Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–1991

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Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–1991

(Jerzy Nikodem Kosinski, Joseph Novak)

PERSONAL: Born June 14, 1933, in Lodz, Poland; came to United States, 1957, naturalized citizen, 1965; committed suicide, May 3 (one source says May 4), 1991, in New York, NY; son of Mieczyslaw (a classicist) and Elzbieta (a concert pianist; maiden name, Liniecka) Kosinski; married Mary Hayward Weir (an art collector), 1962 (died, 1968); married Katherina von Fraunhofer (an advertising executive), 1987. Education: University of Lodz, B.A., 1950, M.A. (history), 1953, M.A. (political science), 1955; Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Polish Academy of Sciences, 1955–57, and at Columbia University, 1958–63; graduate study at New School for Social Research, 1962–66.

CAREER: Writer and photographer. Ski instructor in Zakopane, Poland, winters, 1950–56; assistant professor (aspirant) of sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, 1955–57; researcher at Lomonosov University, Moscow, 1957; variously employed as a paint scraper on excursion-line boats, a truck driver, chauffeur, and cinema projectionist; Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, resident fellow in English, 1967–68; Council of Humanities, Princeton University, visiting lecturer in English and resident senior fellow, 1969–70; Yale University, professor of English and resident fellow of Davenport College and School of Drama, 1970–73, fellow of Timothy Dwight College, 1986–91. Actor in films, including (as Grigory Zinoviev) Reds, Paramount, 1981. Exhibitions: One-man photographic exhibitions at the State's Crooked Circle Gallery, Warsaw, Poland, 1957, and elsewhere around the world.

MEMBER: International League for Human Rights (director, 1973–79), PEN (president, 1973–75), National Writers Club, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Civil Liberties Union (chair of artists and writers committee), Screen Actors Guild, Century Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ford Foundation fellowship, 1958–60; Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France), 1966, for The Painted Bird; Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing, 1967–68; National Book Award, 1969, for Steps; National Institute of Arts and Letters/ American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1970; John Golden fellowship in playwriting, 1970–72; Brith Sholom Humanitarian Freedom Award, 1974; American Civil Liberties Union First Amendment Award, 1978; best screenplay of the year awards from Writers Guild of America, 1979, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1981, both for Being There; Polonia Media National Achievement Perspectives Award, 1980; Spertus College of Judaica International Award, 1982; L.H.D. from Albion College, 1988, State University of New York, 1989; Harry Edmonds Life Achievement Award, International House, 1990.



The Painted Bird, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965, expanded edition, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1970, revised 10th anniversary edition, with an introduction by the author, Houghton Mifflin, 1976, reprinted, Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, NJ), 2000.

Steps, Random House (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Being There (also see below), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1971, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.

The Devil Tree, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973, revised and expanded edition, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Cockpit, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1975, reprinted, Arcade Publishing (New York, NY), 1989.

Blind Date, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1977, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Passion Play (also see below), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Pinball, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1982; reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1996.

The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1988.


Being There (based on Kosinski's novel; Lorimar/United Artists, 1979), Scientia-Factum (New York, NY), 1977.

Passion Play (based on Kosinski's novel), Scientia-Factum (New York, NY), 1982.


(Under pseudonym Joseph Novak) The Future Is Ours, Comrade: Conversations with the Russians, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1960.

(Under pseudonym Joseph Novak) No Third Path: A Study of Collective Behavior, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1962.

(Editor) Socjologia Amerykanska: Wybor Prac, 1950–1960 (title means "American Sociology: Translations of Selected Works, 1950–1960"), Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences (New York, NY), 1962.

Notes of the Author on "The Painted Bird," Scientia-Factum (New York, NY), 1965.

The Art of the Self: Essays a propos "Steps," Scientia-Factum (New York, NY), 1968.

Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962–1991, Random House (New York, NY), 1992.

Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski, edited by Tom Teicholz, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1993.

Also author of Dokumenty walki o Czlowieka: Wspomnienia Proletariatczykow (title means "Documents concerning the Struggle of Man: The Reminiscences of the Members of 'Proletariat'") and Program Rewolucji Jakoba Jaworskiego (title means "The Program of the People's Revolution of Jakob Jaworski"), 1954–55.

