The Valachi Papers is a biography written by Peter Maas, telling the true story of former mafia member Joe Valachi, a low-ranking member of the New York based Genovese crime family, who was the first ever government witness coming from the American Mafia itself. His account of his criminal past revealed many previously unknown details of the Mafia. The book was made into a film (The Valachi Papers), released in 1972, starring Charles Bronson as Valachi.
In October 1963, Valachi testified before Senator John L. McClellan's congressional committee on organized crime, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations. In the so-called Valachi hearings he gave the American public a firsthand account of Mafia activities in the United States.
In 1964 the US Department of Justice urged Valachi to write down his personal history of his underworld career. Although Valachi was only expected to fill in the gaps in his formal questioning, the resulting account of his thirty-year criminal career was a rambling 1,180-page manuscript titled The Real Thing.
Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach authorized the public release of Valachi’s manuscript. He hoped that publication of Valachi’s story would aid law enforcement and possibly encourage other criminal informers to step forward. Author Peter Maas, who broke Valachi’s story in The Saturday Evening Post, was assigned the job of editing the manuscript and permitted to interview Valachi in his Washington, D.C., jail cell.
The American Italian Anti-Defamation League promoted a national campaign against the book on the grounds that it would reinforce negative ethnic stereotypes. If the book’s publication was not stopped they would appeal directly to the White House. Katzenbach reversed his decision to publish the book after a meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson; an action that embarrassed the Justice Department.
In May 1966, Katzenbach asked a district court to stop Maas from publishing the book—the first time that a U.S. attorney general had ever tried to ban a book. Maas was never permitted to publish his edition of Valachi’s original memoirs, but he was allowed to publish a third-person account based upon interviews he himself had conducted with Valachi. These formed the basis of the book The Valachi Papers, which was published in 1968 by Putnam.
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“To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse. They are of two kinds: the library of published material, books, pamphlets, periodicals, and the archive of unpublished papers and documents.”
—Barbara Tuchman (19121989)