Jerzy Kosinski was standing at the gift counter in the lobby of the Playboy Club examining the bric-a-brac laid out for sale to tourists. One by one he picked articles off the counter–cigarette lighters, beer mugs, key chains–and held them up to the light. From time to time he asked the counter attendant to retrieve one of the more expensive objects, watches, for example, which were prudently kept in a glass case. The attendant hesitated, as though unsure whether he should call someone in authority, but Jerzy could be persuasive. An ordinary gold key chain seemed to capture Jerzy’s particular attention. He held it out in front of him at various distances, looking at it from different angles, like an anthropologist considering a newly discovered artifact of a lost civilization. Finally satisfied, he returned the key chain to the attendant and we moved upstairs for dinner.
There had beeen a Doris Lessing novel a year or two earlier about a man dropped down to earth from outer space, his memory of an alien life wiped out except for strange dreams and hallucinatory notions; the alien visitor was supposed to live on earth for a while and then report back to his intergalactic cohorts about this odd planetary “civilization.” The catch was, he was supposed to live as an actual earthling: thus the mind wipe. What happened to the man, of course, was that he was abused and locked away in an asylum as a schizophrenic. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the novel was entitled. Looking at Jerzy in the Playboy Club lobby, I saw that alien visitor–a close approximation of the human form, although the cartoonlike beak of nose and shock of wirehair were a clear miss–doing his best to live the life of an earthling, to get the data down and make his report, while every fiber of his being called to him from Elsewhere.
Kosinski had chosen the Playboy Club. It was the place to go in Chicago, he insisted, the place that shouldn’t be missed. In New York, the Playboy Club had gone over entirely to a black clientele–this was the kind of fact Kosinski always took pleasure in having at his disposal–and he was curious to find out who frequented the Playboy Club in Chicago. The hostess seated us, and the answer to Kosinski’s question was quickly apparent: the clientele for the Chicago Playboy club was a mixture of businessmen and tourists from downstate Illinois. Kosinski took it all in, processed it, not disappointed in the least; it would all have its place in his final report.
My wife and I and Kiki, Jerzy’s companion and later his wife, ordered steaks, which also seemed a Chicago kind of thing to do, while Jerzy ordered a green salad in the European style–there was a good deal of fuss, in fact, establishing that the salad was to be brought without dressing, with olive oil and lemon wedges on the side. While we ate our steaks, he poked lettuce leaves aimlessly around his plate while interviewing our waitress. Where was she from and what had brought her to Chicago? (The obvious escape from PeoriaGalesburgCrapville.) What did her father think of her working at Playboy? (He didn’t like it.) Was her bunny costume as stiffly wired and uncomfortable as it appeared? (It was.) What were the rules about fraternizing with patrons? (Well . . . ) What would it take to persuade her to break the rules? (Well . . . ) At each response Kosinski nodded empathically, showing the girl how well he understood, while giving us sidelong glances to be sure we picked up every nuance.
The nameless protagonist of Steps, Kosinski’s second and National Book Award-winning novel, had a similar inclination to poke, prod, and examine minutely–people and objects alike, and sometimes people as though they were objects. In the opening episode he picks up a simple peasant girl by showing her his credit cards. These pieces of plastic, he tells her, need only be presented at the largest and most luxurious department stores in order to receive whatever goods one desires. Thoroughly seduced, the girl follows the protagonist to the nearest large city, where he allows her to use the credit cards for a day before abandoning her to her fate. The tone of the telling is perfectly neutral–so neutral as to approximate the dissociation of schizophrenia. Because of this value neutrality in the telling, it is hard to discover whether the butt of the story is the peasant girl, the department store, the protagonist, the reader, or the whole modern world–which is to say, life on this particular planet at this particular moment, where an alien can see men exchanging plastic cards for material goods, and material goods for peasant girls.
