In the 1920s and 1930s, when the heat from Prohibition-era police crackdowns proved uncomfortable and the lingering effects of the Depression cut into the formerly staggering profits of old, crime syndicate figures from New York, Chicago, and other Eastern cities began to make their way west. One was a Sicilian-born New Yorker named Joseph Bonanno, who, in the 1940s, settled down in Tucson, Arizona, after having tried his hand at dairy farming in upstate New York and cheese making in Wisconsin.
In Tucson, Bonanno—“Joey Bananas,” in the tough-guy lingo of organized crime—puttered around in his garden, growing tomatoes, providing grandfatherly advice to the neighborhood kids, acting for all the world like a respectable citizen. It was an open secret what he had done on the other side of the country, all murder and mayhem, but Bonanno would have none of it. He said that he came west because his son Salvatore suffered from ear infections, though, as a local journalist put it, the move was really made “to avoid dying in New York of lead poisoning.” There was something to that thesis, since the peace that Bonanno had brokered among the Mafia’s contending families was beginning to fray around the edges even as Bonanno protested loudly and angrily that there was no such thing as the “Mafia.” He did allow that there was something sort of like it, to which he gave the dignified name “The Tradition” in his 1983 memoir A Man of Honor, its very title an exercise in self-congratulation.
A mob war broke out, whatever he wanted to call it, and Bonanno got out just about the time a New Yorker named Mario Puzo returned from World War II. Puzo landed work as a staff writer for smutty men’s magazines like True Action and Swank, churning out genre dreck, but he aspired to something more. Drawing on his own family’s past and his knowledge of what went on behind the scenes in Little Italy and on Long Island, he crafted a mob family saga called The Godfather, which appeared in March 1969 and, that summer, climbed its way onto the bestseller charts, where it remained for a very long time.
Puzo’s book went on to sell 21 million copies, and a couple of years later it became an iconic film, with Marlon Brando in the title role, launching a franchise—and, not only that, providing a template for every Mafia tale attempted ever since, The Sopranos notable among them. Hollywood found just the right director for the film in Francis Ford Coppola, who had experiences of his own to bring to it. The best thing that he did, it has to be said, was to lose parts of Puzo’s story that drifted off from the rat-tat-tat of Tommy guns into other matters, some clinically gynecological, where Puzo entertained a significant and strangely obsessive tangent.
Joe Bonanno, on whom Don Vito Corleone was very closely mapped, wasn’t happy. Audiences were, and The Godfather, half a century on, is a central work of American popular fiction and, gravelly voice and all, a hallmark of our popular culture.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.