It was an offer the Dartmouth Library just couldn’t refuse. Diana and Bruce Rauner donated their expansive collection of author Mario Puzo’s papers to Dartmouth. The collection includes draft manuscripts, correspondence, and other records from Puzo’s long career as a novelist and screenwriter—even the 1965 Olympia typewriter on which he likely wrote The Godfather.
“[It’s] an incredibly generous gift that opens up a lot of avenues for research for a lot of people,” Head of Special Collections Jay Satterfield says. “The lasting impact really is one of cultural understanding,” he tells Gangsters Inc. “Through what lens do we see the world of organized crime? And, how do we understand immigrant experiences? Looking at how and why Puzo’s world resonated with the culture at the time, and the lasting effects of that are great topics for research.”
Mafia myths and stereotypes
Satterfield sees this collection as one that is multi-faceted and offers a lot of research angles. “The most obvious one focuses on the creation of the modern myth of the Mafia,” he says. “Every depiction of the mob since The Godfather has been, in some way or another, a response to the underworld Puzo manufactured. It has become the way we think of reality, and reality has altered to fit the myth.”
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The Godfather story also provides another fascinating angle focusing on immigration and stereotypes. Satterfield: “The Godfather trilogy had a profound effect on people’s perspectives on Italian Americans and the Italian American immigration story. It inscribed into our culture a new set of stereotypes—some positive, some negative—but it can be studied to better understand issues of ethnicity in the U.S.”
A Godfather at Dartmouth
Puzo and Dartmouth already had an established link. Both Dartmouth and its home city of Hanover feature in many of Puzo’s writings and in his epic The Godfather he portrays future mob boss Michael Corleone as a Dartmouth graduate.
“We love the fact that Puzo’s papers document the creation of Dartmouth’s most famous fictional alumnus, Michael Corleone, and that they will live for centuries to come with the papers of so many prominent, and real, alumni!” says donor Bruce Rauner, who is the governor of Illinois.
Seeing how Puzo never studied at Dartmouth, we asked Jay Satterfield why Puzo sent Michael Corleone there? “Such an interesting question, and one we can only speculate about,” he tells us. “Puzo came to New Hampshire as a kid on the Fresh Air Fund which took inner city kids and sent them to the country during the summer. Perhaps Puzo saw in Hanover and Dartmouth the antithesis of the Corleone world--both in the physical environment and the social environment—so he sent Michael, seeking to escape the Corleone world, off to Dartmouth.”
Satterfield adds that, “The book and movies presented such a compelling narrative that they began to overwhelm the reality of organized crime and reshape our understanding of it. The thing is, the new understanding was built out of fiction—a novel. It shows how people latch onto good stories even if they do not fit reality.”
The collection also offers insights into the role of the screenwriter, tensions that occurs when a novelist has a hit that overwhelms his other work, and the artistic and vision compromises that happen in a collaborative project like a movie. They are a detailed record of the professional life of a working writer, documenting how Puzo made a calculated shift late in his career from serious literary novelist to founder of a pop-culture phenomenon.
“He was almost 50 when The Godfather was published, and he had had a long career as a writer before then,” exhibit curator Hazel-Dawn Dumpert says. Puzo (right) wrote literary novels, pulp fiction published under a pseudonym, even a children’s book called The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw, which Dumpert calls “funny and sweet, and still completely Puzo.”
Though Puzo’s early work received good reviews, he didn’t make much money. “In his mid to late 40s, he owed tens of thousands of dollars to family members, to tax collectors, and, because he was an inveterate gambler, to bookmakers,” Dumpert says.
Cash-strapped, Puzo consciously set out to write a bestseller. “Documents in the collection show him literally plotting out the sex scenes through the novel for maximum effect,” says Satterfield, of outlines for what became The Godfather.
But for Puzo, the downside of financial success was that he never was taken seriously as a literary writer again. “He even says in an essay published after The Godfather, ‘I’m no longer a novelist—I’m a junior partner in The Godfather business,’” says Dumpert.
Preparing the collection
While the exhibit is on view this spring, Rauner archivist Elena Cordova will finish preparing the full collection for research use. Her work involves surveying, cataloging, and organizing every document in the collection. “The collection is comprised of somewhere around 50 Bankers Boxes, so that’s a lot of material if you imagine how many pieces of paper it takes to fill up one of those boxes,” Cordova says.
“You never know what you’re going to find, but this collection is in great shape and in good order,” she says. She identifies each document and determines if it’s in good enough condition to be handled by researchers, or if it needs intervention from the library’s preservation department.
Cordova keeps a record of what she finds, highlighting documents of particular interest—including notes between Puzo and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo’s program from the Academy Awards ceremony at which The Godfather won best picture. “That he kept it indicates the importance of that in his life,” she says.
Finally, she will create a detailed finding aid that will be accessible on the library’s website.
Script notes, The Godfather II, Mario Puzo, undated. Notes on Coppola’s “half” of The Godfather script show Puzo’s care for dialogue and tone. (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth Library)
Sense of humor
Cordova says she’s been surprised to discover Puzo’s ironic sense of humor. “When you’re working by yourself with a collection, to have the papers of someone with a strong wit can make the work really fun and engaging,” she says.
“I have come to have a great affection for Puzo as a person and a lot more respect for Puzo as a writer,” Dumpert says. “Even in some of the more mercenary works, there is still an incredible talent for character and narrative drive. As a writer myself, I really appreciate that about him. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Satterfield says the Puzo papers are a good fit for the library, which owns several film history collections, including the papers of screenwriter John Hess ’39; a collection of 2,200 Hollywood scripts from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, which producer Walter Wanger, Class of 1915, arranged to be collected at Dartmouth; and the papers of On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg ’36.
“On the Waterfront was Marlon Brando’s first major film role where he won an Oscar, and now we have The Godfather material, which is Marlon Brando winning another Oscar for another iconic role. That’s kind of cool,” says Satterfield.
Come see it
Selections from the papers will be on display from April 5 to June 30 in the Berry Main Street lobby of Baker-Berry Library. And in celebration of the gift, the Hopkins Center for the Arts will be screening The Godfather at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 12, in Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center, introduced by Graziella Parati, the Paul D. Paganucci Professor of Italian Literature and Language and director of the Leslie Center for the Humanities. Tickets for the film are $8/$5 with a Dartmouth ID.
This article includes material written by Dartmouth’s Hannah Silverstein. Gangsters Inc. wishes to thank her for her large contribution. Furthermore, thanks to Julie Bonette for her help with setting up interviews for this piece, and thanks to Jay Satterfield for taking the time to answer some follow-up questions.
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