The mega-seller The Godfather by Mario Puzo (PEW-zoh), a generational saga of a New York crime family, inaugurated an unprecedented era of best-sellers characterized by sweeping scale, compelling characters, breakneck action, and a lurid fascination with greed, violence, and sex. Puzo was born into an immigrant family of seven children in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen slum. His father, Antonio, a railway trackman, abandoned the family when Puzo was twelve. His family was sustained by the Old World wisdom and moral integrity of Puzo’s mother, Maria. Early on, Puzo discovered libraries and by sixteen was determined to become a writer, even as he found unpromising work as a messenger for the city railroads.
During World War II he served in the U.S. Air Force in East Asia and Germany and briefly after the war in a public relations post. Puzo then returned to New York and, using the G.I. Bill, studied literature and creative writing at the New School for Social Research and later at Columbia University. In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske, whom he had met overseas. His career as a civil service administrator provided for his family (three sons and two daughters) but did little to satisfy his dream of writing. He wrote at night, publishing his first story, “The Last Christmas,” in 1950.
In The Dark Arena, Puzo’s first novel, Walter Mosca, an emotionally ravaged veteran, returns to Europe to find his wartime mistress, a German native, amid the moral squalor of the occupied zone. When she is dying from an infected tooth after being denied penicillin because of bureaucratic provisions, Mosca purchases the drug illegally. When that drug proves useless, Mosca exacts a bloody revenge against the black-market supplier, thus introducing Puzo’s theme of justified vengeance in a corrupt world.
Encouraged by favorable critical response (although disappointed by modest sales), Puzo left the civil service in 1963 to work as an editor and freelance magazine writer. In 1964 he published what he considered his best work, The Fortunate Pilgrim, a quasi-autobiographical chronicle of an Italian immigrant family, directed by an indomitable matriarch, struggling to realize the American...
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