By the end of dinner Kosinski’s green salad was hardly touched, if artfully rearranged. I joked with Kiki that he was a Polish vampire–that I had never seen him partake of the sustenance favored by ordinary mortals–but Kiki replied that it was no laughing matter. Jerzy had serious health problems, she informed me, and in her view many of them derived from simple malnutrition. It sometimes felt like her life’s work, she said, to get him to take in the nutrients necessary to sustain life.
I recalled our first meeting, at a restaurant in New Haven. Jerzy was then a resident scholar at Yale, and I was having contract difficulties with my publisher–the same publisher that had mangled the first edition of The Painted Bird. I had written a piece on Kosinski’s third novel, Being There, he had written me a letter, and we ended up getting together. Sitting in a a family restaurant with Kiki, he told me how he had watched an obese man in the adjacent booth–it was unclear whether it was in this actual restaurant or if the present restaurant was merely a prop to his story–while the man ate several complete desserts. Kosinski had responded by sending the man a whole chocolate cake drenched in Hershey’s Syrup and topped with whipped cream. When it arrived, compliments of the thin man at the next table, the fat man had blown kisses of appreciation, to which Kosinski had responded by saying that no thanks were in order–he had merely hoped to have the opportunity to watch the man die, there on the spot.
What struck me later in retelling the episode was Kosinski’s remarkable capacity for missing the point of his own stories. His own testimony to the contrary, Jerzy was not a cruel man. His occasional cruel acts–and more often, words–had a peculiar insincerity about them, not unlike the perfunctory pieties of genuine scoundrels. Why did he send the fat man the cake?
Kosinski’s work has often been compared to Kafka’s. Kafka’s hunger artist–who fasts as a profession before a skeptical and unappreciative audience–has always struck me as the ultimate depiction of the artist as alien, searching in vain for something on this planet he can eat. When a man cannot eat, he is fascinated by appetite–by the primal capacity to take in sustenance from the world. During much of the time I knew Jerzy I was 20 or 30 pounds overweight, and he never made so much as a negative comment. When he sent the cake (if indeed he sent it, outside his own imagination), it was not to watch the man die, but to watch the man eat.
During that same visit to New Haven, Kosinski informed me that he was using my first novel, which he greatly admired, in his classes at Yale. Naturally I was flattered, but as I thought about it I began to have a nagging doubt. How plausible was it that he would have chosen an obscure first novel by an unknown writer? The Story of the Fat Man and the Story of Using My Novel in His Classes were early entries in a category that I began to think of as Kosinski Apocrypha. Several others emerged during that first meeting. In one of them, he presented his Yale students with typed unattributed paragraphs from a number of writers, including himself, me, Thomas Mann, Proust, and Kafka, asking them to identify the author; the majority of Yale students, he said, thought it most likely that he had made up all the passages the night before. Then there was the Story of the Dining Room Scowl, in which Kosinski sat down in the dining room of a Yale college across from a randomly selected student, scowled, and said firmly, “I don’t like you.” The majority of Yale students, Kosinski contended, burst into tears and fled the scene. Why did he tell these stories?
It was a book tour that had brought Jerzy to Chicago, and he was scheduled to do the Milt Rosenberg radio show. I was doing it with him, whether at his request or because I was an available Chicago writer was not quite clear. I was there to resonate, to provide chorus, to chip in with literary context from the Chicago angle. Suddenly, in the middle of the show, Jerzy dropped his bombshell: my own second novel (about a psychiatric police state roughly modeled on the USSR) had been secretly translated and was a samizdat best-seller in Czechoslovakia; he had it on solid authority through friends in the Czech underground. Did I know about this, Milt wanted to know, and how did it feel to be a best-seller in Czechoslovakia? Now, it was not impossible that my novel had been translated into Czech and become a best-seller without my knowledge–at a certain age one learns not to rule out the possibility of an event merely on the basis of strangeness–but it was about as improbable an event as I could have conjured on the spur of the moment.
