RETRO: When Puzo Met Sinatra

Al Martino as Johnny Fontane in THE GODFATHER (1972), left, and Frank Sinatra (the character's alleged inspiration) circa 1948.

FOR MICKEY ROURKE

Despite all the legions of fans who worshipped The Godfather, one man who had sustained a lifetime of triumphs (with a few low points as well) took a special interest in disliking it. That man was Frank Sinatra.

In Mario Puzo’s mythic literary opus, even more so than in the film adaptations from his book, the character of popular singer Johnny Fontane is a significant presence. When Puzo’s novel was published in 1969, anyone with a basic knowledge of cultural Americana in the prior two decades had no trouble seeing the distinct similarities between the life and times of Frank Sinatra (the self-anointed Chairman of the Board) and Johnny Fontane, who in Mario’s novel sometimes receives chapter-length attention.

The fact that millions of copies of The Godfather continued to sell as the 1970s got underway enraged Sinatra. Invariably, the ways in which the affairs and romances and Mafia-related favors of Johnny Fontane resembled the legend and the mystique of Sinatra’s own career trajectory made for inglorious gossip. Hot and juicy.

First edition of THE GODFATHER (1969)

How could it not? In 1970, Sinatra was one of the most famous men on the planet.  And his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner (back in 1951) was still talked about as a tale of star-crossed lovers. Gardner’s notoriously impassioned behavior and her famously hyperactive libido (just like Sinatra’s) made the comparisons between Johnny Fontane and his cheating second wife inevitable. But in Puzo’s novel there were also affirmative aspects to the character of Johnny Fontane, who is a doting father to his children and a reliable supporter to his former wife (whom he still obviously loves, though platonically). Such traits were often reported in the press when Sinatra’s life was summed up in articles, which appeared with great frequency. The life of Frank Sinatra was an open book.

In Mario’s novel, Johnny Fontane is a highly sympathetic figure. A complex man. That was Puzo’s intention all along.

“Now the thing was,” Mario recalled, “in my book, that I had written the Fontane character with complete sympathy for the man and his life-style and his hang-ups.  I thought I had caught the innocence of great show biz people, their despair at the corruption that their kind of life forces on them and the people around them.”

Somehow, word of the Fontane character had leaked even before the novel was published. “Before the book came out,” Mario remarked, “my publisher got a letter from Sinatra’s lawyers demanding to see the manuscript. In polite language we refused.” And that was the end of that, Puzo concluded… until more than a year later, that is. “I was working on the [film] script in Hollywood,” Mario recalled. And though his routine was to keep to himself on almost all nights and read as much as possible, he made the occasional exception and stepped out.

Mario Puzo circa 1970

One night Mario attended a party at Chasen’s, which regularly hosted Hollywood royalty the way that Elaine’s served as the Pantheon in Manhattan. As for the glad-handing, backslapping millionaire hosting the party that night, Mario recalled: “He wore red slacks and a miniature Stetson and had that five-martini affability I dread more than anything else in the world.” Gradually, inexorably, things happened. The die was cast.

As Puzo recalled the incident, trouble began when “the millionaire took me by the hand and started leading me toward a table.” Suddenly, the host said: “You’ve gotta meet Frank . . . he’s a good friend of mine.”

Momentum was swift. “We were almost to the table,” Mario remembered years later, “[and] I still could have wrenched loose and walked away, but it would have been an obvious snub. It was easier, physically and psychologically, to be led the few remaining steps.”

Nothing good came from it. Although he claimed to dislike the press, Sinatra kept a close eye on newspapers and magazines. When he wanted or needed to, he played the media like a master pianist plays Chopin. By this time, the July 1970 issue of LIFE Magazine, with its photo-essay on Puzo, was in circulation. There could be no doubt about who was suddenly being pulled toward the table, where sat the most famous singer in the world.

Sinatra circa 1970

“Sinatra never looked up from his plate,” Puzo recalled. The millionaire completely missed that cue, and spoke gregariously: “I’d like you to meet my good friend, Mario Puzo.”

