THE GODFATHER THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
by Shaun Costello
In a recent trip to my local library, I came across a crisp, new paperback edition of The Godfather. I have seen the movies (I and II) an embarrassing number of times, but read the book just once, in 1969 when it was first published. So I took it home, curious to know if it still packed the original wallop that made it a blockbuster best seller. The opening pages contained two introductory pieces. The first was headlined A NOTE FROM ANTHONY PUZO, SON OF MARIO PUZO, and it was in caps, as I have written it here. It was two pages of unreadable gibberish, intended, I suppose, to give this volume some kind of familial, folksy varnish, an idea probably hatched in the eager mind of an underpaid, over-confident wannabe in a cubicle at Penguin Random House, where ideas like this one flourish until they flounder of their own mistaken value.
Next came an Introduction by Robert J. Thompson, who turns out to be (I’ll insert this verbatim) The Founding Director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is also the Trustee Professor of Media and Popular Culture at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Well, that’s a dizzying title indeed. I wonder how it fits on his business card. It seems that this worthy academic has published five volumes, all about television, and is now busy finishing his sixth, a history of the medium. The introduction, entitled Introduction, was eleven pages of hyperbolic hipster speak, the pages numbered, as intros so often are, in Roman Numerals. Eleven glib and wittily urbane pages seemingly designed to place Mr. Thompson somewhere between being the lost Corleone son that Puzo left out of the book, and someone you might bump into para-gliding at Club Med, wearing an ill-fitting speedo. And certainly, someone to avoid, should you find yourself behind him on line at Starbucks.
Publishers mystify me. Can there be a book, other than Mein Kampf or The Bible, that has reaped higher revenues for its imprint, down through the years, than The Godfather? I’m guessing not. Yet, at a new projects meeting, in the conference room at Penguin Random House, as ideas were suggested around the table, some young literary Turk spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s time for another go-round with The Godfather”, which was probably received, in equal measure, with the appropriate grunts and moans. To which our young hero responded, “No wait, it might work. Provided we package it correctly. Let’s get someone who knew the author well, maybe a Puzo family member, to write a short introductory piece. And then a project narrative by a media writer. God knows, there’s no shortage of them. We include them as ‘extras’, like a director’s commentary track on a DVD. Packaging. That’s the ticket”.
Ideas like this are not necessarily suicidal, provided somebody rides heard over them, supervising quality control over who is chosen to write the ‘extras’, and what is written. But, more often than not, corporate auto pilot takes over, and important details are ignored. Hey, it’s The Godfather. They’re going to buy it no matter what. So, an intern was tasked with going through all those dust covered rolodexes in the storage room to come up with a willing Puzo family member. This process yielded Anthony Puzo, the author’s son, who gladly agreed to write a few pages about the pain his father went through in struggling to create his masterpiece. And a quick Google search revealed an unlimited number of media writers, with Robert J. Thompson’s name up there at the top of the list. An academic with a title a big as the Ritz. Thompson quickly agreed to deliver eleven pages on The Godfather’s impact on Pop culture over the 48 years of its existence. Hey, the guy’s a Trustee Professor. Whatever he writes will be just fine. Even if it’s eleven pages of self-indulgent clap trap, constructed to portray Thompson’s awareness of the impact of the Godfather on pop culture, rather than the impact itself, and as a result, exuding the coolness this academic feels is his due.
The packaging aside, let’s get to the book itself. It still works. It’s a well-constructed story, with colorful, memorable characters, a brisk pace, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real fault I could find with it is Puzo’s prose. While his descriptive narrative is fine, the dialogue is sometimes awkward and forced. Also, the male-female relationships seem a product of the era (the 1940’s), and the characters (depression era Italian Americans). That said, many of the conversations between the sexes are cringe-worthy. The addition of Francis Ford Coppola, as co-writer for the movie screen plays vastly improved the dialogue, and cleaned up much of the book’s murky areas.
This brings us to a question I have asked myself many times over the years. Could Mario Puzo have written The Godfather, had not Peter Maas written The Valachi Papers? Although published in 1968, Maas wrote most of his book between 1963 and 1965. Valachi’s starling revelations about organized crime in America, before Senator John McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in 1963, proved to be an embarrassment to J. Edgar Hoover, who had insisted for over thirty years, that the Mafia did not exist in America. Between 1963 and 1965, because of his friendship with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Peter Maas was given unlimited access to interview Joe Valachi in his prison cell. These extensive interviews would eventually yield Maas’s book, The Valachi Papers. But Hoover was dead set against the publication of a book, the contents of which would make him out to be a fool. After Kennedy left office, in 1965, Hoover put pressure on Lyndon Johnson to lean on Kennedy’s replacement at Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to prevent the publication of Maas’s book.