Kosinski's books have been translated into numerous languages, including German, French, Italian, and Spanish.

SIDELIGHTS: A controversial novelist, Jerzy Kosinski first stunned the literary world in 1965 with The Painted Bird, a graphic account of an abandoned child's odyssey through war-torn Eastern Europe that some critics consider the best piece of literature to emerge from World War II. Kosinski's second novel, Steps, was equally successful and won a National Book Award in 1969. Other novels, all part of an elaborate fictional cycle, followed; though Kosinski labeled them fiction, his books parallel his real-life experiences, earning their author a reputation as a writer who mingles art and life.

The only child of Jewish intellectuals, Kosinski enjoyed a sheltered childhood until he was six years old. Then Hitler invaded Poland, disrupting the young boy's family and irrevocably altering the course his life would take. As Jews, Kosinski's parents were forced into hiding, and eventually their son was entrusted to a stranger's care. Though he was soon placed with a foster mother, she died within two months of his arrival, and, until the end of the war when he was reunited with his parents, young Kosinski wandered from one remote peasant village to another, living by his wits. By the time he was nine years of age, Kosinski had been so traumatized by his experience that he was struck mute. "Once I regained my speech after the war, the trauma began," he told Barbara Leaming of Penthouse. "The Stalinist [system in Poland] went after me, asking questions I didn't want to hear, demanding answers I would not give."

When the State refused to grant him and his family permission to immigrate to the West, Kosinski used the deceptive techniques he had mastered as a runaway to plot his escape. He was twenty-four and a doctoral student at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw when he undertook an elaborate and dangerous ruse. Inventing four academicians in four different branches of learning, Kosinski contrived to have his fictional associates sponsor him for a research project in the United States. It took him over two years to obtain the passport and the necessary travel documents, but by the winter of 1957, he was ready. He arrived in New York City a few days before Christmas, friendless, penniless, and with only a rudimentary knowledge of the spoken American idiom.

After his arrival, Kosinski became an American success story. Quickly mastering the language, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program, launched a writing career, and married the rich widow of an American steel baron. A prize-winning photographer, Kosinski was also an amateur athlete and, according to a writer for New York Times Magazine, "a polo-playing pet of the jet set." In 1981 he added a film role to his list of accomplishments, earning critical praise for his portrayal of the Soviet bureaucrat Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds. Despite the tremendous diversity that characterized both his personal and professional life, Kosinski remained deeply committed to writing: "Fiction is the center of my life," he once told Margaria Fichtner in a Chicago Tribune interview. "Anything I do revolves around what I write and what I write very often revolves around what I do."

To gather material, Kosinski frequently prowled the streets of New York and other cities, sometimes traveling in disguise. "I like to go out at night," he told Ron Base in Washington Post. "I like to see strange things, meet strange people, see people at their most abandoned. I like people who are driven. The sense of who they are is far greater."

Though Kosinski cloaked these experiences under a fictive mask, critics have said the autobiographical elements of his writing are unmistakable. "Mostly, in his novels," wrote Barbara Gelb in New York Times Magazine, "he describes actual events as a newspaper reporter would, altering details only slightly to fictionalize them." Detroit News staff writer Ben Brown agreed, delineating the following similarities between Kosinski and his characters: "Like the boy wanderer in The Painted Bird, Kosinski was an abandoned child, wandering alone through the rural villages of Eastern Europe during World War II. Like the emigrant photographer-social scientist in Cockpit, Kosinski, also a photographer-social scientist, escaped from [Poland] by creating a hole in the post-Stalinist bureaucracy through which he could slide to freedom in the West. By view of his marriage … Kosinski was surrounded by the kind of vast inherited wealth he gave Jonathan Wahlen in The Devil Tree. And like Fabian in … Passion Play [1979] … Kosinski is an expert horseman [and] an avid polo player." In fact, according to Base, Kosinski "never strays far from his own life in order to discover his novels' protagonists, and given the life he leads, who can blame him? Everything including his past and present seems calculated to yield a novel every three years or so."

