The Rise and Fall of Jerzy Kosinski
Fifty years ago Jerzy Kosinski stepped off a plane at Idlewild Airport. Although the twenty-four-year-old from Poland arrived in New York with little money and few contacts — two of his early jobs were parking lot attendant and movie theater projectionist — he rose to a prominence that was comprised of both esteem and notoriety.
Yet many today would ask, Who is Jerzy Kosinski?
His first novel, The Painted Bird, published in 1965 (eight years after Kosinski’s arrival), was heralded as a classic by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller. Widely translated, it received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.
Steps, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1969.
Being There (1971) was made into a film starring Peter Sellers. Kosinski’s screenplay was cited as best of the year by The Writers’ Guild of America and The British Academy.
His next five novels were bestsellers.
He served two terms as president of P.E.N., the international organization of writers and editors.
There’s more — an award for achievement from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, teaching stints at Princeton and Yale — but Kosinski’s renown extended beyond the written word.
He was on “The Tonight Show” twelve times, one of Johnny Carson’s coterie of offbeat and colorful guests.
He played a small but significant role in the movie “Reds,” directed by his friend Warren Beatty. (He got billing over Jack Nicholson.)
He would have been at the Beverly Hills home of another Hollywood friend, Roman Polanski, on the night that Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by members of Charles Manson’s “Helter Skelter” family; but on his flight from Paris to Los Angeles his luggage was unloaded by mistake in New York, which delayed him by a day.
He appeared half-naked on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Away from the public spotlight, at dinner and cocktail parties held in New York penthouses, Kosinski was on a first name basis with the famous — Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, theater critic John Simon, Senator Jacob Javits — and also with those anonymous bankers and industrialists whose decisions drive the world’s economy. He was often the center of attention, for he had the gift of beguiling.
In appearance Kosinski was an oddity. He could have posed for an illustration in a Grimm’s fairy tale — maybe a court jester, combining mischief and menace. His face was framed by a dense mass of tightly-curled black hair. His eyes, under wizard-like brows, were large, black and bright. His nose had the hook of a predatory bird’s beak. His mouth, unusually long and thin, seems, in photographs, to be clamped shut like an oyster shell.
But that mouth opened, and out came exotic stories told in an exotic accent. Chilling tales of his childhood in Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe. Accounts of his adventures in the cryptic world of communist Poland and the Soviet Union. Stories about his prowls around New York at night — to sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, with its orgy room; to sadomasochistic and transsexual hangouts; to brothels catering to every desire.
Kosinski was a kind of emissary, one dressed in suit and tie, bringing dispatches from life’s underbelly. Yet he did it with a raconteur’s wit, and he always retained a sense of mystery. Did he participate in the sexual circus he described or was he just an observer? In all his stories, what was truth, what was made up? That he left ambiguous. His audience accepted his smiling evasiveness; it was an intriguing part of the game he played.
Despite his free-wheeling lifestyle, Jerzy Kosinski had a wife. She did not accompany him on his nighttime prowls (various other women did), but it was entirely due to her that he was in a room entertaining the affluent and powerful.
Before the marriage he had been an academic studying social psychology. He had written two books of anticommunist essays under the pseudonym of Joseph Novak. Mary Hayward Weir, the widow of an industrialist, had admired his writing, and this led to their first meeting. She employed the young man to catalogue the books in her library.
When they married Kosinski was twenty-nine. Mary was forty-seven.
He was suddenly part of a world that included a Park Avenue duplex, homes and vacation retreats in Southampton, London, Paris, Florence. There were servants, a private jet, a boat with a crew of seventeen. And, of course, those parties.
The marriage ended after four years (two years later Mary died of brain cancer). Though his life of opulence was over, he had published The Painted Bird, and thereafter his writing provided him with a substantial income. He traveled extensively, he skied, he played polo.
Shortly after Mary Weir’s death, Kosinski began a relationship with Katherina (“Kiki”) von Fraunhofer, a descendent of Bavarian aristocracy. After twenty years together they married; four years later, in 1991, Jerzy Kosinski committed suicide. He was fifty-seven.
