Selection of Godfather Author Mario Puzo's Papers Gifted to Dartmouth—and a Mystery Solved?

With thanks to Julie Bonette, Media Relations Officer, Dartmouth College.

Mario Puzo
Puzo in Paramount Lot office in1969. (Photo by Bob Peterson, courtesy of Dartmouth Library.)

... When Michael Corleone was discharged early in 1945 to recover from a disabling wound, he had no idea that his father had arranged his release. He stayed home for a few weeks, then, without consulting anyone, entered Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and so he left his father’s house....

Michael Corleone, The Godfather Vito Corleone's  WWII veteran son who reluctantly assumed control of his father's criminal empire, and during a Catholic baptism ceremony had all his enemies murdered, was depicted in the book and films as a Dartmouth graduate.

In fact, both Hanover and Dartmouth colleges figure prominently in Mario Puzo's works. The oddest thing about this is that Mario Puzo—the son of Italian immigrants raised in 1920's Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan—never attended either college, so his affinity has been something of a mystery.

That said, the puzzle may have been solved.

The Godfather recently (on Tuesday, March 27) celebrated its 45th anniversary. The film, which was celebrated with 11 nominations, granted Hollywood its first R-rated film to gross more than $100 million in North America. The Godfather, which spawned sequels, virtually hijacked the 1973 Academy Awards, emerging with three wins, including best picture, best actor for Marlon Brandon, and best adapted screenplay for director Francis Ford Coppola and his collaborator, Puzo.

(In a move described as "unprecedented," Brando boycotted the Awards to protest the ongoing siege of Wounded Knee, part of an American Indian reservation, and sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a woman of Apache ancestry, to refuse his award. The Academy later passed a rule forbidding winners to send proxies in their stead.)

Letter from Puzo to Marlon Brando. Puzo wanted him to play Vito Corleone. (Courtesy of Dartmouth Library)

A selection of Mario Puzo’s papers were recently gifted to Dartmouth College's Dartmouth Library. They will be on display from April 5 to June 30 in the Berry Main Street lobby of Baker-Berry Library.

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.

Diana and Bruce Rauner donated the papers to Dartmouth Library, where they will be permanently housed in the Rauner Special Collections Library (The Rauners created this permanent home for Dartmouth’s special collections.)
Michael Corleone, the college-educated Don.

The Puzo collection, comprised of about 50 storage boxes, includes draft manuscripts, correspondences, and other records from Puzo’s career as a novelist and screenwriter. The collection includes the 1965 Olympia typewriter on which he may have composed his immortal classic, The Godfather.

Head of Special Collections Jay Satterfield called the collection “an incredibly generous gift that opens up a lot of avenues for research for a lot of people.”

Said film historian Mark Williams, an associate professor of film and media studies: “Acquiring the Mario Puzo papers is a coup for Dartmouth that will generate many different research projects among students, faculty, and visiting scholars."

“The collection is especially rich in its details of an acclaimed working writer’s career path. The centerpiece is the many materials related to the source novel and motion picture iterations of The Godfather, the enormous success of which both enabled and frustrated Puzo in many telling ways across decades of creative endeavors.

The Rauners see Dartmouth as the perfect home for the collection.

“We are thrilled to place the Puzo collection at Dartmouth, where it will be available to the worldwide scholarly community and integrated into the curriculum to create immediate and lasting benefits for students,” said Diana Rauner.

“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 Bruce Rauner, the current Governor of Illinois.

So, why Puzo's seemingly enigmatic Hanover and Dartmouth fixation?

Exhibit curator Hazel-Dawn Dumpert found a clue in The Fortunate Pilgrim, Puzo’s fictionalized memoir.

“One of the characters gets sent to live in New Hampshire via the Fresh Air Fund”—a nonprofit that helps New York City children spend summer vacations in the country. “I thought, I bet he was a Fresh Air Fund kid.”

Dumpert confirmed that Puzo spent summers in New Hampshire through the Fresh Air Fund. Although she hasn’t pinpointed exactly where he stayed, Hanover seems a plausible guess.

“I’m dying to know who his host family was. My guess is that there might still be some people who at least knew the family,” Dumpert says.

As for the collection's papers, they comprise a detailed record of the professional life of a working writer, and they expose 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,” Dumpert says.

Push wrote literary novels, pulp fiction (published under a pseudonym), and even a children’s book, The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw, which was described as “funny and sweet, and... completely Puzo.”

Puzo’s early work received some acclaim, but fortune eluded him. In fact, prior to the Godfather's publication, he owed tens of thousands of dollars to various people: family members, tax collectors, and, yes, bookmakers. Puzo was a degenerate gambler.

Godfather script notes by Puzo on Coppola.
(Courtesy of Dartmouth Library)

It was because of his financial issues that a troubled Puzo set out to deliberately concoct a bestseller.

This is evident in the collection.

“Documents... show him literally plotting out the sex scenes through the novel for maximum effect,” says Satterfield, who'd perused outlines of what became the Godfather.

Though he became wealthy post-Godfather, his status came with an enormous price for the author. He was never again viewed as a "serious" literary craftsman.

"I'm no longer a novelist—I’m a junior partner in The Godfather business,’” he wrote in The Godfather Papers.

Ultimately, the collection will be accessible on the library’s website.

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, and a collection of 2,200 Hollywood scripts from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.

For further reading see Dartmouth news story.