Some critics believed it was not calculation, but necessity which motivated Kosinski's pen. Indeed, Kosinski, writing in Notes of the Author on "The Painted Bird" reinforced this point of view: "We fit experiences into molds which simplify, shape and give them an acceptable emotional clarity. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. If there were not these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. There is no art which is reality; rather, art is the using of symbols by which an otherwise un-stateable subjective reality is made manifest."

The "subjective reality" that is "made manifest" in Kosinski's fiction is the ability of the individual to survive. "The whole didactic point of my novels is how you redeem yourself if you are pressed or threatened by the chances of daily life, how you see yourself as a romantic character when you are grotesque, a failure," Kosinski once told Ben Brown in a Detroit News interview. Though the theme is recurrent, Kosinski approaches it differently in each book, as Lawrence Cunningham explained in America: "At times, as in The Painted Bird, the individual is the victim of society, while in Cockpit, a Kafkaesque secret agent named Tarden wages a one-man war against the whole of society and those members of it who epitomize the brutality of that society. In Being There … the hero of the novel betrays the whole of American society not because of his power or viciousness, but because of his simplicity, naiveté and sheer ignorance of how the culture game is played." Notwithstanding these differences, Cunningham believed the novels share the same moral ambivalence: "In Kosinski's … universe there is, at the same time, grand moral testimony to the worth of the individual and a curious shrinking from the common bonds of trusting humanity…. Kosinski is a survivor. If his experience has not permitted him to teach us much about human relationships, it has been, nonetheless, a vade mecum [or manual] of making it in this very tough world."

And what makes this "alien world" of Kosinski's so frightening, according to Elizabeth Stone, is the sharp chill of recognition it causes the reader to feel. "In the lives of Kosinski's characters, there is something of ourselves," Stone wrote in Psychology Today. "Kosinski's novels pierce the social skin and go deeper. They are all accounts of the self in extreme psychological peril, and they make sense the way dreams make sense … the novels recreate the aura of nightmare paranoia, rouse fears of psychic petrification, depersonalization, engulfment…. His characters chronicle not only what, at its worst, the world is like, but also what, at our worst, it feels like."

Not surprisingly, the survival techniques his characters employ are similar to tactics Kosinski himself once used. One such technique, according to Stone, is giving voice to experience, as the nameless protagonist of The Painted Bird does when he regains his speech. Another is the ability to cultivate invisibility and turn it into an advantage—which Kosinski did when he traveled in disguise and which Levanter of Blind Date does when he rapes a girl from behind, thus preventing her from identifying him. Though Kosinski said repeatedly that he never saw himself as a victim, critics have maintained that his characters—and even Kosinski himself—are obsessed with revenge. While he preferred to view revenge as a "defense rather than an obsession," Kosinski did not disagree. "My characters often defend themselves against entrapments by oppressive societies," he once told Leaming. "I see revenge as the last vestige of the eminently threatened self…. Revenge can be a positive force—the victim's final dignity."

In Kosinski's case, retaliation for injustices suffered under the Communist system came with the publication of his first book, a nonfiction collection of essays. Described by Gelb as "a strongly anticommunist tract," The Future Is Ours, Comrade: Conversations with the Russians became an instant best seller and was serialized by Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest.

Like his subsequent No Third Path: A Study of Collective Behavior, it was published in book form pseudonymously. "I didn't think my spoken English was good enough to publicly defend my sociological methods, my ethics and philosophy," the author later explained, "so I published it under the pen name Joseph Novak." Kosinski offered as explanation for the Novak pseudonym to Washington Post Book World interviewer Daniel J. Cahill: "When you're a student you're supposed to read serious books—not publish them. The pen name allowed me to conduct my studies uninterrupted by the controversy that my books triggered among my fellow students and professors. A side benefit of a pen name is that it allows you to recommend your own books, to those who don't know you've written them, as the very best on the subject—without ever feeling immodest."

