Sunday
Feb022014

I Am Jerzy Kosinski

Jacques Debrot


 

DEREK SLAYMAKER  2006
East Hampton, New York

A month or so after the Voice exposé, I ran into Kosinski in Crans-Montana. I was with a woman I was seeing at the time. A fashion journalist. She knew Kosinski too, they'd met through Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, during Mardi Gras, at the wrap party for Pretty Baby, but I forget the connection, exactly.

Anyway, so Kosinski had this, you know, second, slightly rudimentary mouth at the base of his neck. Sometimes it would start to make noises, little high-pitched squeaks and nonsense words. Maybe it was stress that brought it on. But the whole time we were talking, I didn't hear anything. He seemed absolutely OK. At ease. Which was surprising, considering how the ghostwriting thing had blown up in his face. I would have expected him to be a mess.

Q.

That's right. So we made plans to get together later that evening—just Kosinski and me, my girlfriend had someplace else to go. And then for some reason, I forgot all about it. Perhaps subconsciously I didn't want to see him again. But when he phoned my room around eight, I reluctantly headed down to Les Voilettes, a bar we used to hang out at, a hundred feet or so below the cable car station.

Q.

I don't know, maybe it was because my girlfriend wasn't there, but Kosinski's manner was now completely different. He kept going on about the Voice. He felt persecuted, he said. Then he started scapegoating the communists, the New York left, I forget who else. I wasn't really listening. And of course that second mouth of his was going like crazy too, the whole time. Making all of these bizarre whistling sounds and barking like an animal. I'd have to have been deaf not to hear it. It was almost sickening.

 

 

ROMAN FREDRO  1999
Stonewall Bar, Christopher Street, New York

The first thing I felt when I heard he killed himself was just an overwhelming wave of nostalgia. It was like a part of me had died too. I'd known him for years. But of course my thoughts went back to when we were really close, in the sixties.

Q.

Right, that whole, you know, the stellar reaches of the avant-glitterati—they'd already discovered Elaine's by this time. And of course Kosinski had somehow insinuated himself immediately into that scene—much more successfully than I did. He just had that kind of dangerous, that kind of charisma. He wasn't a handsome man really, but he was cross-culturally interesting in an exotic—in a Jewish way—with, you know, this long, feral, El Greco head and those two beautiful, sulking mouths. Everybody wanted to fuck him and mainly he obliged. I don't think I ever met anyone as nakedly ambitious as he was. Not that he gave a shit, really, about writing books. He just wanted to be famous.

 

 

JACK HALEWOOD  1993
Half-Way Tree, Kingston Jamaica

I knew Mary Weir, Kosinski's first wife, before I met him. She was a distinctive-looking woman—tall, with a very fine, aquiline profile—but as she aged she became increasingly insecure about her appearance. The tendency back then was for women to wear a lot of makeup. But with her it became absurd. I don't think she ever let Kosinski see her without it.

Q.

No, the marriage didn't last long. And then she died of a brain tumor a year or two after the divorce. Of course, he had nothing to do with her death. You'd sometimes hear people suggest that he had. But it was very sad, because she'd had a drinking problem for years and finally stopped and was desperate to live. At the very end of her life, completely blind by this time, she flew to a cancer clinic in Greece and was treated for several weeks with insulin-induced coma therapy. The treatment she got there was completely ineffective, however, and when she returned to the States, she looked like something from a horror movie. Like a zombie. She'd also lost the ability to speak. When she attempted to say something it was as if her vocal cords had been severed. Her lips would move, but not a sound.  

Q.

My wife, Aerin and I were good friends with Mary's stepson, Jim Weir. We were all roughly the same age—Mary and the three of us. But she was already a widow. Her first husband, who was a lot older, had made the bulk of his money in the steel industry—he owned a large Pennsylvania steel mill—and before he and Mary were married, she'd been his executive secretary. If I remember correctly, he died in nineteen fifty-seven, about five years before Kosinski entered the picture.

Q.