Eight years before he got into a bathtub and put a plastic bag over his head, the writing career of Jerzy Kosinski had been fatally damaged. The first blow came in the form of a 1982 Village Voice articled entitled “Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words.” Three major accusations were made.
One was that Kosinski didn’t deserve credit as the author of his books. Someone came forward claiming that he had written The Painted Bird; others said that Kosinski wrote it in Polish and that the translator had not been acknowledged. As for the seven episodic novels which had followed, it was alleged that Kosinski provided the ideas but editors did the actual writing; the books were, in effect, ghostwritten.
Another accusation was plagiarism — that Kosinski filched the concept and structure of Being There from a 1932 Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega Mostowicz.
A third accusation was the most damning, for it undermined the whole raison d’etre of The Painted Bird. Kosinski declared — at parties, in interviews, in writing — that he was the boy in the novel (which, he said, was not strictly a novel but was “auto-fiction”). This nameless boy — who has black hair and black eyes and is thus suspected of being a Jew or a Gypsy (though his ethnicity is never stated in the book) — is six when World War II breaks out. He winds up wandering from village to village. Where? In the first printing the locale is central Poland, but in every subsequent edition it is Eastern Europe. For four years he is witness to and victim of horrific cruelty and barbarism — committed not by the Nazis but by peasant villagers, who are superstitious, ignorant and brutal. After being thrown into a pit of excrement, in which he nearly suffocates, the boy loses the power of speech. At the end of the novel he regains it.
Poles were highly indignant about how their people were depicted (for twenty-three years the novel was banned in Poland). Then accusations from Polish researchers began to emerge. Kosinski’s story was a lie. He had not suffered atrocities at the hands of Polish peasants. Rather, he and his family had lived through the years of Nazi occupation not only in safety, but in comfort. And their protectors? — Poles.
Documents, personal accounts and even photographs were produced. In the Polish version, the Jewish Lewinkokopf family, to escape the Nazis, moved from Lodz (where the Lodz ghetto and the nearby Chelmno Extermination Camp would claim hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives) and changed their name to Kosinski, a common Polish one. They lived in the homes of Poles and their true identity was concealed by Poles. They carried on their lives as Catholics. Jerzy was baptized and received Holy Communion; he served as an altar boy. The Lewinkokopf/Kosinski family was in fearful hiding, but not in a potato cellar or barn. They even employed a maid.
The Poles branded Jerzy Kosinski a Holocaust profiteer. It is true that The Painted Bird was immediately granted the status of a chronicle of the Holocaust, and as a Holocaust text it was placed on college and even high school required reading lists. Reviewers constantly used the words “realistic” and “brutal truth” when praising it. Some drew parallels with The Diary of Anne Frank.
But Anne Frank was in that attic. If you take away the authenticity of The Painted Bird, what is left?
A truth reinforced for me during my research is that truth can be a slippery thing. The information about Kosinski’s rise and his years of success should be fairly accurate, since those are matters of public record or come, undisputed, from multiple sources. But the accusations which precipitated his fall present problems. I encountered so many contradictory and questionable “facts” that everything I read became suspect. I began to believe nothing.
Kosinski — the man who, according to both friends and foes, liked to operate from behind smoke and mirrors — was no help in clearing up matters. One example: When he writes about his relationship with Mary Weir, what emerges is a picture of a devoted couple separated only by her tragic death. Why does he omit the fact that they divorced? Could it be that he did not want his marriage to a wealthy socialite eighteen years his senior to be perceived as a career move? Reading Kosinski on his personal life, I constantly sensed I was being steered in a direction that suited his purposes.
The end to my research came in the reference section of my library. I consulted two highly-respected texts. Contemporary Authors, published by Gale Research, relates the story of how Kosinski, as a boy, lived through the experiences depicted in The Painted Bird. Next I opened American Writers, edited by Jay Parini. Their essay on Kosinski bluntly states that he lied about his wartime experiences; he was safe with his parents. The two texts, working with the same available information, present opposing conclusions.
