RETRO: Pulp Fiction

Mario Puzo (left) and Bruce Jay Friedman

By M. J. Moore

For Jaime Lubin

Before the 1969 publication of The Godfather made his fortune, author Mario Puzo wrote profusely for the so-called “men’s magazines” published by Martin Goodman, who ruled the roost at Magazine Management Company in New York City. “I was working on a string of adventure magazines,” Mario later said, “writing free-lance stories and being treated by the publisher, Martin Goodman, better than any other publisher I had ever had.”

One of Puzo’s senior colleagues was novelist, playwright, and short-story writer Bruce Jay Friedman. In his literary memoir, Lucky Bruce, the less-than-glittering atmosphere of their shared realm is detailed. “Magazine Management people,” Friedman recalled, “seemed not so much to have been hired as to have washed ashore at the company like driftwood. We were all slightly ‘broken’ people. A few had gifts, but we were ‘rejects’ all, having clearly been unable to cut the mustard at the Luce and Hearst empires.”

Nonetheless, from their one-word titles (Male, Men, Stag, and so forth) to the promises implicit in two-word titles like True Action, Man’s Life, Man’s World and Man’s Conquest (one popular weekly was titled Mr. America), the periodicals put forth by Magazine Management Company satisfied the ravenous male hunger in postwar America for content-driven, boldly illustrated magazines that promised an array of wartime flashbacks, aggressively proactive soldier-of-fortune adventures set in the present, and of course a horny abundance of sexy female protagonists.

These were all “pulp fiction” periodicals. And Mario was conscripted to write highly fictionalized accounts of World War Two-era battles or skirmishes, with tantalizing lurid encounters. Everything was exaggerated. Fantasies were the prime element in the material that readers devoured in these periodicals. Combat fantasies (every American was a war hero) and sexual fantasies (every man, in his own way, could best James Bond with the ladies) were the glue holding such stories together.

Certain recurring topics and themes were recycled, and always enhanced by the illustrations that were drawn to push all the hot buttons. There was no shortage of cleavage-baring women being subjugated by Nazi SS officers or other archetypes of evil. Tellingly, the story titles and the graphic art illustrations often presented an equal balance between stories of WW II and newer conflicts in hot spots all over the world. One April issue of Man’s World in the early 1960’s offered up a title that highlighted the derring-do of President Kennedy’s newly created American warriors: “8 Green Berets Trapped . . . Outnumbered . . . Marked for Death.” America was then increasing its military role in Vietnam, and the “pulps” seized on the mystique of the Green Berets, who were duly pitched as the 1960’s sequel to Darby’s Rangers or Merrill’s Marauders in World War Two.

The titles of the features in any random “pulps” put out by Magazine Management Company ranged from “Sergeant Lewis and His Squad of Girl Guerrillas” or “Vile Secrets of the Nazis’ Cult of Horror” to “Sin Happy Co-Eds” and “I Was an Office ‘Passion Lottery’ Girl.” In addition to all the battle-driven, guerrilla-laden tall tales of invincible American he-men, there was a surfeit of domestic stories promising tell-all exposes of easy women and endless sex. The “pulps” served up a rougher, raw, B-movie type of variation on the sophisticated A-list fantasia published monthly in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. Sometimes the illustrations in the Magazine Management Company stories were more provocative than the coy, airbrushed topless “girls” on Planet Hefner. True, one could see bare breasts in Playboy, but in many of “the pulps” the illustrators often got away with placing grasping male hands atop female chests as some heroic rescue (or some dastardly Nazi humiliation) was underway.

What Mario Puzo had to do was write fast and write to order. Pages had to be filled. Reams of copy were required. And flights of pure fantasy were called for. This kind of writing was akin to 19th-century novels serialized in periodicals; only it was far easier because no single narrative had to be sustained over time. Hyperbole ruled.

“I became an ace pulp writer,” Mario once said: “I wiped out whole armies. I wrote a story about an invasion in which I killed 100,000 men and then later read the statistics. There were only 7,000 killed. But in the process I became an expert on World War II. I knew more than anybody [at Magazine Management Company] because I read all the books.”

