seem to recall you two were acquainted.
any comment?
sorry   david 

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 book. 

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.