Since “experts” armed with evidence disagree, I’m using a different approach in this essay — a personal one. Though my emotions will come into play, I suspect that many have let their enmity or admiration for Kosinski determine which version of the truth they choose to believe. I harbor neither of these feelings toward the man; my responses arise solely from his work. For my method I’ll rely on simple logic, and for my texts I’ll use the novels he wrote (or didn’t write). You may find my conclusions faulty, but at least you’ll be able to follow my reasoning and see where it leads me.
The easiest accusation to tackle is the one about plagiarism. A Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma exists, but there’s no indication that it has been translated into English. So I cannot compare it to Being There. Still, how could a novel written in Poland in 1932 correspond closely to the adventures of Chauncey Gardiner in New York in the 1960’s? Television had not been invented in 1932; Chauncey is a product of television. He moves into the lofty realms of corporate wealth. Being There is relevant to the media-driven America of today. Kosinski may have borrowed the premise of the idiot whose simpleminded utterances are interpreted as profundities, but he had to shape this premise greatly to fit his purposes.
Next — did Kosinski write his novels? I came across no solid, unassailable proof that he didn’t. It all comes down to words by people making this claim, and refutations of those words, some by editors stating that they did nothing more than normal editorial work on his books. We do have Kosinski’s admission that he was not only very receptive to editorial advice but that he actively solicited help. He would send copies of a novel-in-progress to friends, asking them to mark places that “didn’t sound right” (he lacked confidence in his command of the English idiom). He was a compulsive reviser. In his 1972 Paris Review interview there is a facsimile of a galley proof page of Passion Play with Kosinski’s handwritten changes. A note states that, between the first and third set of galley proofs, he shortened the novel by a third, cutting over a hundred pages. This can be seen as a sign of insecurity. But it can also indicate an willingness to change.
I find Kosinski’s novels to be stylistically very similar, and in a unique way (The Painted Bird deviates the most, but it differs in point of view from the others). The prose is detached, flat, terse; it has an emotional remoteness. The voice of the novels comes across distinctly as that of one person.
The copy of The Painted Bird that I have — a 1978 paperback — ends with a five page biographical essay entitled “On Kosinski.” It begins with an italicized quote from Time magazine: Jerzy Kosinski lived through — and now makes use of — some of the strongest direct experience that this century has to offer. What follows is an account of his life and a tribute to his writing. Kosinski is referred to in the third person, and the words used to describe the man are laudatory in the extreme: “extraordinary,” “brilliant,” “great.”
And the biography is without attribution! This is quite unusual. Could the author of “On Kosinski” be Jerzy Kosinski? If it was done by him, it would exhibit another feature of his personality that friends and foes agree on: his vanity. But, whoever wrote it, Kosinski must have approved its inclusion. Besides the “direct experience” reference, the second paragraph of “On Kosinski” contains the following information: “During the war, sent by his parents to the safety of a foster parent in a distant village, he eventually found himself fleeing alone from place to place.”
And so we move to the thorniest accusation. Even though documents, personal testimonials and even photographs have been produced by Polish researchers which “prove” that Jerzy Kosinski spent his boyhood in safety, I had my doubts. Documents can be forged, personal accounts can be fabricated, old photos of a black-haired boy do not constitute solid evidence. Could resentment about how Kosinski depicted the Polish peasantry have led to a concerted effort to discredit his book?
On the other hand, those who see The Painted Bird as a realistic portrayal (the “brutal truth”) may have a predisposition to accept that which is not true. We expect monsters when we look at Europe in the throes of World War II, and Kosinski provides them in abundance. That these monsters are not jack-booted Nazis would seem to undermine the Holocaust connection. The explanation given is that Kosinski’s broad theme was the victimization of the powerless; if the evildoers in this firsthand account were peasants in Poland, let the blame fall where it must. Kosinski’s comments on the novel’s title support this argument. He states that he witnessed, as a child, a favorite entertainment of villagers. They would trap a bird, paint its feathers vivid colors, and then release it. When the painted bird returned to its flock the other birds tore at and killed the outcast.
Decades ago, when I began reading The Painted Bird, I was unaware of these complexities. I believed that the book was what it was purported to be: a fictionalized account of harrowing events which the author had experienced. But as I moved from one gruesome scene to another I lost that belief. A gut feeling grew, and a strong one. These things never happened.
In chapter four a miller gouges a plowboy’s eyes out with a spoon. In chapter five a mob of women attack a character named Stupid Ludmila; one of them pushes a bottle filled with excrement up her vagina and breaks it with a kick; then they beat her to death. In chapter six a carpenter is devoured by a swarm of rats.
Any one of these horrors might be accepted as the truth. But the stringing together of one after another (and many more follow) — happening to or before the eyes of one boy — is highly suspect. I came to believe that I was reading the fantasies of a sick mind.
All this is done artfully. Kosinski establishes a pervasive sense of dread; he builds up to each event with deliberation; he describes it with an imagery that penetrates deep into the reader’s consciousness. I’m not questioning the power of the writing. I am questioning its morality. Detractors have called the novel pornographic, contending that its horrors excite a form of lust. Some humans act out those lusts, in basements with bloodstained concrete floors. Marauding armies seem to be infected with it. Leaders of countries have conducted reigns of terror based on it. It is a deplorable part of the history of man. And, as a confirmation of its existence in the here and now, there are writers and filmmakers who rake in millions by providing grisly fare to a public that wants to vicariously enjoy it. Kosinski recognized that his novel had an appeal to the baser instincts. In an interview conducted seven years after the novel was published, he talks of readers who pursue “the unusual, masochists probably, who want sensations. They will all read The Painted Bird, I hope.”
But, as befits the man, Kosinski’s literary ambitions were extravagant. If the book was to be considered a serious work of art, he knew that its sensationalistic aspect must be overshadowed. What redeeming element could raise it above its parade of repellent scenes? Not only for critics and readers. How could he get a reputable publisher to consider the novel? The solution was something an expert dissembler like Kosinski was well-equipped to carry off. What greater significance, what greater validation could he bestow upon the novel than to claim it to be the truth?
At parties held in Mary Weir’s penthouse, Kosinski told stories of his childhood during the war. Since the Weir parties were well-represented with the artistic set, people in publishing were present. It is easy to imagine Kosinski taking a senior editor aside, suddenly serious, his penetrating black eyes intense. Those stories — they aren’t made up. No, those things actually happened to me. And more, much worse than anything I’ve spoken about. But I’ve written about them. It was something I needed to do. To speak. To tell it all.
The book was published by Houghton Mifflin. It was promoted as an account of what the author had endured, and critics and readers accepted it as such. Its credential of authenticity carried Kosinski to his pinnacle.
Stripped of its authenticity, The Painted Bird is still a Holocaust novel. It’s not about the acts of peasants but about the damaged psyche of Jerzy Kosinski. I believe that as a boy he hid in comfort, but he was still hiding from monsters. Hiding from trains that took Jews to extermination camps, where they would be herded into ovens. Of these things he surely knew, and they haunted his thoughts.
The cover of my Bantam edition of The Painted Bird shows a “Monster with a Basket” by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. It is a detail from the Hell panel of “The Last Judgment.” The painting is crowded with grotesque tortures that fascinate and repel.
But was Bosch ever in hell? Did he witness what he depicted? We are seeing the same type of sickness that afflicted Kosinski, though Bosch’s was religiously motivated. There is no indication that Kosinski had any religious beliefs. He may have worshiped power. It would have been one of the childhood lessons he absorbed into his blood and bones, along with lessons about the need to lie, the need to hide. But power was most important. Steps, his second novel, is composed of brief, disconnected episodes that portray variations on the relationship between predators and their prey, with dominance being the objective. Brutality is present, though not nearly to the intensity as in The Painted Bird. In Steps the means of subjugation are mainly psychological, and they often take the form of seduction.
