Mario Puzo has always insisted that when he wrote The Godfather, he knew so little about organized crime that he had no real Mafia dons in mind as models for Don Corleone.
From his writing, it is clear that he regards them as a higher form of life than politicians or corporate lawyers. The Michael Milkens, Ivan Boeskys and Charles Keatings have proven him to be correct.
Puzo also insists that the character of singer Johnny Fontaine was not based on Frank Sinatra, although everyone has always assumed this to be true.
Sinatra, who has cursed Puzo publicly on the few occasions they've met, certainly believes so.
Sinatra aside, there remain compelling reasons students of organized crime should believe the original Godfather, portrayed by Marlon Brando, is actually based on the retired Mafia don, Joseph Bonanno of Tucson.
Like Corleone, Bonanno once headed one of the five Mafia families in New York City. His intelligence, devotion to his family and Sicilian background make it appear as though Vito Corleone was lifted directly from Bonanno's life and then embellished.
Bonanno was certainly every bit as flamboyant as Don Corleone when he gave wedding parties.
When Bonanno's son, Bill, was married in 1956, more than 3,000 guests were invited to the Astor Hotel ballroom in New York. No expense was spared. Mafia bosses from all over the country were on hand. The singing was done by none other than Tony Bennett.
The guest list included the top men in the underworld, among them, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Frank Costello from New York. Joseph Barbara came, too. He later hosted the meeting of Mafia chiefs in New York, that was to cause the organization so much grief. Sam Giancana and Tony Accardo came from Chicago, and the group from Los Angeles reportedly numbered as many as eighty.
Later, when Gay Talese was in the process of researching Honor Thy Father, his nonfiction book about Bill Bonanno and what it meant to be a Mafia son, he showed Bonanno a copy of Puzo's novel.
"Bill stayed up half the night reading it," Talese says. "He believed his own father possessed many of the sophisticated qualities that the writer attributed to Don Vito Corleone."
And young Bonanno, who attended both Northern Arizona University and Phoenix College, even identified with Michael Corleone, the role played by Al Pacino.
Several years later, when Joseph Bonanno wrote his own book, he called it A Man of Honor.
"My name is Joe Bonanno," he began. "I am 78 years old and a grandfather. I've often been described as a gangster, a racketeer, a mobster. I'm supposed to be or have been, the `boss of all bosses' . . . whatever that means."
About The Godfather, he wrote:
"Why did so many people flock to read The Godfather and to watch the movie? This work of fiction is not really about organized crime. The true theme has to do with family pride and personal honor. That's what made The Godfather so popular. It portrayed people with a strong kinship trying to exist in a cruel world."
In the book, Bonanno recalls his long friendship with Judge Evo DeConcini, father of Senator Dennis DeConcini.
There has long been a controversy over this friendship because Evo DeConcini was an Arizona Supreme Court justice who even appeared as a character witness for Bonanno when the U.S. government tried to deport him.
Dennis DeConcini has always insisted that his family knew Bonanno only as a "retired cheesemaker" from Wisconsin.
Bonanno, on the other hand, says he only began to feel comfortable around Evo upon learning that DeConcini's family had also befriended Tony Mirabile, the leader of a Sicilian clan in San Diego.
"The earlier days of our friendship were most enjoyable," Bonanno writes. "When I was in town, we would visit each other's homes. The DeConcinis were never reluctant to accept my generosity. I would take them out to restaurants and I would pick up the tab."
Bonanno points out that his friendship with DeConcini shouldn't make anyone think DeConcini was a crooked judge.
"What sticks in my craw," Bonanno writes, "is the family's hypocrisy. The DeConcinis broke with me in the early Seventies right after the election of their son, Dennis, as Pima County attorney. Since then Dennis has tried to whitewash and disinfect Evo's friendship with me.
"As you would expect," Bonanno writes, "Dennis DeConcini, now a U.S. senator, continues to give the impression that his father and I had only a casual, fleeting friendship.
"It is true that I never leaned across the table and said to Evo DeConcini: `Hey, judge, do you know who I am? I'm "duh boss."' It is an insult to Evo's intelligence to say he really didn't know who I was. Evo would have to be a dunderhead not to know who I was, and Evo was no dummy."