American writer Peter Maas (1929–2001) gained fame as an investigative journalist and novelist. He became best known for his non-fiction works that explored organized crime and political and police corruption. Many of his books were made into movies, and almost all of them became bestsellers. His most famous works included The Valachi Papers and Serpico .
Maas emerged as one of the writing "stars" of the so-called New Journalism style of reporting that came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s. Typically, the proponents cut their professional teeth in the newspaper industry and later graduated into magazine writing, producing articles for magazines such as Esquire, Life , and Look . Later their names became fixtures on bestseller book lists.
Typically, the new journalists were more "literary" than traditional journalists: They either introduced a subjective perspective when writing about contemporary issues, or they applied a novelistic approach to their investigative reporting. In the process, many of them became as famous as the subjects they covered. Some marquee names in the new journalism included Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Gay Talese. Maas joined this pantheon by producing a string of highly successful works that addressed his signature themes and subjects: organized crime, political and personal corruption, police corruption, and the lone whistle-blower who, at great personal sacrifice, takes a moral stand against large, powerful organizations.
Maas was born in New York City on June 27, 1929, the son of Carl and Madeleine (Fellheimer) Maas. He grew up in the Hamilton Heights area of New York City's Upper West Side, a multi-cultural neighborhood that included German, Jewish, Italian, and Irish families. His own ethnic heritage included Dutch and Irish bloodlines.
Maas's journalistic ambitions unfolded when he attended Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in the late 1940s. A political science major, Maas worked for the university newspaper, the Duke Chronicle , receiving assignments from editor Clay Felker, who would later gain fame in New York City as the editor of such influential and trend-setting publications as The Village Voice and New York magazine. Felker heard that Walter Reuther, the then-president of the United Auto Workers Union, was recuperating in the Duke University Hospital from nothing less than an assassination attempt. With such a significant story so close at hand, he dispatched a reporter, Maas, to get an interview. Maas proved more than up to the task, and he accomplished the kind of journalistic coup that jumpstarts a career.
However, the trajectory to the top was not straightforward. Following graduation from Duke where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1949, he moved to Paris in 1950, where he studied at the Sorbonne and cut some more journalistic teeth filing stories as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune . This was followed by a military detour: during the Korean War he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served from 1952 to 1954. Eventually he found his way back to New York City, where he worked as an entertainment writer for Collier's magazine (1955–56). When the magazine folded, Maas was forced to find work and income as a crew member on a lobster boat.
He resumed his journalism career in 1959, when he became senior editor at Look magazine. In that position, he garnered national recognition for his story about a black inmate in Angola, Louisiana, who had been on death row longer than anyone else in the United States (14 years). Maas later served as a special consultant for the NBC television program "David Brinkley's Journal" (1961–62) and then became a senior writer for the Saturday Evening Post in New York City (1963–66).
While working for the Saturday Evening Post he secured a major "scoop," and a big break, when he learned about Joe Valachi, a Mafia "hit man" who was turning informer for the U.S. Government. Maas came across the story quite by accident, while he was researching an article about famous New York lawyer Roy Cohn, who had worked with Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. While visiting the New York office of U.S. attorney Robert Morgenthau, Maas conducted a lunch interview with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had also worked with McCarthy during the same period as Cohn. During the lunch, Kennedy let it slip out that Valachi was testifying before a Senate committee. During the committee hearings, Valachi provided organizational information about the Cosa Nostra and revealed the identities of its major figures. Maas seized upon the accidental tip and broke the story in a three-article series for the Saturday Evening Post , which he later followed with the book The Valachi Papers , which was eventually published in 1969.
But the path to publication was fraught with controversy and legal barriers. The U.S. Justice Department had encouraged Valachi to write his memoirs, hoping that the information he would provide would benefit law enforcement. The former racketeer produced a rambling 1,180-page manuscript titled The Real Thing . Maas was retained as the book's editor, and Justice Department officials permitted Maas to interview Valachi in his Washington, D.C., jail cell.