One of the people who read The Future Is Ours, Comrade was Mary Weir, the affluent, thirty-one-year-old widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir. Weir, who read the book shortly after a trip to Russia, agreed so wholeheartedly with Kosinski's observations that she wrote him a fan letter. Kosinski, in a characteristic blending of fact and fiction, fictionalizes what followed in his novel Pinball. "Long ago," says Domostroy—one of the novel's protagonists and an obvious stand-in for Kosinski—"when I had received enough fan letters to know how similar they all were, I received one unusual one. The writer, a woman, said she knew me only from my work,… but her analysis … was so acute, as were her perceptions of … the undercurrents of my life,… that I was flat-out enthralled." The couple arranged a meeting, and ultimately married in 1962.

In his interview with Cahill Kosinski once described how his marriage to Weir enhanced his art: "During my marriage, I had often thought that it was Stendhal or F. Scott Fitzgerald, both preoccupied with wealth they did not have, who deserved to have had my experience" of an affluent lifestyle. Desiring to write fiction, he considered using his newly found understanding of a lifestyle immersed in luxury, but decided against it. "During my marriage I was too much a part of Mary's world to extract from it the nucleus of what I saw, of what I felt …," he told Cahill. "So instead, I decided to write my first novel The Painted Bird about a homeless boy in war-torn Eastern Europe, an existence I've known but also one that was shared by millions of Europeans, yet was foreign to Mary and our American friends. The novel was my gift to Mary, and to her world."

Although The Painted Bird initiated Kosinski's career as a novelist, the years surrounding its release were full of personal tragedy as the author watched Weir die of an incurable illness in 1968. "In a curious way," wrote Base in Washington Post, "her death provided him with the ultimate freedom. Now he could draw on all the possibilities of his life without worrying about embarrassing wives and children." Though he did pursue these themes in a number of later books, his next novel is similar in setting and theme to The Painted Bird. "The protagonist-narrator of Steps is alternately the dark-complected boy of Kosinski's first novel … and that same boy as an adult," observed William Plummer in Village Voice. A series of seemingly unconnected, and often brutal, episodes, the book, according to Stanley Kauffmann in New Republic, "is a piercing view of [Kosinski's] past as part of the world's present. For me, the title does not signify progress from one place to another or from one state to another, but simply action about experience: steps taken to accommodate experience and continuing reality to the possibility of remaining alive…. The book says finally: 'Hell. Horror. Lust. Cruelty. Ego. But my hell and horror and lust and cruelty and ego. Life is—just possibly—worth living if we can imagine it better and imagine it worse.'"

While Steps won a National Book Award in 1969, its author sensed that the attitude of the publishing world toward literature was changing. His assessment was perhaps correct: when a young reporter retyped Steps and submitted it under a different name as an experiment, he found that it went unrecognized and rejected by every major publishing house—including the one that had originally released it.

From the time it was first published Steps aroused controversy. While critics generally agreed that the book is beautifully written, several reviewers, including Geoffrey Wolff in New Leader, questioned its morality: "Kosinski's power and talent are not in doubt. I can think of few writers who are able to so persuasively describe an event, set a scene, communicate an emotion. Nonetheless, the use he has set his power to is in doubt. His purpose is serious, I am sure, but he misreads our tolerance. He has created what never was on land or sea and arrogantly expects us to take his creations, his self-consuming octopus, his other monsters, as emblems." Echoing this sentiment, Robert Alter wrote in New York Times Book Review that Steps "is scarcely a novel at all but rather a series of discontinuous erotic jottings, sometimes brutal, generally deficient in feeling, and finally repetitious." According to New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the problem is not just what Kosinski wrote, but how he wrote it: "Lacking a sense of the language, and thus lacking any style of his own, the author gropes for any passable cliché. It is just what happens in bad pornography."

Kosinski bridled at such comparisons. "Pornography views sex as physical, not spiritual," he told Leaming. "It does to sex what totalitarianism does to politics: it reduces it to a single dimension. But for me, as for all my fictional characters, sex is a spiritual force, a core of their being, indeed, the pro-creative basis for self-definition." Those critics who found his heavy doses of sex and violence gratuitous did not understand, he declared, what he was trying to do. "I am astonished again and again at how superficially people read books," he once told Ben Brown of Detroit News. "I know what I write. I know why I do it the way that I do it. There's no greater sense of responsibility than (my own). But I have a certain vision of literature I will not sacrifice for sentimental critics brought up on Fiddler on the Roof."

