Jerzy Kosinski (orig. Kosiński with Polish diacritic sign; birth name: Josek Lewinkopf) (June 18, 1933 – May 3, 1991) was a Polish-American novelist. He is best known for his novels The Painted Bird (1965) and Being There (1971), which was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1979. The Painted Bird was considered by some to be an important contribution to understanding the Holocaust. It reflects on the sense of alienation and cruelty in modern "civilization." It was banned in Communist Poland until the Revolutions of 1989. Being There is a satire on modern life and snobbery. Kosinski's novels reflect the insights of an outsider, of an alien (in both senses of the term.)
Kosinski was born Josek Lewinkopf in Lodz, Poland. As a child during World War II, he survived under a false identity in a Roman Catholic Polish family in eastern Poland under a name his father gave him to use, Jerzy Kosiński. A Roman Catholic priest issued him a forged baptismal certificate.
After World War II, Kosiński reunited with his parents and earned degrees in history and political science in Poland (at the University of Lodz). He worked as an assistant at the Polish Academy of Sciences (Institute of History and Sociology). In 1957, he emigrated to the United States; he later claimed that the letters from eminent Polish authorities guaranteeing his loyal return, which were needed for anyone leaving the country at that time, had all been forged by him.
In 1962, he married the American steel heiress Mary Hayward Weir, eighteen years his senior. She died in 1968 from brain cancer. He later married Katherina von Fraunhofer, a descendant of Bavarian aristocracy.
Kosinski's novels appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list and according to Greenwood Press, they were translated into over 30 languages, with total sales estimated at 70 million in 1991.
The Painted Bird describes the experiences of a boy (of unknown religious and ethnic background) wandering about a surreal Central or Eastern Europe countryside and hiding among cruel peasants. The novel is presumably a metaphor for the human condition: alienation in a dehumanized, hostile, and thoroughly evil world.
It was "described by Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel as one of the most important books in the so-called Holocaust literature." Wiesel wrote in a New York Times Book Review that it was: "One of the best... Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity"; Richard Kluger, reviewing it for Harper's Magazine wrote: "Extraordinary... literally staggering ... one of the most powerful books I have ever read," and John Yardley, reviewing it for The Miami Herald, wrote: "Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will forget it; no one who reads it will be unmoved by it. The Painted Bird enriches our literature and our lives."
Soon after the book was published in the US, Kosinski was accused of being anti-Polish, "particularly after 1968 when the authorities undertook an anti-Semitic campaign that forced many Jews to leave Poland." The book was banned in Poland from its initial publication until 1989; when it was finally allowed to be printed, thousands of Poles in Warsaw lined up for as much as eight hours to purchase copies of the work autographed by Kosinski. Polish literary critic and University of Warsaw professor, Paweł Dudziak, noted that the Painted Bird is a "great, even if a controversial" piece. He stressed that since the book is surreal—a fictional tale—and does not present, nor claims to present real-world events—accusation of anti-Polish sentiment are nothing but misunderstanding of the book by those who take it too literally.
However, reception of the book was not uniformly positive. “When Kosinski's Painted Bird was translated into Polish, wrote Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, it was read by the people with whom the Lewinkopf family lived during the war. They were scandalized by the tales of abuse that never happened. They recognized names of Jewish children sheltered by them during the war—children who survived thanks to them, now painted as victims of their abuse. They were bitter and offended by Jerzy's ingratitude and obsession to slander them.” According to Pogonowski, The Painted Bird—due to its "pornographic content"—became Kosinski's most successful attempt at profiteering from the Holocaust.
It is argued that The Painted Bird is a misinterpretation of the metaphoric nature of the novel. In newer editions Kosinski explained that his characters' nationality and ethnicity had intentionally been left ambiguous in order to prevent that very interpretation.
Steps (1968), a novel comprising scores of loosely connected vignettes, won the National Book Award in 1969.
In 1975, Chuck Ross, a Los Angeles freelance writer conducted an experiment with Steps by sending 21 pages of the book to four publishers under the pseudonym Erik Demos. The book was turned down by all of them including Random House (which originally published Steps) and Houghton Mifflin (which published three of Kosinski’s other novels). Ross revealed his findings in New West magazine four years later. His article includes Kosinski's advice that next time he should offer the entire text. Ross repeated his experiment by submitting the entire text of Steps to literary agents in 1981, with equally dismal results.
