THE RISE AND FALL OF JERZY KOSINSKI
years ago Jerzy Kosinski stepped off a plane at Idlewild Airport.
The 24-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 theatre projectionist – but he
swiftly rose to a pinnacle. One from which he would precipitously
indeed. Many today would ask: Who is Jerzy Kosinski?
he was a writer.
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.
his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1969.
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 best sellers.
served two terms as president of P.E.N., the international organization
of writers and editors.
was an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and
teaching stints at Princeton and Yale, but Kosinski's renown
extended beyond the written word.
was a 12-time guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."
played a small but significant role in the movie Reds,
directed by his friend Warren Beatty (he got billing over Jack
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.
posed half naked for the cover of The New York Times
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, theatre 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.
was striking. 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.
Accounts of his adventures in the cryptic world of communist
Poland and the Soviet Union, chilling tales of his childhood
in Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe, stories about his visits to
sex clubs that catered to every desire.
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?
his free-wheeling lifestyle, Jerzy Kosinski had a wife. She
did not accompany him on his night time prowls (other women
did), but it was entirely due to her that he was in a room entertaining
the affluent and powerful.
the marriage he had been an academic studying social psychology
and had written two books of anti-communist essays under the
pseudonym of Joseph Novak. Mary Hayward Weir, the widow of an
industrialist, admired his writing, which led to their first
meeting. She employed the young man to catalogue the books in
they married Jerzy was 29, Mary 47.
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.
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,
skied, played polo.
after Mary Weir's death, Kosinski began a relationship with
Katherina (Kiki) von Fraunhofer, a descendent of Bavarian aristocracy.
After 20 years together, they married; four years later, in
1991, Jerzy Kosinski committed suicide. He was 57.
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 Village Voice
articled entitled "Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words."
major accusations were made.
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 that followed, it was alleged that Kosinski
provided the ideas but editors did the actual writing; the books
were, in effect, ghostwritten.
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
third accusation was the most damning. Kosinski had always insisted
– at parties, in interviews, in writing – that he
was the boy in The Painted Bird (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, is six when World War II
breaks out. He wanders from village to village. 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.
who read the book were highly indignant about how they were
depicted (for 23 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. Instead, he and his family had lived through
the years of Nazi occupation not only in safety, but in comfort.
And their protectors? – Poles.
personal accounts and even photographs were produced. In the
Polish version, the Jewish Lewinkopf 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 Lewinkopf/Kosinski family was in fearful hiding,
but not in a potato cellar or barn. They even employed a maid.
Poles branded Jerzy Kosinski a Holocaust profiteer because the
novel, which drew critical comparison with The Diary of
Anne Frank, was immediately granted the status of a chronicle
of the Holocaust.
Anne Frank was in that attic. If you take away the authenticity
of The Painted Bird, what is left?
can be elusive. The information about Kosinski's rise and his
years of success should be fairly accurate, since it is a matter
of public record or comes, undisputed, from multiple sources.
But the accusations that precipitated his fall present problems.
I encountered so many contradictory and questionable "facts"
that everything I read became suspect. I began to believe nothing.
– 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 18 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.
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, while American Writers (edited by
Jay Parini) bluntly states that Kosinski lied about his wartime
experiences; he was safe with his parents. Two teams of "experts,"
working with the same information, came to opposing conclusions.
this point I decided to take a different approach in this essay
– a personal one. Though my emotions will come into play,
they will be in response to Kosinski's work, not to the man.
I'll rely on simple logic, and for my texts I'll use the novels
he wrote (or didn’t write).
easiest accusation to tackle is the one about plagiarism. I
believe that a Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem
Dyzma exists, but I find no indication that it was 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 (a.k.a. Chance
the Gardener) in New York in the 1960s? Television had not been
invented in 1932; Chance is a product of television. He moves
into the lofty realms of corporate wealth. Being There
remains strikingly relevant to the media-driven America of 2007.
Kosinski may have borrowed the premise of the idiot whose simpleminded
utterances are interpreted as profundities, but he had to considerably
shape this premise to fit his purposes.
Kosinski write his novels? I came across no solid, unassailable
proof that he didn't: only people making those claims and others
refuting them (some being editors stating that they did nothing
more that 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 one third,
cutting over 100 pages. This can be seen as a sign of insecurity.
But insecurity is no fault – not if it motivates the writer
to work hard to get it right.