In my first reading of The Painted Bird I stopped at the Ludmila scene. Why? Emotional responses are complex. It’s not that I am too pure for the book’s ornate cruelties; I must admit that I skimmed through the next chapters, like a carrion-feeding bird. Then I had quite enough of Kosinski — and of myself. When I recently started reading the book again I tried to see its merits, but once more I abandoned it, overwhelmed by feelings of disgust and disbelief. Does it contain material of a redemptive nature? I’m sure it does — Kosinski was too skilled a manipulator not to include that. Is the exploration of the evil uses of power a worthy theme? Yes, but there is a difference between portraying it and indulging in it. The Painted Bird can be seen as an exercise in power and seduction, carried out with calculation. Kosinski draws the reader into complicity with his dark inner world. When the miller twists the spoon in the plowboy’s eyes we are both the victim and the victimizer.
The Village Voice article and the swirl of controversy that followed marked the end of the literary career of Jerzy Kosinski. The string of novels that he was producing every two or three years came to a halt. One more book, The Hermit of 69th Street, was published six years after the article appeared. It rambled on for over 500 pages about an author besieged by false accusations. It hardly rose to the surface of the literary and public consciousness before sinking into obscurity.
Whatever Kosinski felt inwardly, he did not live the life of a hermit. He devoted much time and energy to social and humanitarian causes. He worked for the creation of the Jewish Presence Foundation (the man who did not once use the word “Jew” in his twenty-seven page Paris Review interview was, in his last years, active in working for the “empowerment” of Jews). He also was involved with the establishment of AmerBank, the first Western bank chartered in post-communist Poland. He became what he is now cited as being: a Polish Jew.
He still had money; he still traveled; he still had friends. It is fitting that his last night was spent at a crowded party in an Upper East Side townhouse. Fitting because, in a sense, his life of fame and fortune began at Upper East Side parties, with Kosinski working the room.
The party was given by the author Gay Talese. According to the New York Times, Talese detected no signs of depression. “Last night, he was moving in and out of the crowd as I’ve seen him on so many occasions.”
Kiki said she had last seen her husband at nine p.m. (meaning that they had not attended the party together). The next morning she found him in his bathroom (they had separate bedrooms and bathrooms). He was naked in a tub half-filled with water, a plastic shopping bag twisted around his head. She said that he had been depressed about a heart condition. He had left a note in his office. In it he wrote these words: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity.”
In researching his death, I again came across conflicting stories, unanswerable questions. The seriousness of his heart condition is definitely in doubt. Some accounts of his suicide include barbiturates washed down with alcohol.
The separate bedrooms cause me to wonder how intimate his relationship with Kiki was. In many ways they carried on separate lives. Though he was married twice, the word “marriage,” in the case of Kosinski, doesn’t seem to apply in a conventional sense. If I again turn to the texts — his novels — I find, despite all the sex, a conspicuous lack of emotional commitment. There is no love. Was Kosinski capable of it? Love makes one vulnerable, so would he risk it? Yet his twenty-four year relationship with Kiki indicates a bond of sorts.
In the end, I don’t understand Jerzy Kosinski. He must have seen his life as a success, at some level. He came so far, if you consider the boy growing up under the most menacing of shadows. And he did it by using his talent, wits, determination and boldness. Was he happy? There is so much darkness in his novels, I wonder how much brightness there was in his life (inside him, in the place he kept hidden). I am left with a sense of pity, which I’m sure he would not want me to feel. Though he was adroit at playing on people’s sympathies, this was a form of manipulation — he saw it as a strength. No, he wouldn’t want pity, not at the end. He would prefer respect. And I can grant him that.
In the last moments of his life he again displayed an indomitable will. For Jerzy Kosinski, old age, with its weakness and dependence, was something he chose not to deal with. He chose. He acted. He would not be a victim, even of Time.
(Originally appeared, in a much-altered version, in Arts and Opinion)