Driving him back to the hotel, I inquired whether the story had a kernel of truth or if he had been putting Milt (and the radio audience) on. It was perfectly true, he said, and quickly launched into another story, about the Drake Hotel. When he and Kiki had signed in, he said, they had been asked for a marriage license. Unable to produce one, they had been required to take separate rooms. He was not offended, he explained; he was perfectly willing to abide by the local custom, and otherwise what could he do, marry Kiki? He was merely interested to see that Chicago was a generation behind New York in its cultural and sexual mores. Was it possible that the Drake Hotel in the early 1970s actually asked a couple traveling together to produce a marriage license? I have often regretted that I didn’t stop that night to inquire at the registration desk. Could Kosinski have done something to draw attention to himself, invoking some never-used law or regulation? Or was it a pure fabrication? Why did he tell those stories?
On Michigan Avenue we passed a building under construction with a huge sign identifying its contractor as the Romanek Construction Company–a reminder that Chicago is a very Polish city. I called it to Jerzy’s attention. “I’ve had Romaneks in my classes,” I mentioned to Jerzy.
“I feel sorry for you,” Jerzy quipped without missing a beat.
The reader may have noticed by now a certain narrative oddity. In violation of well-established convention, the subject of this piece is referred to sometimes as Jerzy and sometimes as Kosinski. This is not the product of sloppy editing. For 20 years I have referred sometimes to Jerzy and sometimes to Kosinski, two individuals who occupy the same space at the same time within the confines of the same body, whose speeches and gestures often coincide but who are, in fact, quite distinct. Jerzy is the private person, the warm and funny if rather uncertain friend; Kosinski is the public persona who lives within the ever-moving klieg lights of the public stage. Kosinski (possibly) sent chocolate layer cakes to fat men; Jerzy made self-deprecating quips about having to teach Romaneks.
Names are an important part of the Kosinski saga. “Call me Jer-see, like the state,” he said the first time we spoke. He was mildly amused when interviewers–Milt Rosenberg among them–affected the Polish intonation of Yair-zhee. Yet another piece of the Kosinski Apocrypha had it that Joyce Carol Oates, whom he disliked, insisted that in fact he was a Polish-American boy from New Jersey (thus Jerzy/Jersey) who had taken on the Jerzy Kosinski persona. A letter I received from him on (apparently outdated) stationery revealed that he had been born Jerzy Nicodem Kosinski and had continued to use the full name until he was well into his 20s. Dropping the Nicodem was obviously a brilliant decision in PR terms, and may have been no more than that; but it also occurred to me that the middle name was rather ethnic, suggesting his Jewish origins at a time in his career when his every impulse was to be deracinated and universal. To Kiki, he was sometimes Jerzy, sometimes Jurek (the Polish diminutive: how did she learn it? did he instruct her in the diminutive of his own name?), and sometimes J.K.
J.K. was his public name. Calling Jerzy on the phone meant going through an answering service (which answered with another of his names: 0128), then waiting for a callback from Kiki (or occasionally Kiki’s voice speaking over the answering service). Kiki sometimes seemed less his mistress/companion/wife than his chief of staff. Receiving a call from Jerzy was like receiving a call from the White House. Kiki came on first, ascertained your identity, chatted you up for a moment, and then said “Stand by for J.K.” Like the president, like the CEO of a giant corporation, Jerzy lived within layers of insulation.
Layers are another central part of the Kosinski story. The Painted Bird, Kosinski’s autobiographical masterpiece about a small boy turned loose in Europe during the Holocaust, was originally entitled Beneath This Sacred Armor. Its genius lies in a monstrously neutral voice. Mercilessly abused, buried in ordure, the small boy observes with the detached eye of a visitor from Mars. Big fish, as in the cartoon, eat little fish. Birds of a feather peck their painted comrades from the sky. Pogroms, death camps–these are simply among the things that are done by the peculiar creatures who live on this planet. One may find such things strange, disturbing, even painful and personally repugnant, but they are merely the local custom.
