Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, was born in 1920 and grew up dirt poor, surrounded by gangs, in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. When his teacher asked students to bring in a can of food to feed the needy, the “Hell’s Kitchen lads” all went out and stole one, says Mark Seal in Air Mail. Puzo’s mother, Maria Le Conti, was raised in even greater poverty in the hills outside Naples: her family couldn’t sample the ham from “the lone pig” they slaughtered each year. It all needed to be sold.
Puzo initially achieved little success as a writer. Plagued by gambling debts and ill health, he decided in 1955 to try to write something for the masses. It took him more than a decade. “Keep it down,” he would yell at his five screaming kids, “I’m writing a bestseller!” Le Conti, who was known to threaten her own “rowdy brood” of seven children with a policeman’s truncheon, inspired the character of Don Corleone. “Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother,” Puzo once wrote.
The Corleone name came from “one of the most notorious mafia-infested towns in Sicily”, and much of the novel’s plot from real-life stories of the American Mob. Publishing rights for The Godfather were eventually bought in 1968 for a record-breaking $410,000 (more than $3.2m today). Puzo spent the $100,000 advance in just three months, then went back to his publisher for more. “A hundred grand doesn’t last for ever,” he reasoned.