When word of this project leaked to the press in 1966, the county's Italian-American community expressed anger and indignation, believing that the work would further foster the negative impression that all Italians were connected to organized crime. Prominent Italian-Americans, including Congressman Peter Rodino, protested the book to then-Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. This intervention seemingly killed the project. However, Maas, complaining that the Justice Department was influenced by political pressure, stood by his contract and indicated that he would complete the book.
Maas's adamant posture prompted the Department to file suit in federal district court for an injunction against publication of Valachi's memoirs. The Department brief claimed that publication would be "detrimental to law enforcement" and cause the United States "immediate and irreparable harm." The Department also claimed that Maas had violated the terms of the original agreement when he applied for a copyright and revealed book portions to a literary agent without Department permission.
In response, Maas and his attorneys took a free speech stance, claiming the Justice Department's actions amounted to censorship. Maas also pointed out that he could not have breached a contract when he applied for a copyright, as a completed manuscript did not exist and could not be submitted to the Justice Department for its final approval.
The court rendered its decision in 1968. It upheld a government regulation that prohibits a prisoner from writing and publishing a book about his or her criminal activities. At the same time, the court said Maas could not be stopped from writing a book based on information he gathered from personal interviews, tape recordings, and other sources. In other words, it was a "go," and Maas proceeded at work on the manuscript that would become The Valachi Papers .
Despite the favorable court decision, Maas's troubles were not over. He still had to find a publisher, and that would prove difficult. In all, 20 publishers rejected his manuscript. At the time, the conventional wisdom in the publishing world said the Mafia "does not sell" (this was in the pre-"Godfather" era, before Mario Puzo's book and the film adaptation became a cultural phenomenon). Finally, in 1969, Putnam decided to publish The Valachi Papers , and Maas's efforts were vindicated by the book's sales. In its first hardcover publication, the book sold out only a few days after its release. It was subsequently released in paperback to a first-run printing of 1.75 million copies, and paperback sales would eventually reach 2.5 million copies. In 1972 The Valachi Papers was made into a movie, produced by famous film mogul Dino De Laurentiis and starring Charles Bronson as Valachi. The film adaptation grossed $20 million.
After working as a writer for nearly 20 years, Maas became an overnight sensation with The Valachi Papers . His next work, Serpico , would bring him even greater success.
Serpico , published in 1973, told the true story of an honest police officer, Frank Serpico, who encounters rampant corruption within the New York City Police Department. In the early 1970s, frustrated that top NYPD officers did nothing about his allegations of the insidious corruption, Serpico took his case to the press, providing the New York Times with documented evidence. In February of 1971, during a narcotics raid, Serpico was shot in the face by a drug dealer. Many believed that Serpico had been set up by fellow police officers in retaliation for his whistle-blowing activities.
In the fall of 1971, Serpico agreed to work with Maas on a book about his career as a police officer. Maas's project entailed six months of interviews with Serpico, followed by six months spent corroborating Serpico's story. His research included examining confidential police files and inter-office memos, and followup interviews with hundreds of witnesses. Maas even visited various crime scenes. At the end of this voluminous research, Maas could only conclude that Serpico was completely truthful.
Actually writing the book took Maas nine months. Surprisingly, Putnam Publishing Co., which had published The Valachi Papers , rejected his manuscript. This time, Maas was told that books about cops would not sell. Putnam no doubt rued its decision. Viking published the book in 1973, and Serpico became a bestseller, eventually selling more than three million copies. Producer De Laurentiis bought the rights for $400,000, and the film version, starring Al Pacino (who earned an Academy Award nomination playing Frank Serpico), was a critical and commercial smash. It later spawned a short-running television series. Maas gave half of the $400,000 he earned from De Laurentiis to Frank Serpico.
Two years after the publication of Serpico , Maas's life was marked by tragedy. On July 2, 1975, his wife, Audrey Gellen, was killed in an automobile accident. Maas had married Gellen, who was a producer and writer (she co-produced director Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in 1974), on April 4, 1962. They had one son, John Michael, who was born in 1968. This personal catastrophe resulted not only in obvious emotional turmoil; it produced substantial legal problems. The couple had no will, and Maas spent a fortune settling the financial entanglements.