Kosinski's novels to be stylistically similar. The prose is
detached, flat, terse, and it has an emotional remoteness that
is unique. The voice of the novels comes across as that of one
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 photographs
of a black-haired boy do not constitute evidence. Could resentment
about how Kosinski depicted the Polish peasant have led to a
campaign to discredit his book?
the other hand, those who see The Painted Bird as a
realistic portrayal (the words "brutal truth" are
often used in reviews) may be predisposed to accept as true
that which isn't. We expect monsters when we think about 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 by his supporters is that Kosinski's broad theme was the
victimization of the powerless; if the evildoers in this firsthand
account were peasants in Poland, so be it. Kosinski's comments
on the novel's title corroborate these arguments. He states
that he witnessed, as a child, a favorite entertainment of villagers.
They would trap a bird, paint its feathers vivid colours, and
then release it. When the painted bird returned to its flock
the other birds attacked and killed it.
first time I read The Painted Bird, I was unaware of
these complexities. I believed that the book was a fictionalized
account of events which the author had actually 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
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 kicks it so that it breaks; then they beat her
to death. In chapter six a carpenter is devoured by rats.
one of these horrors might be accepted as the truth, but the
stringing together of one after another (and many more follow)
is highly suspect. I came to believe that I was reading the
fantasies of a sick mind.
this is done artfully. Kosinski establishes a pervasive sense
of dread; he builds up to each event with deliberation; he describes
it with imagery that penetrates deep into the reader's consciousness.
I am not questioning the power of the writing. I am questioning
its morality. Detractors have called the novel pornographic,
contending that it excites a form of lust. Some act out that
lust, 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’s a deplorable
but undeniable part of the history of man. And, as a confirmation
of its existence in the here and now, there are writers and
filmmakers who make millions by providing grisly fare to a public
that wants to vicariously enjoy it. Kosinski recognized that
his novel had this appeal. 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."
as befits the man, Kosinski's literary ambitions were extravagant.
If The Painted Bird was to be considered a serious
work of art, he knew that its sensationalistic aspects must
be overshadowed. What redeeming element could raise it above
its parade of repellent scenes? 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?
parties held in Mary Weir's penthouse, Kosinski told stories
of his childhood during the war. Since these parties were well-represented
by the artistic set, people in publishing were present. It is
easy to imagine Kosinski taking a senior editor aside -- suddenly
serious, his black eyes intense – and confiding that the
stories weren't fabrications, that they had actually happened
to him. And more, much worse than anything he had spoken of.
But he had written about these things. It was something he was
compelled to do, to tell it all.
Executives at Houghton
Mifflin promoted the book as a true account of what the author
endured, and it was widely accepted as such by critics, most
of whom gave it extravagantly glowing reviews. With his first
novel, Kosinski had reached a pinnacle.
of its authenticity, The Painted Bird is still a Holocaust
novel. It is 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
the trains that took Jews to extermination camps, where they
were herded into ovens. Of these things he surely knew, and
they haunted his thoughts.
cover of my Bantam edition of The Painted Bird shows
a detail from the Hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch's "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. It is the prevailing theme of
his work. Steps, his second novel, is composed of brief,
disconnected episodes that portray variations on the relationship
between victim and victimizer. Brutality is present, though
not nearly to the intensity as in The Painted Bird.
In Steps the means of subjugation are mainly psychological.
Painted Bird can be seen as an exercise in power. It is
an attack on the reader's sensibilities. It is also an act of
seduction, for Kosinski entices the reader into complicity with
his dark inner world. As the miller twists the spoon in the
plowboy's eyes, we are made both victim and victimizer.
1982 Village Voice article and the swirl of controversy
that followed it 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 was long (over 500 pages) and was about an author
besieged by false accusations. It quickly sank into obscurity.
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,
aimed at "empowering" Jews. He also was involved with
the establishment of AmerBank, the first Western bank chartered
in post-communist Poland.
still had money; he still traveled; he still had friends. It
is fitting that Kosinski’s last night was spent at a crowded
party in an Upper East Side townhouse. Fitting because that's
where his life of fame and fortune began.
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."
told police that she had last seen her husband at 9 p.m., before
he left for the party. 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 were these words: "I am going to put myself to sleep
now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity."
researching his death, I again came across conflicting reports:
the seriousness of his heart condition is definitely in doubt;
some accounts of his suicide include barbiturates washed down
the end, I don't understand Jerzy Kosinski. At some level, he
must have judged his life as successful. Using his talent, wits,
boldness and determination, he went far, if you consider the
boy growing up under the most menacing of shadows. 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. He would prefer respect. And I can grant him
the last moments of his life he again displayed an indomitable
will. For Jerzy Kosinski, old age, with its frailties and loss
of independence, was something he chose not to deal with. He
'chose.' He acted. He would not be a victim -- even of Time.
by Phillip Routh: