Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski (1933–1991) authored three of the most widely read novels of the 1960s and 1970s: The Painted Bird, Steps, and Being There, the last of which also became a hit film.
Kosinski spent much of his childhood amid the chaos of World War II, when making up a convincing story about one's actions and one's identity could literally mean the difference between life and death. He was a skilled storyteller, not only in his books but also when it came to his own life, and after his career hit its peak many of the established facts of his biography were called into question. He was charged with plagiarism and relying on editors to produce the actual texts of his books. Kosinski defended himself vigorously against these accusations, and he was backed up by major journalistic and literary figures who concluded that the author's biographical facts extended far back into his tangled past. Kosinski wove a tangled web with his life and work, and the controversies that surrounded him were still present 15 years after his death, by suicide, in 1991. The reputations of his major novels were little touched, however; remaining widely available in inexpensive editions and discovered by new generations of readers.
Family Eluded Nazism
The web of stories surrounding Kosinski began with his name; after he had been in America for many years it was revealed that he was born Jerzy Nikodem Lewinkopf, in £ódź, Poland, on June 14, 1933. His parents, Moses and Elzbieta Lewinkopf, were Jewish professionals; Moses Lewinkopf was a translator and a scholar of classical literature, and Elzbieta was a concert pianist who had attended the Moscow Conservatory in Russia. They found themselves in grave danger when German troops overran Poland in 1939, and they made the decision to try to pass as Gentile, moving to a small town in eastern Poland and telling their six-year-old son to deny he was Jewish if asked. Moses Lewinkopf changed his name to Mieczyslaw Kosinski, and his son went for a time by the name of Jurek Kosinski.
What Kosinski experienced as a child amid the most horrible depths of World War II and the Holocaust may never be known. He drew on his experiences during this period, however, in The Painted Bird, a gruesome novel in which a young boy wanders through a nightmarish European landscape, experiencing torture at the hands of strangers and witnessing act after act of extreme cruelty. At one point the boy loses the power of speech after being thrown into a pit of manure. The boy is called the Gypsy, but his ethnic identity is left hazy. Kosinski intimated early in his American career that the novel was based on fact, and it was often described as semi-autobiographical. He later retreated to the position that the stories in the book were realistic, given established accounts of the horrors perpetrated on ethnic minorities in Eastern Europe.
Asked by the London Guardian shortly before his death whether he had experienced the events described in the book, Kosinski replied, "I don't want to say, even to myself. That ambiguity is what fiction is all about. What is not ambiguous is that the novel is about childhood traumatized by war. My elementary reactions were formed by the war." It appears probable, however, that Kosinski did not undergo a long separation from his parents, unlike the protagonist of The Painted Bird, and that the Lewinkopf family's psychologically perilous ruse was successful; unlike most of their Jewish compatriots, they survived the war.
Indeed, they prospered in the late 1940s as Kosinski's father embraced the ascendant Polish Communist Party. Kosinski attended the University of £ódź, studying political science and going on for a master's degree in history. His research covered both the Soviet Union and the United States, and he published a Party-approved text, in Polish, on American sociology, becoming a professor and Ph.D. candidate at the Polish Academy of Arts and Science in Warsaw. Both parents and son began to chafe against the restrictions of totalitarianism, however. Kosinski's parents tried without success to emigrate to Israel, and Kosinski, possibly using forged recommendation letters (this was another chapter in the life story he created as he went along), managed to get permission to leave Poland in 1957 for an academic exchange with the United States. Poland, like other Communist countries, briefly became more receptive to Western influences in the mid-1950s but soon clamped down once again.
Published Studies of Soviet Life
Kosinski arrived in the United States with few resources, but he received a Ford Foundation grant to enroll in the sociology graduate program at Columbia University in New York. While he was there he wrote two books about life in the Soviet Union, The Future Is Ours, Comrade (1960) and No Third Path (1962), publishing them under the pseudonym of Joseph Novak and later giving conflicting explanations as to why he did so. The books depicted life under Communism in a negative light, and allegations, never corroborated, later suggested that they were financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They did attract the attention of a widowed steel-industry heiress, Mary Hayward Weir, whom Kosinski married in 1962. They divorced in 1966, and she died in 1968 of what was described at the time as a brain tumor but may have instead been suicide or complications from alcoholism.
