He stops women on the street and says, ‘I want to photograph you’
Warren Beatty is hounding him to accept a part in his new movie. “Don’t be Garbo,” the actor chides his old friend Jerzy Kosinski. “Call me back.” The call never comes. Kosinski’s best-selling 1971 novel Being There will soon be released as a film (starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine), but the prospect of surrendering his privacy to the big screen appalls the hawk-nosed author. This, after all, is a man who frequently hides from the world behind a fake mustache and a sombrero.
Yet Kosinski reveals himself with stunning candor in semi-autobiographical novels. Blind Date (1977), for example, touches on the murder of his close friends by the Manson gang. Kosinski was on his way to film director Roman Polanski’s Bel Air home the night of the killings; he wasn’t there—and lived—because of a missed plane connection. His current novel, Passion Play, his seventh, is about a middle-aged loner who, like Kosinski, is a polo fanatic. “The character, Fabian, is at the mercy of his aging and his sexual obsession,” he says. “It’s my calling card. I’m 46. I’m like Fabian.”
Fabian is not likely to win the hearts of critics. They routinely attack Kosinski’s work as dirty and violent, and Passion Play has scenes of suicide, sadism and transsexualism. “The violence is never gratuitous,” he says. “I write about what I see in society.”
To enlarge that vision, Kosinski collects bizarre experiences as methodically as more timorous authors do library research. At night he prowls the streets of Manhattan. “I have always been fascinated by sexual experiences,” he says. “I stop women on the street, introduce myself and say, ‘I like you. I want to photograph you.’ ” Usually they assent. At other moments he studies “how man refashions nature” by watching various kinds of surgery (though an operation turning a man into a woman frightened him: “There’s no return”). He also stops at hospitals to read to patients suffering from terminal illnesses.
Sometimes Kosinski takes odd jobs like selling used cars or driving a limousine under the name José. “Short of murder, I have an intimate knowledge of everything I write about,” he says. To know, he is quick to point out, does not necessarily mean to practice. “I have no chains under my bed,” he smiles. “Only writing paper.”
It is actually a roll of adding machine paper he carries on his ramblings and uses for first drafts. A gypsy by nature, Kosinski shuttles between apartments in New York and Switzerland, with frequent detours to polo fields. Wherever he is, Kosinski has access to lethal chemicals. “I’m not a suicide freak, but I want to be free,” he says. “If I ever have an accident or a terminal disease that would affect my mind or my body, I will end it.”
The philosophy is harsh and was developed in crisis. Kosinski’s early years were a blend of Franz Kafka and Ian Fleming, and he, of course, turned them into a novel, The Painted Bird. During World War II Kosinski’s father, a professor, and his mother, a pianist—both Jews—sent him out of Poland to escape the Nazis. Abandoned by the man entrusted with his care, young Jerzy wandered alone through Eastern Europe for six years. Traumatized by the experience, he temporarily lost his power of speech. Reunited with his family after the war, Kosinski went on to study sociology and political science at universities in Poland and the U.S.S.R. Later came his great escape: To obtain a passport, he forged official seals and documents and created a bogus American “foundation” willing to sponsor him. In 1957 Kosinski arrived in the U.S. with $2.80 in his pocket.
To get by, the resourceful young Pole drove a truck. Then a Ford Foundation grant enabled him to write a non-fiction book about totalitarianism. One of the book’s admirers was Mary Hayward Weir, widow of a West Virginia steel magnate, who was 10 years older than Kosinski. They were married in 1962 and lived expensively.
Six years later Mary died of cancer and Kosinski was left nothing in her will. (“Mary knew such a gift would be bad for me.”) He found himself impoverished again: “I had spent too much on tipping and tuxedos.”
As usual, his prospects brightened. He was hired to teach at Wesleyan, Princeton and Yale, and his novels meanwhile became commercial successes. Steps won the 1969 National Book Award. (In 1977 it was the subject of a widely publicized hoax: A young free-lancer submitted it, in manuscript, to 14 publishers—and all rejected it.)
Emotionally, Kosinski’s life improved, too, after he met Katherina “Kiki” von Fraunhofer, a marketing consultant, in 1968. The two have been devoted ever since, but marriage is out of the question. “Our contract is emotional and philosophical,” Jerzy says. “Why should society enter in?” For Kiki, the relationship means putting up with an eccentric. “He’s obsessive about things he likes,” she says. “He could eat gazpacho four times a day.”
Kosinski takes a different perspective on his own psyche. “I have the destructive potential of an artist,” he reflects. “I could be a terrorist. I could be a great criminal. I could be a sex maniac. But writing is my protection in life. Because of it, I am merely creative.”