35 MICHAEL CORLEONE
The Godfather Part 2, 1974, USA, Director Francis Ford Coppola
Back then in ‘58 I was a young lawyer, corporate and finance, that kind of thing. I was nothing important but on a gravy train and glad to be earning good money. I wasn’t making decisions, that came later and that was how I became a rich man. But back then in ‘58 I carried papers for the people doing the deals and I checked the contracts. My experience with Michael Corleone was limited, and maybe that was a good thing because I did hear terrible things about the man. But the kind of people who ran Vegas back then played rough. If I’d wanted nothing but fresh air, I wouldn’t have decided to earn a living in Vegas. Not that I decided. My firm in Los Angeles sent me there. The job was something I had to do but it didn’t bother me . By the time I was back working in LA again the main corporations had moved into the Desert City. If I was glad to return to LA, I have some fond memories of my time in Nevada. I liked the desert.
My acquaintance with Michael Corleone was limited to me being in the room on a few occasions and watching him do business, mainly with people who were legitimate contractors. Sometimes I would have to answer questions but most of the time I listened and watched my boss map the way forward. There was much to admire in Michael Corleone. Everyone including my boss said you could not trust a word the man said but he was always straight in business meetings. And he was polite. I would say he was very polite. More than that, the word I’d use is cordial. He also knew how to flatter people. He would usually praise someone just before he asked them to do something. It became predictable but why not, I thought.
Michael Corleone always made it clear what he wanted and he did not haggle. The man always paid top dollar. And he liked to put margins into the budgets. That is not unusual but Michael Corleone put in big margins, ridiculous really. He was that kind of man. The cost of a project did not phase him but he was horrified by the idea of not coming in under budget which, of course, was why he put in the big margins. My boss had a theory about why Michael Corleone overestimated costs the way he did. ‘He is the kind of man,’ said my boss, ‘that can’t bear disappointing himself. And rest assured, we won’t disappoint him.’
I don’t think we ever did. Michael Corleone never complained about the fees or the work we did although he made sure that no one was signed in to the percentages of the profits. Michael Corleone was tough with the grifters and the local politicians who thought they could hustle him for a payback but if you provided a service or a job, did something useful, he was a fair man. So it seemed to me. Most of the time Michael Corleone talked straight.
The law firm I was working for arranged the contracts on this hotel deal. Michael Corleone already owned a few hotels back in ’58 but he had actually wanted a stake in Vegas from the end of the 40s. Back then Moe Green was in cahoots with Hyman Roth, and between them they owned most of Vegas. Moe Green said no way was a Corleone buying a Vegas hotel. We all know what happened to Moe Green. I came along later when Michael wanted to add the Hotel Tropigala to his haul. We trod carefully. Hyman Roth still had a stake in Vegas but he was busy thinking about his business in Havana and that helped us. My theory is that Michael Corleone would never have worked his way into Vegas without what was happening in Cuba.
Yes, I did do some work with the lawyer Tom Hagen. I probably spent more time with Tom than Michael. The two men had known each other as children, and I know that Michael rated Hagen but I didn’t think the Corleone lawyer was anything special. Hagen had patience, and in our line of work that should not be underestimated. But I’ve known and worked with a lot of characters that were much sharper than Tom Hagen. You only had to watch the two to realise how loyal Tom was to Michael. Tom treated his boss as if he was royalty. Tom Hagen was as much a high class errand boy as he was a lawyer. In that respect I have to give credit to my own boss. He once said to me. ‘Behave with me in the way Tom Hagen does with Michael Corleone and I’ll sack you on the spot.’ I liked my boss for that although the same man didn’t like being contradicted.
I remember Michael Corleone being fastidious. Everything had to be so, you know, the way he lit a cigarette and drank his coffee. In the meetings Tom poured his coffee and made sure he had water. No, I remember, it wasn’t water. Michael Corleone drank a lot of club soda. I felt like I was watching a performance and seeing a man dressed for the part. I only ever saw him in business suits. He was a man that controlled his appetites. I wondered if that was how he managed people, that he understood how they needed more than he did. Michael Corleone certainly made a lot of money catering to human appetites. And what he knew about people helped him survive.
But I felt he wasn’t comfortable in Vegas. Sometimes we had meetings in his house by the lake at Tahoe. Michael Corleone had bought the house once owned by Whit Sterling. This Sterling guy was before my time but we all knew about how he was murdered by a woman who a couple of years before had shot him in the stomach and stolen forty thousand dollars of his money. It’s hard to believe that someone like Sterling who was so good at making money could be so stupid when it came to this woman. But we all have our blind spots, and once you let people get too close they become impossible to understand. I know from my own family. That is what I remember from Michael Corleone. He let no one ever be close. Even his casual remarks were rehearsed. I wonder if that was why Michael acted all the time like he was royalty. It helped him keep people at a distance. The house Sterling had owned was a desirable property but it was a lot more desirable and expensive after Michael and his sophisticated New York wife added extra buildings. I met his wife on just one occasion, no more than a couple of minutes. Tom led us all on to the terrace to show us the view of the lake and the mountains. Kay was there having breakfast. Some women would have been irritated but she just smiled and apologised for not being able to chat. Kay never came into Vegas, and when I saw her I understood why.
The general opinion was that Michael Corleone could read anyone, and that was how he maintained his power and grew his empire. I heard that Michael had respect for Sam Rothstein and Johnny Rosselli but no one else. The truth is that Michael Corleone was cagey with everyone. His sister Connie spent more time in Vegas than Michael. She was well known around the casinos and the hotels, and the rumour was that she was never seen with the same man twice and that they were all younger than her. But a woman doesn’t have to do much in Vegas to get a reputation. I also met Michael’s brother, Fredo, but you couldn’t have a conversation with Fredo. He wasn’t the sharpest but, worse than that, every time a woman walked by him the gaze of Fredo would follow her and his brain would drift away. You spent half the conversation explaining what had just been said. Fredo Corleone disappeared, and of course there were stories. But I can’t believe that a man would kill his own brother, even one as useless as Fredo although he wouldn’t have been so useless if he’d been able to accept being what he was, which was, it has to be said, not very much.
I had just one face-to-face conversation with Michael Corleone. We were in an elevator. We were not alone. No one was talking, and Michael, to break the silence more than anything, asked me if I had a family. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You have a wife, though?’ said Michael. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I thought you were ambitious,’ said Michael. ‘I am,’ I said. The doors of the elevator opened and Michael stepped out. He turned his head and said, ‘An ambitious man needs a family.’ And that was it. The next day the boss assigned me to the Ace Rothstein contract. Ace was a very different kind of man to Michael Corleone. He was in deep with this no good woman called Ginger but Ace couldn’t let go. Not long after the few times I met Michael Corleone I heard he was divorced from his wife Kay, the elegant woman I had seen eating breakfast that one time. Michael wasn’t like Sam or Whit Sterling with women. The ladies weren’t given second chances. But then Michael Corleone was that way with everyone. I don’t think about him that often but I’ve thought about Kay sitting on the terrace by Lake Tahoe and her eating a slice of toast the way she did that morning. How a lady with her style ever got involved with someone like Michael Corleone I’ll never know.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here.