For over two years, Maas negotiated with Washington to get some version of his manuscript published. He finally succeeded in getting approval to publish a heavily censored version, and The Valachi papers was finally published in June of 1968. Much of Valachi’s elaborate testimony before Congress in 1963, was revealed and expanded in Maas’s book, and America became aware of the details surrounding the enormous criminal enterprise that J. Edgar Hoover had repeatedly insisted was non-existent.
The details, and the history of La Cosa Nostra both shocked and fascinated the world. Joe (Joe Cargo – shortened to Joe Cago) Valachi was born in 1904, in East Harlem to an impoverished Italian American family. He ran with a gang of thieves, committing small burglaries until finally being inducted, in a formal ceremony, into The Genovese crime family. The book revealed his involvement in The Castellammarese War in the early 1930’s. This war pitted the two most powerful crime bosses of that era against each other. Joe (The Boss) Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano would battle for supremacy in New York’s criminal underworld. These were two old time gangsters, called by the younger soldiers “Mustache Petes”. They would compete in deadly combat for the title of Capo di tutti capi (Boss of all bosses). After the death of both gangsters, an organization was formed by this criminal society’s rising star, Charles Lucky Luciano, who would consolidate New York’s criminal gangs into the Five New York Families, overseen by an organization known as The Commission, that would resolve disputes between the Families peacefully. This organization would become known, among its members as La Cosa Nostra or This Thing of Ours. Details were revealed in Maas’s book, like the oath of Omerta, or silence, adhered to by members under penalty of death. The sacred ceremony of admission to La Cosa Nostra. The structure of the society, imitating the hierarchical fundamentals of the Roman Legions. Details about the characters, the language, and the structure of this criminal society were now public knowledge, due to Valachi’s testimony, and Maas’s book.
A year later, in March of 1969, The Godfather was published to rave reviews, and quickly became the best selling novel in the history of publishing. And what was contained on the pages of The Godfather? The oath of Omerta, The Five Families. The Commission, the language of this criminal society; all originally revealed a year earlier in The Valachi Papers. Could this be coincidence?
I knew Peter Maas pretty well when I lived in The Hamptons. Many of us played tennis on Peter’s har-tru court, at his house in Bridgehampton. So, one day I asked him. Did Mario Puzo ever call him up to thank him? He took the high road, which was typical of Peter. He told me that he knew Mario, and liked him. The Valachi Papers, while not yielding the fortune Puzo had made with The Godfather, had also been a best seller, making Maas quite a bit of money. He was sanguine.
My conclusion, from all that is written above, is that The Godfather could never have been the iconic literary conflagration it became, without the publication of The Valachi Papers, a year earlier. Peter Maas had supplied Mario Puzo with the historical events, the characterizations, the language, the structure of La Cosa Nostra, and the every-day experience of ‘life in the mob’, without which, The Godfather could never have been written.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
THREE GREAT LOVE SONGS FROM WORLD WAR TWO
Separation is the common theme – listened to by wives and sweethearts on the home front, and by husband and lovers, overseas in distant lands fighting in the war. A horrific, yet romantic time, and these three songs must have helped and hurt in equal measure. And they’re lovely indeed. I remember these three vividly because my mother used to sing them around the house, and play them on the record player when I was a small child.
YOU’LL NEVER KNOW…1943
Music by Harry Warren and Lyrics by Mack Gordon
The hit recording was by British songbird Vera Lynn.
I’LL BE SEEING YOU…1944
Music by Sammy Fain and Lyrics by Irving Kahal
Originally written in 1938, but made famous in the 1944 movie I’LL BE SEEING YOU, which made it a big hit, and one of WWII’s great love songs.
IT’S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME…1945
Music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
The hit recording was by Harry James and vocalist Kitty Kallen
© 2018 Shaun Costello
A TARNISHED SHARD
by Shaun Costello
America used to have allies in this world: England, Canada, France, the NATO Alliance, and the rest. We went through WWII together. We were united as common democracies. Now America has turned its back on our long-time friends, and has reached out to our new pals – the Gangster dictatorships: Putin’s Russia, Dudirty’s Philippines, and North Korea. We no longer have any trade partners. Trump disbanded the TPP, giving all of Asia to China. We are in a Tariff war with our former closest allies, Canada, the EU, the UK, and Mexico. We, a nation of immigrants, have closed our borders to those seeking asylum from violence and political turmoil. America has made a mockery of its constitution. Trump has done exactly what he promised his hateful, racist followers, during his campaign. He has destroyed the structure and integrity of the American government. The occupant of the White House is no longer the leader of the free world. He is, instead, an opportunistic, self-serving, self-promoting greed monger, hell bent on filling his pockets with every penny he can pilfer from America’s coffers. And his poll numbers are going up. America likes him. America’s once-shining star is a tarnished shard of the nation that gave hope to so many.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Not any more!