Being There was made into a 1979 movie directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers. The screenplay was written by Kosinski and the award winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones. It won the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award, as well as the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globes Best Screenplay Award (Motion Picture).
According to Eliot Weinberger, an American writer, essayist, editor and translator, Kosinski was not the author of The Painted Bird. Weinberger alleged in his 2000 book Karmic Traces that Kosinski was not fluent in English at the time of its writing.
In a review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan, D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University wrote "For years Kosinski passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust. Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosinski confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences. Upon accepting the book for publication Santillana said, "It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography." Although he backed away from this claim, Kosinski never wholly disavowed it."
M.A. Orthofer addressed Weinberger's assertion by saying: "Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake – possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them – as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn't (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right."
In June 1982, a Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosinski of plagiarism, claiming much of his work was derivative of Polish sources unfamiliar to English readers. (Being There bears a strong resemblance to Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy—The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma—a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz). They also alleged that Kosinski wrote The Painted Bird in Polish, and had it secretly translated into English. The article also claimed that Kosinski's books had actually been ghost-written by his "assistant editors," pointing to stylistic differences among Kosinski's novels, depending upon his free-lance editors for "the sort of composition that we usually call writing." New York poet, publisher and translator, George Reavey, who in American biographer James Sloan's opinion was embittered by his own lack of literary success, claimed to have written The Painted Bird for Kosinski. Reavey's assertions were ignored by the press.
The article presented a different picture of Kosinski's life during the Holocaust—a view which was later supported by a Polish biographer, Joanna Siedlecka, and Sloan. The article asserted that The Painted Bird, assumed by some to be semi-autobiographical, was a work of fiction. The article maintained that rather than wandering the Polish countryside, Kosiński had spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family and had never been appreciably mistreated.
Terence Blacker, an English publisher (who published Kosinski's books) and author of children's books and mysteries for adults, wrote in response to the article's accusations in his article published in The Independent in 2002:
"The significant point about Jerzy Kosinski was that ... his books ... had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty's Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy."
D.G. Myers responded to Blacker's assertions in his review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan:
"This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. 'There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,' Sloan writes, 'and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.' On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.
John Corry, a controversial figure himself wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosinski, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that "Kosinski was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign."
Kosinski's defenders also assert that these accusations ignore the stylistic differences apparent in the work of almost any artist over a period of more than a few years.
Kosinski himself responded that he had never maintained that the book was autobiographical, even though years earlier he confided to Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, that his manuscript "draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe." In 1988 he wrote The Hermit of 69th Street, in which he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of investigating prior work by inserting footnotes for practically every term in the book. "Ironically – wrote theatre critic Lucy Komisar – possibly his only true book... about a successful author who is shown to be a fraud."
In 1979, Kosinski told a reporter: "I'm not a suicide freak, but I want to be free. If I ever have a terminal disease that would affect my mind or my body, I would end it."
By the time he reached his late 50's, Kosinski was suffering from irregular heart beat as well as severe physical and nervous exhaustion. Kosinski committed suicide on May 3, 1991, by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates and his usual rum-and-Coke, twisting a plastic shopping bag around his head and (allegedly) taping it shut around his neck (a method of suicide suggested by the Hemlock Society), and lying down to die in water in the bathtub in his West 57th Street New York apartment.
His parting suicide note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity." (Newsweek, May 13 1991).
Kosinski was a popular, if not important writer. His Painted Bird was considered an important contribution to understanding the Holocaust by figures such as Arthur Miller and Elie Wiesel. His novels sold well, and Being There was made into a popular film starring Peter Sellers.
Kosinski was himself a popular figure with the media, appearing 12 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during 1971-73 and The Dick Cavett Show in 1974. He was a guest on the talk radio show of Long John Nebel, posed half-naked for a cover photograph by Annie Leibovitz for the New York Times Magazine in 1982, and presented the Oscar for screenwriting in 1982.
He also played the role of Bolshevik revolutionary and Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds. The Time magazine critic wrote: "As Reed's Soviet nemesis, novelist Jerzy Kosinski acquits himself nicely–a tundra of ice against Reed's all-American fire." Newsweek complimented Kosinski's "delightfully abrasive" performance.
He practiced the photographic arts, with one-man exhibitions to his credit in Warsaw's Crooked Circle Gallery (1957), and in the Andre Zarre Gallery in New York (1988). He was also invited by the dying Nobel Prize-winning French biochemist Jacques Monod to document his final hours.
All links retrieved May 4, 2018.
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