A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
The Godfather - Mario Puzo
The story of ‘The Godfather’ traces the lives of two men, father and son, and on the more general outlook – a family. The story tells how both father and son, through their own unique experiences, go out of their way to avoid a life of crime, and shy away from any glorification of it. Both accommodate their aggressors, and are comfortable being relegated to the sidelines as long as their families are unharmed. However they live their lives in the midst of crime, and sooner or later when they are confronted with tough decisions involving the survival of their families, they are ready to fight back.
Vito Andolini has to flee his hometown of Corleone in Sicily because of a family feud with a local don. Vito is the only member of the family left alive after the feud and flees to New York. Vito is a simple and introspective man, who makes a living for himself in an Italian locality where crime is rife. Unable to support his growing family after losing a job, Vito is slowly introduced into a life of theft and smuggling by a friend. He commits his first murder after being extorted by a local mafiosi.
Though he is suspected of the killing by his community, he is never openly confronted with it, mainly because of the community’s collective relief at being free of the hoodlum. Vito’s legend grows more when he goes out of his way to reason rather than muscle his way out of tough situations. His soft hearted nature makes people approach him with their troubles and they seek him out for help to solve their problems. He becomes known as the Godfather in this manner.
His criminal enterprise continues to flourish of course, with illegal gambling, union rackets, smuggled alcohol and extortion raking in money. Eventually his friend-circle and influence widens and soon enough he has the police and politicians under his spell.
Vito has four children – three boys (Santino, Fredo and Michael) and a girl (Connie). Santino or Sonny as he is better known is the eldest. His vicious temper quickly gains him a place in his father’s business but also proves to be his undoing. Fredo is timid and does not seem to find a place in the family business despite trying. Michael is the most recalcitrant of the sons and prefers to be left alone to determine his own life. He finds himself at odds with what his father does for a living and seems to find comfort in the life he has come to know away from home at college. He joins the military against his father’s wishes.
Michael is plunged into the core of his father’s business when he chooses to avenge a failed assassination attempt on his father. He kills the would-be assassin and a complicit police officer, and is forced to flee to Sicily to escape the heat.
While their father recovers from his wounds, Santino takes control of the family business and Michael discovers the ways of his ancestors while living in exile. Michael is forced to return home upon Santino’s untimely and violent death and assist his father.
Eventually Michael is at the helm of his father’s vast criminal empire. The same enterprise that he was once ashamed of and avoided.
Inspiration Behind Major Characters
The protagonist - Don Vito A. Corleone is based on real mob boss Frank Costello (Luciano/Genovese crime family). Don Corleone was born in the same year as Costello, and like Costello earned vast illegal incomes from gambling and bootlegging, and enjoyed unrivalled political clout through friends in the power. Costello was also a link between his criminal partners and politicians. This too was not unlike Don Corleone, as is clearly put by Emilio Barzini during the meeting of all crime families in the book:
“Don Corleone is too modest. The fact is that Sollozzo and the Tattaglias could not go into their new business with the assistance of Don Corleone. In fact, his disapproval injured them.” (p.288)
- The Godfather, Book V
Unlike Costello however, Don Corleone was considered old fashioned, a moustache-pete. Similarities don’t end there. Both had gambling interests in Las Vegas and Cuba, and neither was too keen on narcotics. Assassination attempts on both were unsuccessful. However, real life is different from fiction, and though Costello was deeply respected till the end and did die of natural causes, he was imprisoned several times, and he was overthrown from his position on the “Mafia Commission”.
Carlo Gambino’s (1902-1976, Gambino crime family) life also inspired Don Corleone’s character. Both were low-key gangsters, and quite different from their contemporaries. Gambino was careful enough never to be imprisoned, and died in his own home. Like Gambino, Don Corleone had three sons and a daughter. Gambino’s illegal activities included loan sharking, illegal gambling and protection money, and all members of his “Gambino family” were forbidden from dealing in drugs – “Deal and die” became his policy because he considered narcotics to be too dangerous, though lucrative.