It is tempting to see in Kosinski’s decline some final imprint of the Holocaust, but Jerzy would have none of it. He spoke ironically of his reputation as Holocaust author; he had once, he told me, spoken at the dedication of a Holocaust monument because the sponsors couldn’t afford Elie Wiesel. Wiesel charged $3,000, Kosinski $1,500. He was the discount version of Wiesel, Jerzy said. Yet the Holocaust was central to Kosinski’s emergence as an artist. When he used a credit card or examined a key chain, it was Kosinski the child victim who did the seeing–the man who as a child had been buried in shit by his fellow human beings, who had the sensitive nerve endings to really experience being buried in shit. On that first visit to Chicago, he revealed to me that he had voted for McGovern (a sadly pedestrian choice for an author who had outraged millions), that he drove a Buick. The interface of Kosinski and the world inevitably produced such incongruities: the Boy of The Painted Bird had grown up to drive a Buick.
The failure of Kosinski’s later work lay in his inability to get beyond juxtaposing Buicks (credit cards, key chains) with the Boy of The Painted Bird. Being There, the story of a featureless man arbitrarily thrust into prominence (this was the era of Spiro Agnew), seemed to me at the time a breakout. It was, after all, about someone else–an ordinary lost inhabitant of this planet. Only by being on television–Being There–does Chance, Chauncey Gardiner, come alive. When my first novel was reviewed in the New York Times, I shared my experience with Kosinski: it was not exactly exultation or triumph, I said, so much as a feeling that I really existed, in a way I had not existed before. Esse es percepi, as Berkeley had said with inadvertent psychological insight: to be was to be perceived. To be seen. In Chance, I thought Jerzy had managed to invent a character not himself, while in truth it was exactly the other way around. Inventing Chauncey Gardiner, the Man from Elsewhere who ends up on Johnny Carson, Kosinski was putting out a trial run for a new self.
It is tempting to see Kosinski as another American literary figure ruined by celebrity–by the Warhol-esque allure of presence. He wrote the screenplay for the Hal Ashby film of Being There and became an intimate of film stars. One night, dozing off, I awoke to the incongruous sound of his voice; he was on the Carson show. His friend Warren Beatty gave him a role in Reds. Earlier, through his friend Polanski, he had found his way to the fringe of this world, to the fringe, indeed, of the Manson murders. (Had he not offended a baggage handler in Paris, the story went, giving rise to lost luggage necessitating a stopover in New York, he would have been present at the party with Sharon Tate, and what would have happened then? Would Jerzy and Kiki have been added to the list of Manson victims, or would the tables have been turned on Manson perhaps? Or were key elements of this story also apocryphal?)
He sent me galleys of each new novel, but I quickly learned that it was not actually my opinion that he sought. He had an enviable tough-mindedness about completed work, regarding it simply as product, to be sold as one sells another commodity. My views of a novel’s strengths and defects were not helpful to the enterprise; what he required was my support. My view, for what it was worth, was that he was repeating himself in pale imitation; that his stories were becoming more and more pointless, more and more frequently missing his own point; that the point, increasingly, was sensationalism rather than alienation. Rather oddly, readers were still interested–new readers, in any case. There was always enough of the alien voice, however dilute, to blow the great unwashed out of their socks.
By the time of the Scandal, we had drifted apart. I was in Italy on sabbatical, and had been out of touch with Jerzy for some time, when a series of increasingly desperate letters began to arrive. Accused of using excessive editorial assistance, accused of cribbing The Painted Bird from an obscure memoir, subject to insinuations that the CIA had had a role in his early works, Kosinski suddenly remembered old friends and summoned them to the cause. As a practical matter, there was little I could do except commiserate. Had the CIA actually played a role in the publication of Kosinski’s work? It is not impossible that the agency’s book-development program found his early works congenial. The thrust of the accusations, however–that Kosinski was not the author of his own works–struck me as absurd. How could a team of literary bureaucrats have possibly invented that alien vision?