Actually, Mary had a lot in common with Kosinski —similar artistic and intellectual interests—although she never attended to college. How they met, I've heard, was that she came across a chapter from Kosinski's first book—I forget what the title was, not a novel, though—in the Saturday Evening Post. Mary was in Paris at the time. She was a clothes horse—whatever that expression means. But she used to go to the big couture shows every year. And after she'd read the Kosinski piece in the Post, she sent him an effusive fan letter composed on this very luxe, watermarked stationary paper from the Ritz Hotel—a letterhead that I can imagine must have made an impression on him.

Q.

No, I don't know if Kosinski actually knew how wealthy she was. Not at this point, certainly. However, he responded to her letter with one of his own, and she ended up hiring him a month later to catalogue her private library in New York. The collection was quite large. Maybe 12,000 volumes. It was Mr. Weir's to begin with. For a businessman of that generation, someone who had not had a privileged background, he was, I thought a comparatively cultured person. His taste in books gravitated to history, Americana, that sort of thing. But when he died, Mary took the collection in a completely new direction, concentrating on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fine press books. As a result the library was in disarray when Kosinski began to reorganize it.

Q.

Actually, he had a very shrewd, practical side. The only black cloud was that some rare first editions are supposed to have gone missing that later turned up in the catalogue of a San Francisco book dealer. That's what Jim Weir told me, at any rate. I don't know if it's true. Jim had his own reasons for disliking Kosinski.

Q.

As I've already told you, I got to know Kosinski pretty well. I think he needed an ally. You have to realize that he'd been in the States for only a few years and a lot of the people who'd been close to Mr. Weir disapproved of him. That he had a second mouth was also disquieting to some people. I've heard it described as grotesque, but it seemed normal-looking to me. I don't think he was capable of speaking English from it, though. He called it his Polish mouth, or maybe it was his mother mouth, I forget which.

Q.

The Bahamas—Mary had a yacht. And Europe, of course. I don't know when he found the time to write. He and Mary travelled quite a bit. He taught her how to indulge herself. I mean, there she was, with all this money, and she didn't know what to do with it until she met him. He did show me an early draft of The Painted Bird. Only it wasn't called that at the time. I don't know what the original title was. But the manuscript, I remember thinking, was unbelievably chaotic, a complete mess.

Q.

No, but the whole—like, it seemed, every page—was bristling with interpolations and corrections in three or four different handwritings. Plainly different handwriting.

Q,

I asked him about it, but he explained it away. He told me he had an idiosyncratic editing process.

 

 

SADRUDDIN AGA KHAN  2003
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I got to know Jerzy Kosinski relatively well—in both a social and a professional sense, I suppose. Our paths used to cross frequently, in fact, when he was president of PEN. At the time, I was at the United Nations, and we'd sometimes cooperate on joint projects with Amnesty International. Naturally, I used to hear rumors that he was involved with the CIA or SAVAK. Those were the rumors. Possibly it was true. But a lot of people hated him.

Q.

Of course he was a mystery to me. I remember he had a strange habit of tugging on the collar of his shirt so that he could breath out of the little mouth he had on his neck. I never saw it. He always kept it covered up when he was with me. I think it embarrassed him. But sometimes, if Jerzy was tired or distracted, I'd hear it speak.

Q.

I don't know how to describe it. Beautiful, I suppose. The way castrati are supposed to have sounded, perhaps. Is that too out there?

Unfortunately, I thought Jerzy could also be excruciatingly needy—insecure and self-conscious. That part of him was boring. The part, you know, that was constantly running a movie of himself through an imaginary projector in his head.

 


COLETTE ZYTOMIRSKI  1999
Fordham University, New York

The strange thing is I never used to look at magazines, any kind. I didn't have the time. I was struggling to complete my doctoral dissertation at Yale and had eliminated anything even remotely recreational from my reading life.

Q.

My original plan was to write about the literature of the Holocaust—a general study. But after I got into it, I decided to narrow the focus of my research to Bruno Schulz. I was actually one of the first people to get access to his letters. It was pretty extraordinary. He had this very unusual, spidery handwriting. I don't know why I made the association, but it looked like what I imagined spirit writing would resemble. Anyway, for whatever reason, I was going through the Saturday Review, and I came across Kosinski's ad in the personals section. I can't really remember what it said.  It must have specified fluency in Polish and English. That kind of thing, roughly—which, of course, was perfect for me.

Q.

