How Gambling Led to the Birth of “The Godfather”

How Mario Puzo wrote a classic novel

Mario Puzo
Author Mario Puzo.
Bob Peterson/Getty Images

It’s been almost 50 years since The Godfather first hit theaters, and just over 50 years since Mario Puzo’s novel was initially published. The story of the Corleone family continues to resonate with readers and viewers alike — and things like Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed reworking of The Godfather Part III last year have continued to spark debate. But what about the roots of the story, first put to paper by Puzo all those years ago? As it turns out, the story of The Godfather‘s creation is compelling in and of itself.

In a new article at Air Mail taken from his new book, Mark Seal looked back on how it was that Puzo came to write the novel. In part, it was the result of two conflicting impulses in Puzo’s life — his desire to write fiction as he worked a civil service job and his penchant for gambling, the latter of which caused his writing time to shrink. Eventually, a health scare prompted him to make a decision: he “would be rich and famous.”

If there was a battle between art and commerce going on within Puzo, this was the point at which commerce won out. He opted to write a commercially-viable novel and began researching the Mafia — drawing some inspiration from the trial of Frank Costello. As for the historical setting of the novel, Puzo drew on his own memories of growing up poor in Hell’s Kitchen — and some of the grislier stories his mother told him about the effects of crime in the neighborhood.

Even after he succeeded wildly with The Godfather, Puzo’s gambling habit continued. It’s one of many details that resonates in Seal’s telling — and one which makes Puzo emerge as a figure as fascinating as those that emerged from his mind.

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