When he began working on his fifth book, Mario Puzo had a clear goal: to write a best seller. And he had a working title--“Mafia Novel”--which lacked a certain literary elegance but definitely got the point across.
By the time the book was published in 1969, Puzo had changed its title to “The Godfather.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The novel has sold more than twenty million copies and the movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1972, as did the sequel, “The Godfather Part II,” in 1974. Feel free to argue the matter, but they may be the two greatest American films of the last fifty years.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, is now the home of nearly fifty boxes of Puzo’s papers, everything from manuscripts to photos to correspondence with Hollywood studios. Bruce and Diane Rauner donated the papers. He’s a Dartmouth alumnus who made a fortune as a businessman and is now the governor of Illinois.
“We have [this collection] because it’s cool,” says Jay Satterfield, the head of special collections at Dartmouth. “We love its coolness. But that’s not the only reason we’re saving it. It’s for research value.”
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Puzo’s work has had on popular culture. In “The Sopranos” TV series, for instance, the characters, mobsters from the late 1990s and early 2000s, quoted lines from “The Godfather.” “There’s this creation of this myth,” says Satterfield, “and that myth is so well told and such a powerful myth that it takes over the reality. And it starts to reshape the reality and in our minds that’s what the Mafia is.”
Puzo, who had a family to support and gambling debts to pay off when he started writing “Mafia Novel,” ended up with mixed feelings about the phenomenon he created. It gave him wealth and success beyond anything he’d imagined. But it also gave him an identity he could not escape. “I am no longer a novelist,” Puzo wrote. “I have become a junior partner in the Godfather Business.”