Kosinski was a man who knew how to create a supporters’ club, and how to put it to use. (The Scandal, in fact, may have derived from the excesses of his supporters at the Times, who invited envy by putting him, bare-chested, on the cover of the Sunday magazine; this came to be Kosinski’s own view.) The peculiar thing about Kosinski was that the mean and devious side was the biggest humbug. He was gentle and wonderful with my children, and patient with my wife’s aging immigrant parents. For 20 years Jerzy greeted me and bade me good-bye with his personal (and somewhat awkward) version of the upscale starfucker hug, by which affluent people in the arts seek to imitate the manners of European royalty. It was, like voting for McGovern, an empty mannerism. At the same time I remember thinking that here was a man who really wanted–who really needed–a hug. Hugs, alas, like steaks, were a local comfort which his alien nature was somehow denied.
His Jewishness was the final twist on the Kosinski riddle. By his own account, he had been unaware of his Jewish background until his parents informed him at the age of 21. It would be easy to claim that his belated interest in the Jewish religion–particularly in the theologian Heschel–was a last retreat to safe ground, if not (as in the adage about patriotism) the last refuge of a scoundrel. The search for safe havens was a basic Kosinski theme. Visiting my River Forest home in the late 70s, he noticed a “secret room” created when a superfluous back stair had been walled up. “You could hide me there,” he said. “When the disaster comes, I will hide there.”
Neither Jerzy nor Kosinski was an easy man to pin down; the residual royalties from his early books were assigned to an Israeli charity, hardly the act of a man who ignored his Jewishness. Yet after the Scandal, Kosinski–the cut-rate Elie Wiesel–clearly came to rely more desperately upon the built-in constituency for a Holocaust chronicler. The last time I saw him in Chicago he spoke at Temple Sholom, to an audience that repeatedly queried him about arcane Holocaust matters. The following night, at Spertus College of Judaica, his talk focused on the Lodz ghetto–Lodz was the home of the Kosinskis–and its shameful (or artful) pseudocollaboration with the SS. A situation like the Holocaust redefines integrity, Kosinski argued: Wasn’t it better to play along, to celebrate life and extend it for a while? In the course of his talk, he saluted me from the podium as a good goy–an accolade, like samizdat best-sellerdom in Czechoslovakia, that I had done nothing whatever to earn.
The occasion of that talk was Kosinski’s decision to leave his private papers to Spertus–a Jewish home for a Jewish writer’s memorabilia. Later, over a drink, he speculated as to what the good Jewish scholars would think when they opened the packet. An award-winning photographer, Jerzy had taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pornographic photographs, including a vast series on males in various stages of the sex-change process–one of the truly great collections of pornography. He took considerable pleasure in imagining the impact of those photographs on the presumably puritanical scholars.
On May 4, 1991, Jerzy Kosinski died, “of acute intoxication by the combined effects of multiple drugs,” according to the New York medical examiner, after attending a party at the home of novelist Gay Talese in honor of senator/novelist William Cohen. He was found by Kiki, in the bathtub, with a plastic bag over his head. To my knowledge he drank little and did not indulge in drugs.
I had last seen him the summer before in New York, engrossed in plans to rebuild newly free Poland with the help of industrialist supporters, complaining as usual about his health (he was a notorious hypochondriac, but perhaps a sick man as well; the local atmosphere is notably unhealthy for Martians). He was thin, but no thinner than usual. We exchanged awkward hugs, and perhaps I only imagine that the hug lingered an extra beat.
I heard the news of his death while driving up Harlem Avenue on the way to a Dunkin’ Donuts. “This just in,” WBBM began. “Polish-born author Jerzy Kosinski . . . ” and I already knew what I was about to hear. I thought of how Jerzy would see my present activity–the pink and orange sign, the attendants (and why is it that Dunkin’ Donuts are all owned by Indians?), the bran muffin, the coffee, the packets of Sweet and Low. Juxtaposition was the Kosinski trick: the Boy from the Holocaust, the Lost Martian, set against mundane artifacts of daily life. To be with him–to read his books–was to see your own existence through alien eyes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.