By that time, Kosinski had published The Painted Bird and became a literary celebrity. A perfectionist to the extreme, Kosinski went through 15 drafts of the novel before agreeing to its publication. The book, dedicated to Weir, was one of the first to try to encompass the full impact of the Holocaust, and critics hailed it as a probable classic. The Painted Bird won France's Best Foreign Book award in 1966, and in the U.S. Kosinski had his pick of prestigious honors and university fellowships for several years. He spent 1967 as a Guggenheim Fellow, teaching English at Wesleyan University and readying his second work of fiction, Steps, for publication in 1968. More experimental than The Painted Bird, Steps consisted of a sequence of extremely short chapters, many of them erotic in nature and some of them violent. The plot shuttled back and forth between the childhood and adulthood of a graduate student who once again seemed to be modeled on Kosinski himself.
Steps won the National Book Award in 1969, and in the 1969–70 academic year Kosinski was named a Senior Fellow at the Council for the Humanities at Princeton University. He taught at the Yale University drama school from 1970 through 1973. In a bizarre episode, Kosinski planned to visit the home of actress Sharon Tate on the night she and a group of others were murdered by serial killer Charles Manson; he was saved because he was delayed due to lost airline luggage. In 1971, Kosinski's third novel, Being There, was published. Unlike his first two novels, this one had no clear autobiographical component. Its central figure was a developmentally disabled gardener named Chance, who through a series of satirical misunderstandings—he speaks in simple sentences seemingly freighted with symbolic meaning—is taken to be a social and political sage named Chauncey Gardiner and, thanks to the power of the mass media, comes to national prominence. As the power of television grew in the last decades of the twentieth century, the novel seemed more and more relevant. In the 1970s, Kosinski served two terms as president of PEN, an international organization devoted to safeguarding the rights of authors in repressive societies. He often appeared on television's Tonight show, which made his purported life story familiar to millions of American viewers.
Kosinski wrote four more novels over the course of the 1970s, The Devil Tree (1973), Cockpit (1975), Blind Date (1977), and Passion Play (1979). These books once again drew on Kosinski's own experiences; he was a cockfighting fan, and like the central character in Passion Play he was an enthusiastic player of the unusual sport of polo. These novels were less well received by an audience of critics than his first three had been. The strong sexual elements in many of his books were also drawn from life; he visited swingers' clubs and engaged in a variety of sexual affairs despite his longtime attachment to German aristocrat Katherina von Frauenhofer. The two married four years before Kosinski's death. A wealthy man by this time, Kosinski hobnobbed with New York's jet-setters and maintained a part-time residence in Switzerland. In 1979, Kosinski adapted Being There for a film starring British comedian Peter Sellers as Chance; his screenplay won several awards. In 1981 he appeared as Russian revolutionary figure Gregory Zinoviev in actor Warren Beatty's film Reds.
Attacked in Village Voice Article
Kosinski's world came crashing down in 1982 when New York's weekly Village Voice published an article entitled "Tainted Words," alleging that he had written The Painted Bird in Polish and had it translated by editors, on whom he relied heavily in many of his other writings. The article also raised the issue of Kosinski's CIA affiliation and alleged that Being There had been largely plagiarized from a Polish novel of the 1920s, The Career of Nikodem Dyzmy, by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz. Kosinski vigorously denied the charges in full, and he was supported by colleagues and by a 6,000-word article in the New York Times that traced some of the charges to a campaign of character assassinations carried out by Polish communists angered by Kosinski's defection and by the negative portrayal of Poland in The Painted Bird. Until the late 1980s The Painted Bird was never published in Poland.
Kosinski was distressed by the controversy and attempted to incorporate it into a massive new novel, The Hermit of 69th Street (1988). The novel's protagonist was named Kosky—Kosinski without the sin, he often said. He was further depressed by the poor critical reception of the novel and by mounting health problems; he suffered from a heart condition in his later years. The fall of Communism in Poland, where he was finally acclaimed, stimulated him to revisit his homeland and to participate in the founding of an American-owned bank there. But on May 3, 1991, despondent over a prolonged period of writer's block, he committed suicide in his New York apartment by putting a plastic bag over his head.