The “postwar pulps” were magazines that no married man would wish to subscribe to, because the last thing he’d want was his wife to see a cover that was strewn with illustrations of half-clad women in damsels-of-distress postures, with slavering evil Nazis or sex-mad Commies threatening their virtue. The titillating men’s adventure magazines published by Magazine Management Company were designed to be bought off the rack. Many of the buyers might have subscribed to Argosy or Field & Stream, but those were Boy Scout manuals compared to Man’s Story or Man’s Life.

The lurid fantasia at the core of the magazines’ content always tapped into putative “real accounts” of sexual excess in some remote place or another, whether it was a faraway island in wartime or a suburban enclave in time present. As often as possible, the “postwar pulps” used the words nymph, nympho or nymphos (plural, the better to imagine orgies) on their covers. Examples abound: “The Embattled Yank and the Nymph of the Fifteen Islands”; and then there was “The Nympho Castaway and Her Crew of Five.”

When nymphomania was not deployed as a title tactic, a few suggestive words put the same message across, always feeding on chronic sexual cravings and visions of priapic indulgence that had none of the urbane, big-city polish of stories in Playboy.

“Tahiti: Lusty Island of Untamed Women” and “Nudist Paradise on the Riviera” and “Torture in Darkest Africa: Trapped by Mau Mau Terror” were all emblazoned on one magazine cover, dominated by an illustration of a half-naked sex siren.

All of the “postwar pulps” were intended for the diversionary entertainment of blue-collar, working class, non-college educated guys who would have gladly stared at the Playboy centerfolds, but didn’t give a damn about Hugh Hefner’s commentaries on being “sophisticated.”  These magazines piled up in barbershops and VFW halls. They were sold by the ton in train stations and at drug stores. Nobody complained if a man left such magazines behind in his neighborhood tavern, and no one asked why either. It was understood that this stuff was not meant for the Mrs. to see.

The image of “jolly, rotund Mario Puzo” that Bruce Jay Friedman always retained from this period is that of a corpulent wordsmith “leaning back in his chair, a large cigar in his mouth, reading six books at once, three in each arm, like he was tasting food.” By 1966, Puzo was carrying well over 200 pounds on his five-foot-six-inch frame, and his steady income dovetailed with his enlarged belly. He looked like a shorter, darker version of Jackie Gleason, with a “Ralph Kramden” girth on display, along with his daily supply of eight-inch cigars.

Puzo’s appetite for rich Italian or Chinese foods was matched by his perennial appreciation for the finest of cigars. Most of all, however, he appreciated the chance to generate more income as a writer for hire. It may have been true that Magazine Management Company was populated by a staff full of bruised and distressed individuals: “There was an astronomically high divorce rate,” as Bruce Jay Friedman remembered, and he also noted that “now and then, an editor who found life intolerable would run head first into a water cooler and have to be carried off to a rest home, never to be seen again.” The vagaries of the writing life were often on full display, even in unexpected ways.

But for Mario Puzo, it was a haven. In no way was he bummed out because “the fates had consigned him,” according to Bruce Jay Friedman, “to be trapped in a magazine purgatorio, and a down-market one as well.” Instead, Mario gloried in his ability to do what so many other writers cannot do: Constantly produce. Puzo understood that the kind of writing required by Martin Goodman’s magazines had nothing to do with literary virtuosity or exquisite effects. Those qualities were reserved for writing novels.

So, working on his novels (The Fortunate Pilgrim appeared in 1965; and The Godfather hit the jackpot in 1969) became a third-shift endeavor. Being an insomniac, as well as a moderate drinker who didn’t routinely go to bed drunk, made it possible for Puzo to work on his serious fiction in the wee small hours.

 

About M. J. Moore 13 Articles
M. J. Moore’s novel, For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor, will be published in October 2017, by Heliotrope Books. Moore is completing a biography of Mario Puzo.

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