As Arnost Lustig wrote in Washington Post Book World: "Kosinski develops his own style and technique, trying to avoid the classical plot and trying not to get lost in a limitless and chaotic jungle without beginning, middle and end. His style is in harmony with his need to express new things about our life and the world we do live in, to express the inexpressible."

A perfectionist, Kosinski wrote slowly and rewrote extensively. He rewrote his 1979 novel Passion Play almost a dozen times, and then further altered it in three different sets of galleys and two page proofs, where he condensed the text by one-third. Above his ten percent publisher's allowance, Kosinski had to bear the cost of such corrections. He did not, however, complain. "When I face the galley-proofs I feel as though my whole life was at stake on every page and that a messy paragraph could mess up my whole life from now on," he told Cahill. "As I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of, my books are my only spiritual accomplishment, my life's most private frame of reference, and I would gladly pay all I earn to make it my best."

In the June 22, 1982 issue of Village Voice Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith challenged Kosinski's ethics and his role as the sole creative force behind his books. The journalists' allegations covered a broad spectrum, ranging from complaints of Kosinski lying about his past, to Kosinski having his first two books written and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The most serious accusations, however, concerned Kosinski's open but unacknowledged dependence on freelance editors during the revision process of his novels, including Passion Play and Pinball.

Several publishing-house editors came to Kosinski's defense, and in Publishers Weekly editor Les Pockell dismissed the charges as "totally ludicrous," explaining that Kosinski retained people to copyedit because he was "obsessive" about his writing. But perhaps the strongest reaction to Village Voice charges came from Kosinski himself. He told the newspaper that "Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine—and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every f—ing galley—first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paperback editions." Nonetheless, the controversy took its toll; as Kosinski told a Washington Post Book World reporter: "Like any other assassination, the damage has been done."

Tragically, in May of 1991, just under a decade after Village Voice controversy, Kosinski committed suicide, apparently discouraged by failing health and his inability to continue writing.



Aldridge, John Watson, editor, The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture, 1951–71, Harper's Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Bellamy, Joe D., editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1974.

Cahill, Daniel, The Fiction of Jerzy Kosinski, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1982.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume I, 1973, Volume II, 1974, Volume III, 1975, Volume VI, 1976, Volume X, 1979, Volume XV, 1980.

Hicks, Jack, In the Singer's Temple: The Romance of Terror and Jerzy Kosinski, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1981.

Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-Contemporary American Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1975.

Kosinski, Jerzy, Notes of the Author on "The Painted Bird," Scientia-Factum (New York, NY), 1965.

Langer, Lawrence L., Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1975.

Lavers, Norman, Jerzy Kosinski, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1982.

Lupack, Barbara Tepa, editor, Critical Essays on Jerzy Kosinski, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1998.

Plimpton, George, editor, Writers at Work: The "Paris Review" Interviews, Volume V, Penguin Putnam (New York, NY), 1981.

Salska, Agnieszka, and Marek Jedlianski, editors, Jerzy Kosinski: Man and Work at the Crossroads of Cultures, Uniwersytetu Lodzkiego (Lodz, Poland), 1997.

Sherwin, Byron L., Jerzy Kosinski: Literary Alarmclock, Cabala Press (Chicago, IL), 1982.

Sloan, James Park, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.

Tiefenthaler, Sepp, Jerzy Kosinski, Bouvier Publishers (Bonn, DE), 1980.


America, November 11, 1978, Lawrence Cunningham.

American Photographer, June, 1980.

Centennial Review, winter, 1972.

Chicago, March, 1996, p. 35.

Chicago Review, summer, 1980.

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Critique, Volume XXII, number 2, 1981.

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Detroit News, October 7, 1979, Ben Brown, interview with Kosinski.

Fiction International, fall, 1973.

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Harper's, October, 1965; March, 1969.

Listener, May 8, 1969.

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Polo, December, 1979.

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Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1991.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontatio, Canada), May 4, 1991.

Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1991.

Newsweek, May 13, 1991, p. 72.

New York Times, May 4, 1991.

Times (London), May 6, 1991.

Vanity Fair, October, 1991, p. 202.

Washington Post, May 4, 1991.