Maas managed to gain back some of the incurred financial losses with his next book, King of the Gypsies , yet another successful non-fiction venture. Published in 1975, the book related a struggle for power within the "royal" gypsy family. It was made into a movie in 1978, starring Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Eric Roberts, and Judd Hirsch. Maas sold the film rights for $350,000.
Maas followed King of the Gypsies with a work of fiction titled Made in America (1979). Maas's friends, including novelist E.L. Doctorow, had encouraged Maas to try his hand at fiction writing. The plot concerns Richie Flynn, an ex-pro football player turned beer salesman, who devises a get-rich-quick scheme and funds his dream with money obtained from a loan shark. With the story, Maas attempted to depict the human condition and, more specifically, how an ordinary man's essentially decent spirit can be corrupted.
In 1983 it was back to non-fiction for Maas. Marie: A True Story related how a lone woman, Marie Ragghianti, stood up against the Tennessee government and a corrupt governor who was selling clemency for cash. In telling the story, Maas conducted extensive research. He reviewed nearly 3,000 pages of trial transcripts and legal depositions and produced 4,200 pages of transcriptions from interviews with Ragghianti and 76 witnesses. In 1985 the book was made into a movie, Marie , starring Sissy Spacek.
In 1986 Maas wrote another hard-hitting exposé, Manhunt , which told the story of Edwin Wilson, the ex-CIA agent who engaged in illegal weapons trafficking with Libya's Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. Three years later he released his second novel, Father and Son , a tragic tale whose title characters included Michael McGuire, a widower and New York City advertising executive, and his son, Jamie, whose support for the Irish Republican Army leads him to becoming a pawn for the terrorist organization.
Maas then wrote a true-crime book, In a Child's Name , released in 1990, about a dentist named Kenneth Taylor who murdered his wife, Teresa Taylor. The focus of the book was the couple's orphaned infant son, who was caught in the middle of a bitter custody batter involving Kenneth Taylor's parents and his wife's relatives. The novel was made into a television mini-series.
This was followed four years later by Maas's third novel, China White . The title referred to the purest form of heroin, and the plot concerned the efforts of a lawyer and an FBI agent to stop the flow of the drug into the United States. Their efforts take them into the shadowy underworld of Chinese crime organizations.
Maas's next book was the non-fiction work Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI's Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Amos, America's Deadliest Spy , released in 1995. The book detailed how FBI agents tracked down Amos, a CIA operative who became a KGB spy. Amos's mercenary activities had led to the death of at least 12 U.S. agents.
Maas returned to the world of organized crime in 1997 with Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia . Like Valachi, Gravano turned government informant. His testimony led to the conviction of Mafia leader John Gotti.
Maas's last book was The Terrible Hours , released in 1999, the story of a successful U.S. submarine rescue that took place right before World War II. The book was adapted into a television movie titled Submerged . Like nearly all of Maas's works, The Terrible Hours was a bestseller.
Mass died in on August 23, 2001, in New York City, from complications following surgery for an ulcer. He was 72. Before his death, he lived in a Manhattan apartment and regularly wrote articles for publications such as Parade, George (the magazine published by the late John Kennedy Jr.), and Gourmet magazine.
After the death of his first wife, Maas married two more times. On September 14, 1976, he married real estate broker Laura Parkins. They separated in 1979 and subsequently divorced. On February 1, 1986, he married Suzanne Jones.
During his career, Maas had became a "star" writer, and his name was frequently placed above the title on the book covers. However, late in his life he decried the celebrity attitude that infected the writing profession. New writers, he felt, were more focused on personal ambition and achievement instead of the story and the work it took to bring that story to print.
New York Times , August 24, 2001.
Independent (London, England), August 27, 2001.
St. Petersburg Times , October 31, 2000.
"Peter Maas," Contemporary Authors Online , http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 2, 2006).