Sinatra sat there like a Sphinx. Finally, he said: “I don’t think so.” Instantly, Mario turned to move away. Then he heard a repeat.

The millionaire offered another introduction. It was clear that in all of his “five-martini affability,” the host didn’t understand his faux pas. He tried again. This time Sinatra was adamant: “I don’t want to meet him.”

Space was tight and Puzo could not make an easy, inconspicuous exit. “I was trying to get past the Right-Hand Man and get the hell out of there,” he said. Amid the discomfort all around, the scene became a farce. Realizing that he had transgressed and possibly offended the Chairman of the Board, the millionaire host “began stuttering his apologies . . . to Sinatra. [He] was actually in tears. ‘Frank, I’m sorry, God, Frank, I didn’t know, Frank, I’m sorry—‘ “

The mood shifted. Mario had begun his retreat. Now Sinatra was conciliatory toward his crestfallen acquaintance. And Puzo’s antenna picked it all up. He may have been stepping away, but Mario noted that “Sinatra cut him short and his voice was . . . soft and velvety. He was consoling the shattered millionaire. ‘It’s not your fault,’ Sinatra said.” Apparently, Sinatra assumed that Puzo had choreographed the encounter.

All of a sudden, Mario turned on a dime and returned to the table long enough to say: “Listen, it wasn’t my idea.” Total confusion reigned.

Mario later explained: “[Sinatra] completely misunderstood. He thought I was apologizing for the character of Johnny Fontane in my book.” Adopting a kind mien on the assumption that Mario wished to atone, Sinatra asked Puzo: “Who told you to put that in the book, your publisher?”

Puzo clarified what he had meant when he said: “Listen, it wasn’t my idea.” He clarified it by doing the unthinkable. He spoke straight talk to a man who wasn’t used to such a thing. “I mean about being introduced to you,” he said to Sinatra.

That set off Sinatra’s apoplectic fit. The very idea that the minion in his midst had not been keen to meet the king was even more offensive than Johnny Fontane. But what Puzo recalled with real surprise was that “contrary to his reputation [Sinatra] did not use foul language at all. The worst thing he called me was a pimp.”

Their encounter ended as “Sinatra started to shout abuse . . . [he said] that if it wasn’t that I was so much older than he, he would beat the hell out of me.”

Such idiocy is unintentionally funny. First: Sinatra was five years older than Puzo, but as Mario once noted: “OK, he looked twenty years younger.” Still, the absurdity was off the charts. Puzo framed matters in relation to their shared ethnic heritage. “What hurt was that here he was, a Northern Italian, threatening me, a Southern Italian, with physical violence. This was roughly the equivalent of Einstein pulling a knife on Al Capone. It just wasn’t done. Northern Italians never mess with Southern Italians except to get them put in jail or deported to some desert island.”

That was a polite way assessing matters. In truth, Sinatra (despite his vaunted reputation as a tough guy) couldn’t fight his way out of a tuxedo, unless he was hitting a woman (something for which he was rather well known). Several times he had paid off his low-life goons to come from the shadows and beat up certain male enemies. He was a pampered man whose idea of roughing it was running out of ice cubes, and he was too busy with valets, massages, saunas, manicures, and other forms of prissy self-indulgence to learn how to throw a real punch. Sinatra wouldn’t have lasted two weeks with the Fourth Armored Division in World War Two (a perforated eardrum, which oddly never affected his musical expertise, kept “Frankie” out of the military in the 1940s), yet Mario Puzo had served more than two years.

Their dismal singular encounter, Puzo recalled, ended awkwardly:

Sinatra kept up his abuse and I kept staring at him.  He kept staring down at his plate. Yelling. He never looked up. Finally I walked away and out of the restaurant. My humiliation must have showed on my face because he yelled after me, “Choke. Go ahead and choke.” The voice frenzied, high-pitched.

At least one of the two men had the decency (and balls) to look at the other.

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was recently published by Heliotrope Books. He’s completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)

About M. J. Moore 19 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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