Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Peter Israel on how The Godfather came to Putnam

Guest blogpost by Peter Israel, writer, editor, and former president and chairman of G. P. Putnam’s Sons

The late William Targ, who joined Putnam in 1964 as a senior editor and who, a year later, became interim Editor-in-Chief, took credit forever after for having “discovered” Mario Puzo and brought him and The Godfather to Putnam.

Wrong.

The late Mario Puzo—quietly, as was his wont—gave yours truly credit for having brought him and The Godfather to Putnam.

Wrong again, in very large part.

This is what I remember.

Around 1962–1963, on an otherwise humdrum day, Walter Minton, the president of Putnam and scion of the family that owned most of the company, decided that we should start a contest: “The best unpublished novel in the English language” by any writer. Why not?

Ever resourceful, yet ever cautious with a buck, Minton went in search of partners. By the time he was done, he had enlisted McCall’s magazine, a Hollywood studio, an American paperback publisher, a book club, and an English publisher to join the fun. The winner’s prize was announced—an advance against earnings of $225,000—and the only stipulation was that the author couldn’t have been previously published by any of the participants. The contest was to run for one year, renewable by agreement of the principals, and—thank the Good Lord—provision was made that if the principals couldn’t agree on a winner, the prize need not be awarded.

The contest was advertised widely and the initial result was entirely predictable: every fiction manuscript on every dusty shelf in the English-speaking world was sent to 210 Madison Avenue, New York, NY and ended up in the floor-to-ceiling piles that adorned our corridors and offices. We hired readers. They read. They read, and they rejected. The few that they didn’t outright reject, we editors did. The better part of a year went by and the magical manuscript failed to surface.

Drastic measures were called for. They took the form of one Saul Braun, an enterprising young writer-editor whom we hired to find The Book. To find The Book at all costs. We even gave Saul carte blanche to spread some “seed money” around in case he found any promising novelists with promising works-in-progress. Said novelists would be signed to normal Putnam contracts, given modest advances, and their works, upon completion, would become prime candidates for the prize.

And Saul spread it around most willingly, putting to work a number of his indigent buddies who happened to be scribes. Several such contracts were issued. As the company’s Editor-in-Chief I signed them all, and met and shook hands with the authors along the way and hoped we’d catch lightning in a bottle.

We didn’t. Despite Saul’s efforts, and even after we extended the contest for a second year, The Book failed to surface. Finally, bloodied and bowed, we declared the contest over, without a winner. Saul Braun left the company and joined a commune in New England, while I, in 1965, took an alleged one-year leave to write my own first chef d’oeuvre, which grew into a twelve-year absence from Putnam and New York.

The rest?

Haven’t you guessed?

One of Saul Braun’s “seed-money” buddies, to whom we’d given a modest contract, was a talented but struggling (and ever impecunious) young writer named Mario Puzo. By the time he finally delivered his manuscript, the contest had long since ended, but deliver he did! Putnam published The Godfather in 1969. It made a fortune for both author and publisher, far, far more than the $225,000 Mario might have won earlier. Bill Targ took the editor’s credit—by that time he’d formally replaced me—and there was no one to challenge him.

Bill was still at Putnam when I returned in 1978—I subsequently became President—and Mario was still there too. On my copy of Fools Die, which we published that same year, he wrote a message of thanks for my having been there for him in the beginning, when he’d needed me. I was duly appreciative, but as I tried to remind him at the time, I was only the guy who’d signed his contract. The real “villain of the piece” had been Saul Braun.

Does it matter? I suppose not. Bill Targ and Mario Puzo are both dead now. The Godfather lives on. I’m still around, but long gone from publishing and from the desire to take credit for anything.

But the true godfather of the story, at least as far as Putnam was concerned, was the unsung Mr. Braun. Hats off, Saul Braun, wherever you are!

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an excerpt from Mario Puzo’s second novel The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965))

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