What Puzo Godfathered 40 Years Ago

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In 1969, an obscure middle-aged novelist and pulp magazine journalist named ­Mario Gianluigi Puzo hit the literary jackpot. He wrote "The Godfather," he later told Larry King, "to make money." By his own admission, it wasn't well written. "If I'd known so many people were going to read it," he famously said, "I'd have written it better."

How many people have read it? It can be said with some certainty that having sold between 20 million and 30 million copies, "The Godfather" is one of the best-selling books of all time. By most yardsticks, it is one of the top 10 best-selling works of American fiction. Four decades later, it's still selling, in a paperback edition from the New American Library...

...Italian-American gangsters were a part of our popular culture long before Puzo's novel. "But it was Puzo's genius to turn them into family men," says Maria Laurino, author of "Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom." "All those elaborate passages in ‘The Godfather' which describe the family patriarch presiding over weddings and baptisms and then ordering murders gave a new dimension to the image of the Italian father," Ms. Laurino notes. "Movies had always shown the murders but never told us that these men had daughters and godchildren."

The popularity of Puzo's novel caught America by surprise because it seemed to go against the grain of everything that was dominating the news of the time: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Woodstock, ­Altamont, the moon landing, the Vietnam War. "In times of such social upheaval, who cared about the fortunes of a family of Italian-American immigrants?" asks Mr. Talese. As it turned out, just about everybody did. "I think there was a lot of unrest about the dissolution of the American family, and many Americans of other backgrounds were fascinated by the idea that they would kill to ­uphold their family values and traditions—appalled, but fascinated. Mario touched a nerve that most Americans didn't ­realize was even there."...

...If he isn't burning for that, Puzo is surely doing time in the Purgatorio for suggesting that Frank Sinatra owed his success to the Mafia. One horse's head in a movie producer's bed, and Puzo's Sinatra stand-in, Johnny Fontane, "went on to become the greatest singing sensation in the country." As if the greatest singer of popular standards in American music needed a ­godfather to put a gun to the collective heads of record ­buyers.

Perhaps, though, Puzo ­deserves a suspended sentence for his contribution to film rather than literature. The enormous success of the book poses an interesting question: Why didn't the descendants of Dante produce more first-rate writers in this country? The likely ­answer is that the grandparents of the great Italian-American film directors—Mr. Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Michael Cimino, Quentin Tarantino and others—came here unable to speak a new language and illiterate even in their native tongue. The younger generation found a new medium to turn the pulp of Mafia legend into art.

If Puzo wasn't a genius, he at least found a way to inspire genius. One might call him the Godfather of Italian-American film.

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