The truth of the Voice charges remained a matter of debate. A detailed and generally sympathetic biography of Kosinski by writer James Park Sloan lent credence to the picture of Kosinski as heavily reliant on editorial assistants and pointed to strong correspondences between Being There and The Career of Nikodem Dyzmy. An Atlantic Monthly reviewer wrote in 1997, however, that "the plagiarism charge, unless actual copying of the victim's text is found, can be dismissed as absurd. Creators have presumably been borrowing from their predecessors ever since the first yarn spinner sat by a cave fire explaining how the mammoth got away." A 2001 play, More Lies About Jerzy, was based on the whole controversy. As with many of the details of the life of one of the twentieth century's most talented yarn spinners and most troubled individuals, the truth of the matter remained for historians and literary scholars to sort out.
Sloan, James Park, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, Dutton, 1996.
Atlantic Monthly, April 1997.
Guardian (London, England), May 25, 1991.
Houston Chronicle, March 10, 1996.
Jerusalem Post, May 5, 1991.
New York Observer, February 5, 2001.
New York Times, November 7, 1982; May 4, 1991.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 24, 1996.
Times (London, England), May 6, 1991.
Village Voice, June 22, 1982.
Washington Post, May 4, 1991.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich. Thomson Gale. 2006. http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 2, 2006).
KOSINSKI, JERZY (1933–1991), U.S. novelist. Born the son of Mieczyslaw and Elzbieta Lewinkopf in Lodz, Poland, Kosinski's early years were shaped under Hitler's regime. The only full biography (Jerzy Kosinski by James Park Sloan, 1996) reports that the Jewish family survived as Catholic "Kosinskis," avoiding the camps. Postwar schooling resulted in two master's degrees (social science and history) and notoriety as a photographer before Kosinski emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 as a doctoral student.
There, Kosinski soon attained success as a writer. Under the pseudonym Joseph Novak, he completed The Future Is Ours, Comrade (1960) and No Third Path (1962). After these non-fictional works, Kosinski coined the term "autofiction," blurring the boundary between autobiography and literature, and confusing critics and interviewers. He wrote nine novels, two of which were revised and reissued. The Painted Bird (1965), banned in Poland, earned the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France and received public and critical acclaim.
Often claiming that portions were autobiographical, Kosinski also insisted that The Painted Bird was a work of fiction. It remains a classic of Holocaust literature, combining historical realities – not his own experience – with myth and fairy tales. Thereafter, Kosinski considered enduring themes: identity, technology, consumerism, sexuality, politics, and violence. His experiments with stylistic and narrative structures garnered both acclaim and criticism. Steps (1968) received the National Book Award and Being There (1970) was adapted by the author for a film, starring Peter Sellers (1979), which won the British Film Critics Award and an American Oscar. Other novels include The Devil Tree (1973, rev. ed. 1981), Cockpit (1975), Blind Date (1977), Passion Play (1979), Pinball (1982), and The Hermit of 69th Street (1988, rev. ed. 1991). A collection of his essays, Passing By (1992), was published after his death.
As a writer and performer (as Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds (1981), the voice of Chaim Rumkowski in the documentary The Lodz Ghetto (1989), and a guest on tv talk shows), Kosinski continued to interest both European and American scholars/artists. Kosinski was president of the American chapter of pen (poets, playwrights, publishers, essayists, and novelists), from 1973 to 1975, and served on United Nations committees. He received the B'rith Shalom Humanitarian Freedom Award for his efforts in behalf of jailed writers. Kosinski also obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967) and taught writing at Princeton, Wesleyan, and Yale. Charges launched by the Village Voice in 1982 that Kosinski relied heavily on collaborators/ghost writers have been largely dismissed by scholars, but the damage to his reputation was significant. He committed suicide in New York City, his home since 1957, in 1991.
B.T. Lupack (ed.), Critical Essays on Jerzy Kosinski (1998); J.P. Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (1996); W. Everman, Jerzy Kosinski: The Literature of Violation (1991).
[Mary Lazar (2nd ed.)]