Also like Don Corleone, Gambino’s activities came under heavy FBI scrutiny with wiretaps, bugs and lip-readers being employed to gather evidence, but Gambino knew how to conduct his business “in silence” and escaped without any jail time.
MOE GREENE & HYMAN ROTH
Moe Greene was a handsome hood who made his rep as a Murder Incorporated executioner in Brooklyn. He had branched out into gambling and gone west to seek his fortune, had been the first person to see the possibilities of Las Vegas and built one of the finest hotel casinos on the strip. He still had murderous tantrums and was feared by everyone in the hotel.
Greene put his drink down on the table and said with barely controlled fury, “What’s this I hear the Corleone Family is going to buy me out? I’ll buy you out, you don’t buy me out.”
Michael said reasonably, “Your casino has been losing money against all the odds. There’s something wrong with the way you operate. Maybe we can do better.”
- The Godfather, Book VII
We all know what happened to Moe Greene.
Puzo based Moe Greene’s character on real-time mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, once a hit-man for the mob, and a pioneer in building hotel-casinos in Las Vegas. Desperate to become legitimate, Siegel was asked by his associate – Meyer Lansky (the source of The Godfather II movie character – Hyman Roth) to look after the syndicate’s business interest in Vegas, namely building of the Flamingo. Awed by the potential opportunity he saw there, Siegel muscled out the builder and took responsibility. Unfortunately for Siegel it wasn’t as easy as he thought, he soon ran into trouble with financing the project and ended up losing money even when the casino did finally open for business in 1946. The syndicate threatened him several times during the project for overshooting budgets and not showing any return on their investment. A few months later Siegel was assassinated.
Siegel was shot in the back of the head and the bullet exited his eye, whereas in The Godfather movie, Moe Greene was shot in the eye.
In the movie The Godfather II, Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth, a long-time associate of the Corleone Family, have an argument about an assassination allegedly given the go-ahead by Roth. When Michael questions the move Roth brings up the assassination of his friend Moe Greene by the Corleone family, who he claims pioneered the development of Vegas. Roth claims that Moe Greene too was assassinated for “business” reasons, and reminds Michael that he (Roth) never interfered at the time. (Roth also laments that there is no memorial in Vegas in recognition of Moe Greene’s accomplishments.) In the movie Roth is killed when he returns from Israel to retire in the United States. However Meyer Lansky, on whom the character of Hyman Roth is based, lives long enough to die in his own home of natural causes.
Lansky befriended Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano at a young age. The three of them were already involved in crime and together the formed a lasting partnership, which included setting up the National Crime Syndicate and Murder Incorporated. When Luciano was arrested, Lansky set up a deal with the FBI to release Luciano into exile in Sicily in exchange for assistance from the mob during World War 2. Lansky also saw great potential in casinos in Vegas and Cuba, and despite several financial failings on Bugsy Siegel’s part in building the Flamingo, Lansky pleaded with the National Crime Syndicate to spare Siegel’s life as much as possible. In the end, it was rumoured that Lansky (because of his proximity to Siegel) was the one who had to give the final go-ahead in Siegel’s assassination.
With the authorities getting tough on organized crime, Lansky moved his wealth to a numbered account in a Swiss bank. Though at the time of his death he was virtually penniless on paper, the FBI claim that he had hundred of millions of dollars in hidden account though none of it was ever found. Robert Lacey, Lansky’s official biographer refutes the claims saying that there was no evidence that Lansky was the brains and evil genius behind the mafia, and that it was more likely that he was something of an accountant to gangsters rather than a gangster himself.
Further Reading on FactBehindFiction.com
References and further reading
2. The World’s Most Evil People (Time Warner Paperbacks)
3. Gangsters and Gunmen (Time Warner Paperbacks)
4. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
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Don Vito Corleone was a devout family man and an upstanding member of the Italian-American community. ‘Godfather’ was a title given to him by all those he helped. In the image a member of the community thanks Don Corleone for his help while the Don’s eldest son looks on. (Image: jonathanrosenbaum.com)
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