GREEDY FACEBOOK TAKES ON NEW ROLE – AMERICA’S MORAL COMPASS
By Shaun Costello
Facebook, sometimes known as the AMERICAN BOTS AND TROLLS SOCIETY, in an attempt to reverse the world-wide perception that its rabid greed for advertising revenues, and lack of interest in who exactly does that advertising, was directly responsible for putting Donald Trump in the White House, is taking on a new role as America’s moral compass. Yes folks, there’s a new Sheriff in town, and his name is Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s the Imperial Wizard of Facebook’s Morality Police.
Facebook’s membership will now he held to a whole new set of codified regulations that will determine what can be said, and what can not, on the pages of this vaunted internet venue. So, Facebook’s subscribers will be punished, as compensation for the internet cash cow’s greed and irresponsibility.
On May 25th, someone shared an article on Facebook about the dubious behavior of a State Representative in New Hampshire. (Link Below)
It seems that, in an attempt to prevent the moral hazards of public nudity, the politician stated that, if a woman were to expose her breast in public to nurse an infant, he had the right to grab the breast in question. I was outraged by the brazen insensitivity and sanctimonious presumptions in the politician’s statement. So, beneath it, in the comments section, I wrote, “Men are such assholes”. A few hours later, I was notified that I was to be blocked from posting on Facebook for a period of three days, for breaking Facebook’s new code of regulations. I was stunned. In an attempt to appeal what I considered to be an outrage, I clicked on a few boxes until I found myself offered a venue to explain my outrage. Into that box, I typed the following:
“The comment that I made in response to a New Hampshire State Representative, who stated openly that if any woman in his state bared her breast to feed an infant in public, he had the right to grab it. I responded, “Men are such assholes”. Was the New Hampshire Representative blocked for making this horrific remark? Of course not. It’s bad enough that Facebook helped put Trump in the White House, but now Facebook takes on the sanctimonious role of The Morality Police. And by the way, I stand by my comment”.
When I clicked send, a notice appeared that said, “We could not process your request. Please try again later”. I tried ten additional times and got the same notice each time. This tells me, of course, that the appeal function, falsely offered by Facebook, is intentionally defective; to create the illusion of fairness, while blocking one’s ability to effectively protest.
So, Facebook’s advertising juggernaut, which has conspired to give the world President Donald J. Trump, marches full speed ahead, with multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, a knight in shining armor at its head, sowing the newly embraced seeds of morality, as it reaps its fortunes, unregulated by a cowardly Congress, tacitly approving a State Representative’s threats to grab the breast of any woman who has the temerity to nurse her child in public; while simultaneously punishing its membership for calling him an asshole.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
THE LAST PAGES OF A GREAT BOOK COME ALL TOO QUICKLY.
by Shaun Costello
There has always been that moment for me, when, enthralled by the prose of a wonderful novel, I suddenly become aware that I have almost reached the end. It’s a sad reckoning. I begin to read more slowly. I take bathroom breaks more often. Anything to put off the inevitable. This happened to me earlier today, when reading the last pages of John Le Carre’s latest novel, A LEGACY OF SPIES. It’s his 24th, and because of his advanced age, possibly his last book. I have read his 23 other spy stories at least twice each – some favorites as many as four or five times. I realize that I am a hopeless case. In this last book Le Carre revisits two
earlier novels, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY; linking them both together to tidy up some loose ends. An aging, retired, white haired Peter Guillam is called for by the inquisitors at Whitehall. The British Secret Service is being haunted by ghosts from its past, and the once-young Peter Guillam will be hauled over the coals. The death of Circus agent Alec Leamus, many years before, is now in question. Leamus had a son who is now looking to be compensated for the murder of his father. Was The Circus at fault? Is Guillam responsible? Whitehall has opened the files and found incriminating evidence against Guillam. Whitehall is looking for a fall guy.
For incurable Le Carre addicts like yours truly, the fun now begins. Familiar characters from the past delightfully cascade through the story. George Smiley is still alive but his whereabouts are unknown. The ill-fated Alec Leamus, Connie Sachs, Control, Control’s man Mendel, arch traitor Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Oliver Lacon, Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland, Millie McCraig, Hans-Dieter Mundt, all deliciously brought back to life.
In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Circus agents are disappearing, networks are being rolled up, and Alec Leamus is murdered climbing the Berlin Wall. There’s a rotten apple in the Circus, somewhere near the top. We find out, many books later, in Tinker Tailor, that Bill Haydon, very high up indeed, is the soviet mole, buried many years earlier in the Circus, and feeding information to Karla at Moscow Center. But why was Alec Leamus really in Berlin? What was his mission? Who was running him? Control? Smiley? What was Guillam’s involvement? And at the center was the notorious Hans-Dieter Mundt, the head of the Stasi, East Germany’s Secret police – then being run by George Smiley as a double agent.