My first impression was that it seemed a little odd, the advertisement. So I was skeptical. But I had no money. I was living at the outskirts of New Haven with five other people in, literally, this rented shack. A typical hippie existence, if you know what I mean. We got our water supply from a cistern that caught rain water draining off the roof. That's how bad it was. And so—and, anyway, there was a post office box number in the ad and I contacted that. And several days later I got a phone call, and it was Kosinski, and after we'd talked for fifteen minutes or so, he said, OK, I'd like to meet you, and so I took a bus down to New York. I used to go to Manhattan all the time. But that day it was snowing very hard, practically a blizzard. The buses were all running behind schedule. And I was afraid he would leave—we'd arranged to meet in the lobby of some seedy hotel in the East Village—but he was still there when I arrived.

Q.

I suppose I spent about a month with him. He would always hang around when I was working, asking questions. If he was behind me I didn't even have to turn around. I could feel the heat coming off his eyes. Sometimes he'd want me to read what I'd written aloud. It was hard to keep the whole thing straight in my mind, however, because the manuscript was constantly changing—the order of the paragraphs, everything.

Q.

He was a sick person, always dressed in super-correct clothing. It was like a fetish: suit jacket, vest, double-Windsored silk tie, et cetera, et cetera. I suppose it was to conceal the mouth. Only I didn't know anything about it at the time. I never saw it. I just always had the sense that he was trying to impress me. It was a little sad. He'd tell me all these stories about his life. About escaping from Poland, the War, that kind of thing. But they were exactly the same stories that were in the book.

Q.

I'll tell you who he reminded me of. That character in the film—I think it was one of Antonioni's pictures—the character who, you know, is in this accident and has amnesia. And the whole film is about his trying to find out who he is, except somehow you know—the audience knows—that what he's going to discover will be unimaginably terrible, that he should stop before it's too late. Being with Kosinski was exactly like being in the middle of that movie.

 

 

RIKKI de la PENSA  2007
Manhattan Beach, California

When we first started seeing each other he told me that he couldn't have regular intercourse because of something that had happened to him during the war. So long story short, one night we ended up at my apartment anyway, and at some point, maybe we were already in bed, he showed me his other mouth. He wanted me to kiss him there, but I wouldn't. Not for weeks, anyway. And then I kind of got used to it.  

Q.

Sometimes I wondered if he was gay. For a long time he considered writing a novel about a homosexual affair aboard a nuclear submarine or a space station. Weightless intercourse was the hook that interested him. But to be honest, he was fundamentally a masturbator. He preferred his own caresses. What is it that Sartre writes about Genet? He draws his pleasure from nothingness, from what is unreal.

 

 

TASHA BLUE  2001
Fruitland Park, Florida

I first met him at Princeton through a friend of a friend. It's all a little vague now, but he was teaching creative writing and I was an adjunct at the School of Architecture. I think he was intrigued by the fact that I was black, and obviously turned-on by that too. He hadn't known many black folks was the impression I got. Like, you know, that he was surprised that I could be interested in the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra or the Gruppo 7, and all of that. Except the way he expressed it didn't come across as insulting or stereotyped—I don't know why. But we got to know each other, and then one day he sent me a photocopy of a novel he was working on. It sounds strange, but there were more than a dozen people—fifteen, twenty—who he'd ask to look at his work. Of course, he paid me some nominal fee. No, more than a nominal fee. So of course, I read what he'd sent me. The English was fine—the idioms, you know. And I thought it was a great book. I'd never really read anything like it. But it was just all of these incredibly creepy little allegorical tableaux—kind of like Kafka.

Q.

After he won the National Book Award I called to congratulate him. But he only wanted to talk about me. What I was doing. I kind of sensed that he was depressed. His voice was very soft. I had to concentrate to hear him. Maybe he was drunk. It didn't sound like him. Not really. Then he'd lapse into Polish. It was—ethereal is too strong a word—but I don't know how else to describe it. And then suddenly, after we'd been talking for only a few minutes, the strange idea came into my head that he might disappear—I mean, literally, at that moment—and his books, too, as if all of the books he had ever written would disappear—if I let my attention lapse.

