The Godmother

The woman who taught Mario Puzo the value of secrecy.

Behind every great Godfather is a great Godmother

After a talent hunt conducted in February, Random House and the estate of Mario Puzo have asked a journeyman novelist and Florida college professor named Mark Winegardner to write a sequel to The Godfather, depicting the further adventures of America’s favorite organized crime family, the Corleones. A commercially viable book may result, but the essence of the original’s greatness will surely be missing because of an artistic advantage Puzo had that no other author can claim: Mrs. Puzo, his mother.

“I never met a real honest-to-god gangster,” Puzo once said, explaining that he’d had to research organized crime in order to write The Godfather. But he didn’t need to study or imagine the underlying attitudes and formative worldview of Don Vito Corleone.

“Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth,” the author later wrote, “in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time. The Don’s courage and loyalty came from her; his humanity came from her.”

Puzo wrote these words in 1996 in a preface to a new edition of The Fortunate Pilgrim, his second novel, which was originally published in 1964, five years before the blockbuster that would make his name. Puzo himself (among many others) always considered it to be his best book. The novel told the story of Lucia Santa Angeluzzi, the heroic matriarch of a struggling Italian immigrant family living in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, on 10th Avenue between 30th and 31st streets,during the Depression. (It was on this same block that Puzo grew up, just a bit downtown from the tenement where the young Vito Corleone character lived.)

The book received admiring reviews—the New York Times hailed it as “a classic”—but was a commercial flop and sent Puzo’s career as a novelist into a potentially fatal stall: No publishing house would advance him even the smallest sum in anticipation of his next book. And money was of no small importance to the author, who was 45 years old with a wife and five children plus a hearty gambling habit, all of which he supported on what he could earn as a magazine writer, book reviewer, and novelist. He was also $20,000 in debt to relatives, banks, finance companies, and loan sharks.

As Puzo later told the tale, amid all the rejections, “One editor wistfully remarked that if Fortunate Pilgrim had only had a little more of that Mafia stuff in it”—a minor character was a mob chief—”maybe the book would have made money.” Puzo took the bait and wrote an outline, which prompted G.P. Putnam’s Sons to put up a $5,000 advance. Over the next three years (during which he continued to produce magazine stories and so on), he wrote his novel about a family of racketeers led by a patriarch who spoke in the voice of a particular little old lady.

Puzo finished writing in July of 1968 and used the final installment of his advance to take his wife and children to Europe. He returned home in debt once more, only to learn that bidding for paperback rights to The Godfather had reached $375,000 and was still climbing.

The winning offer, $410,000, was a record at the time. Puzo immediately called his mother to share the good news.

“Don’t tell nobody,” she said—you can almost hear Don Corleone’s voice as he commands his son: “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.”

Puzo then called his sister and asked if she’d heard about his wonderful jackpot. “You got $40,000 for the book,” she said. “Mama told me.”

Hardly, he replied—it was $410,000. Puzo then telephoned his mother and asked, “Ma, how the hell could you get it wrong? I told you five times it was $410,000, not $40,000. How could you make such a mistake?”

“I no make a mistake,” she replied. “I don’t wanna tell her.”

Exactly so. Vito Corleone and Mrs. Puzo possessed the same southern Italian peasant mind-set, which believed religiously in the wisdom of silence and secrets, not just in criminal doings, but in everyday matters of any importance. This shared trait was no accident of personality: It was a survival mechanism for the people of southern Italy and Sicily, who were not merely fantastically poor but also overrun and oppressed by successive waves of foreign occupation, roughly from the time of Christ until the end of the 19th century.

Emigration to the land of freedom and opportunity didn’t make much of a dent in that mentality. All those sweet little old Italian ladies came to America armed with a profound mistrust of authority and its motives. They never for a second believed that powerful men or institutions would dispense justice freely and fairly just because political principle required them to do so. And so, gangsters and grandmas alike lived by the code of silence—omerta, as fans of bad mob movie dialogue will attest—as the first line of defense against nosy, potentially dangerous outsiders.

Given all this, it is not surprising that the Godfather speaks so seldom and so obliquely for a title character. His first utterance in the book—when he’s told that policemen are hovering disrespectfully outside his daughter’s wedding celebration—makes a show of impotence and nonchalance: “Don Corleone shrugged. ‘I don’t own the street. They can do what they please.’ “

One of the Don’s longest speeches, a windy 87 words, is made after the undertaker, Buonasera, confesses that he relied on the American system of justice to punish men who assaulted his daughter—only to learn that her assailants went free on probation the day they were sentenced. Corleone, masking his scorn behind majestic sarcasm, replies:

Then you have nothing to complain about. The judge has ruled. America has ruled. Bring your daughter flowers and a box of candy when you go visit her in the hospital. That will comfort her. Be content. After all, this is not a serious affair, the boys were young, high-spirited, and one of them is the son of a powerful politician. … So give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes.

(In the film—made, of course, by an Italian-American director, Francis Ford Coppola—this theme is developed even more strongly. The very first line is spoken by Buonasera, who faces the camera and speaks, bitterly, the words of a fool: “I believe in America.”)

This radical notion—that even in America, one’s own tribe might provide a power structure superior to that of civil authority—is what’s really at the heart of The Godfather’s appeal. It’s why Italian-Americans in particular love the saga, for how it glamorizes and glorifies our values and customs above all others. The Corleones are our Kennedys, except with better morals.

It’s also the reason that the rest of America was so taken with it (the book has sold more than 13 million copies thus far): not for its criminality or violence, which is sporadic in any event, but for its vision of an alternative to late-20th-century middle-class mistrust and malaise.

Remember, the book and the movie were released during the era of Vietnam and Watergate; Don Corleone’s lack of reverence for legitimate power, which in the ‘50s might have seemed atavistic, suddenly appeared wise. The Godfather also arrived just as the American nuclear family began its meltdown due to rising divorce rates.

Into that domestic disintegration landed Puzo’s passionate romance of relatives—a sensual, hot-blooded love story of familial loyalty, devotion, betrayal, punishment, and reward, not to mention lots of eating, shouting, kissing, and killing. For the most part, it starred fathers and sons. But it was totally inspired—as, perhaps, only an Italian-American author could have managed—by a mother.