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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > EASTSIDER PETER MAAS
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Author of Serpico and Made in America


On the surface, his life could hardly be calmer. Peter Maas gets up every morning to have breakfast with his 12-year-old son, then heads for his midtown office, where he spends about five hours at the typewriter. He rarely goes out in the evening, and his idea of fun is a weekend of fishing, a set of tennis or a game of backgammon. "I don't have to live in New York," he says. "When I'm working on a book, I might as well be living in the wilds of Maine."

But in his mind, Peter Maas leads the life of James Bond and Al Capone rolled into one. "I know an awful lot of people on both sides of the law," says the author of two nonfiction block-busters about crime, The Valachi Papers and Serpico. The Valachi Papers, the real-life saga of three generations of a Mafia chieftain's family, was published in 1969 following two years of court battles and rejections from 26 publishers who felt that books on the Mafia had no commercial potential. It sold three million copies in 14 languages and paved the way for an entire industry of Mafia books and movies.

Serpico (1973) revealed the rampant corruption in the New York City Police Department through the eyes of officer Frank Serpico. Then came King of the Gypsies (1975), Maas' third expose of the underbelly of American society which, like the others, was made into a successful movie.

Now the 50-year-old author has written his first novel, Made in America. Published in September by Viking, it is a raw, violent, grimly humorous story of an ex-football star for the New York Giants who gets mixed up with organized crime while borrowing money for a shady investment scheme. King Kong Karpstein, the terrifying loan shark who dominates the book, is based on several people whom Maas had known personally, and the novel's head Mafia character has much in common with Frank Costello, the "prime minister of the underworld," who granted Maas 11 interviews shortly before his death in 1975. The scenes of Made In America — porn parlors, criminal hideaways, the FBI offices — are all described with the same intense realism as the characters. The movie rights have been sold for $450,000.

"The reason I wrote it," explains Maas, sitting restlessly at his 11-room Eastside apartment on a recent afternoon, "was that I didn't want to wake up 10 years from now wondering what would have happened if I had written a novel. … I also think a writer has to challenge himself constantly. I don't think he should play a pat hand."

As he talks on in his breezy New York accent, fidgeting with a gold matchbox on the antique table beside him, Maas seems barely able to restrain himself from getting up and pacing the room. Quite striking in appearance, he is a tall, stocky man with a Brillo-pad thatch of silvery hair and eyebrows like cotton batting. A native Manhattanite, he was one of the country's top investigative reporters for many years before writing his first book, The Rescuer, in 1967.

The reason for the title Made In America, says Maas is that "the events in the novel could only happen in America. … One of the themes is that nobody in the book, including the football player and the federal prosecutor, thinks that he's doing anything wrong. So that's a very profound kind of corruption."

Like his previous books, Made in America took two years to write. "The biggest difference that I found," he points out, "was that in nonfiction, all the............
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