Le Carre, regardless of his age, has not missed a beat, tying two of his best-loved books into a modern mystery, populated by an ensemble of his best-loved and familiar characters. And his prose remains intact, as sharp and flowing as ever. To his fans, A LEGACY OF SPIES seems a fitting conclusion, if that is what it is, to decades of delicious novels. The book seems, in its structure, to be bidding us adieu. I can only hope that the author has second thoughts, and the idea for one more book up his literary sleeve.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
YOU DON’T NEED STATUES AND FLAG WAVING TO BE A GOOD CITIZEN – GROW UP AMERICA.
by Shaun Costello
Yesterday, October 30th, in an interview on Fox News, White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly defended Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and referred to him as an honorable man. He also had some odd comments about the cause of the Civil War. In today’s news he was roundly criticized. In my opinion, he meant well, but misspoke, and the criticism of his statements is grossly exaggerated.
Anyone who has spent any time reading nineteenth century history, and more specifically, about the American Civil War, would come to the conclusion that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. But at issue here is erecting and maintaining statues of Confederate soldiers. Most of these were erected, not directly after the Civil War, to honor the brave and the fallen, but instead, in the early twentieth century, symbolic of Jim Crow America, in an effort to remind African Americans that the Grey Army of the past lives on in the sheets and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.
And that the uppity Negro better not get too uppity, lest the Klan is comin’ to getcha. The Confederacy declared war on the United States, creating a conflagration that yielded half a million dead. It was America’s darkest moment. The ongoing glorification of the Confederacy is based more in racial hatred, than in honoring the Army in Grey. Instead, read Douglas Southall Freeman’s extraordinary biography – ROBERT E. LEE. And his equally extraordinary three volume work – LEE’S LIEUTENANTS: A STUDY IN COMMAND……..MANASSAS TO MALVERNE HILL, CEDAR MOUNTAIN TO CHANCELLORSVILLE, and GETTYSBURG TO APPOMATTOX. Just about the entire Civil War from The Army of Northern Virginia’s point of view. This is a magnificent series of volumes, and you’ll be a better human being having read them. You don’t need statues and flag waving to be a good citizen. Grow up, America.
I REMEMBER NOTHING
AND OTHER REFLECTIONS
by Nora Ephron
About a year ago I found myself developing a surprising appreciation of Nora Ephon. Like many New Yorkers who lived through the Seventies, I read her tasty pieces in Esquire, when she was probably America’s most entertaining essayist. As the decades passed, I read her, saw her movies (both written and directed) and enjoyed most of it. Then, about a year ago, Sleepless in Seattle turned up on HBO Streaming, so I watched.
About a half hour in, I clicked on pause. I was not prepared for what I saw. It was perfectly constructed. I started watching again, and the whole movie was as perfect as the first half hour. This level of story structure is rare these days, and you’d have to go back to Hitchcock to match it. Somehow when I saw it in a theater when it was first released, the quality of the construction went right by me. Maybe it was the popcorn.
I started revisiting her films and books. Some were great. Most were good. Nothing was terrible. I have to admit here that I was developing a serious crush on a dead person. I began to grieve at not having known her, and envying those who did. Her son, Jacob Bernstein (Jacob, out of Nora, by Carl) made a documentary about his late mom called EVERYTHING IS COPY.
I’ve watched it several times, and the more I discovered about her, the more I grieved at never having known her. She was brilliant, and challenging, and terrifying. Had I been invited to one of her famous dinner parties, and when tested, crapped out as dull, it would have been like the death of a thousand cuts. But, if I got a laugh out of her it might have been orgasmic.
Much of the text in Jacob Bernstein’s documentary is from the pages of the book titled at the top of this page, read by Ephron’s friends. She was dying of leukemia when she wrote and directed Julie and Julia, her last film. As I watched her son’s chronicle, and read I Remember Nothing, I began to realize that Julie and Julia was not about those two women at all – It was about Nora Ephron. It was about Nora’s relationship with her sister Delia. It was about a perfect marriage, not necessarily about Paul and Julia Child, but, after two failures, about the perfect marriage Nora found with writer Nick Pillegi. It was about everything Nora Ephron loved, and knew she would soon lose.
The above titled book ends with two chapters; What I won’t Miss, and What I Will Miss. Although very few knew of her illness, and claimed that they were shocked by her death, I find it surprising that they missed the clearly stated clues. In writing I Remember Nothing, Norah Ephron was saying goodbye.
© 2017 Shaun Costello