 

 

NASRIN and ARZU FARAHANI  1997
Le Marais, 3rd Arrondissement, Paris

ARZU. We met at an after-hours club—I forget the name of it—a hole-in-the-wall at the intersection of the Boul' Mich' and the Boulevard Saint-Germain. One night we found an octopus in the snow there. It was lying in the street outside the club.

Q.

ARZU. Nasrini remembers it better than I do—that night. But Kosinski was at a table near the back of the room where there was, like, a metal staircase that people kept going up and down on, as if in slow motion. I don't know where it led, the staircase, but it seemed strange to me. And so he was sitting there, across the room like I said, with someone else—I forget what he looked like, the other guy—but I noticed Kosinski because he kept staring at us with a very serious expression—at Nasrini and me.

NASRINI. He may have been the only sober person in the room.

ARZU. But of course we were used to that kind of thing. People staring at us because we're twins.

Q.

NASRINI. No, we'd never heard of him, but somebody told us he was famous. So OK, that was kind of a turn-on, and then he sent drinks over to our table and we asked him to join us.  

Q.

NASRINI. A very dry sense of humor. Very witty. I enjoyed his company. And so one thing led to another and around three we left the club with him and took a cab to the Saint James, where he booked a room. He said he wanted to take photos of us. Perhaps we wouldn't have agreed if we hadn't had so much to drink. But we were a little wild then, of course, so we got undressed and he started taking pictures. It was actually a pretty nice experience. And then, afterwards, he took us out to breakfast someplace near the Champs-Élysées, except I couldn't eat anything because I was feeling sick.

 

 

LEE RADZIWILL  2005
Turville Grange, Windsor, England

One night—maybe it was one or two, some inappropriate hour—he called me and said that he thought he'd found a way out of the writer's block that he'd been stuck in. I didn't understand him completely, but it had something to do with reconciling the Talmud and the Tantra. That was the last time we ever spoke. He killed himself a week later.

Q.

He was a very spiritual person, I thought—so, yes. But—like I say, it was a crazy conversation—but his theory had to do with connecting the spiritual and the sexual impulses. The two mouths, is how he put it. The two hungers. But it was all relatively vague.

 

ELIOT FREMONT-SMITH  1996
Park Slope, Brooklyn

His publisher arranged for us to have lunch. I'm not certain I understood what his motive was—Kosinski's, I'm referring to. Of course, I felt a great deal of trepidation, but I was also curious to meet him. We'd never actually met, in spite of the crucial part we'd played in each other's lives. But whatever anxiety I had—I felt confident in my reporting. Over the years the allegations Geoffrey Stokes and I raised in the Voice have been borne out.

Q.

The Bar Room at the 21 Club is where we had lunch—his home turf. He looked apprehensive. That was my impression in the first, you know, in the blur of our initial handshake.

Q.

No, no. It was a relatively pleasant experience. Of course, I don't know if either of us attained any new insight. I did tell him that if he'd cooperated with us as we were researching the article, the emphasis would have been different. Immediately I regretted saying that. It left me open to the predictable counterattack. And then of course he began to argue that I had misconstrued his compositional method, and so on. None of this I accepted.

 

 

ULA SASOON  2001
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York

During the last couple of years before his suicide, he had recurrent nightmares. He was afraid to fall asleep.. He also admitted to having auditory hallucinations. Sometimes he heard voices, but more often he was harassed by a kind of background humming or buzzing that reminded him, he said, of a dentist's drill, like something boring its way into his skull. My first thought was that it might have something to do with—that its etiology might be related to—his supernumerary mouth. It was a horrible thing to see that mouth. It must have tortured him. His teeth, the teeth in his neck, were a bad color and terribly carious. The thing was, too, that, as he got older, it never shut up. The rumor was that he'd actually bitten people with it.

Q.

He owned a lot of S-M paraphernalia. Bondage hoods and ball gags and—what I really liked—a very pretty pair of handcuffs made at Hermés that a rich girlfriend had given him. For me it was all very new and sexually liberating. Occasionally the two of us would pick up a streetwalker for a ménage à trios. Or we'd cruise the Place Pigalle where the transvestites hung out in their war paint and beautiful surrealist wigs. He had very definite—even peculiar—preferences. Fetishes, practically. For example, when we were selecting a prostitute, he'd always choose someone who complemented me physically—dark and slender, you know, a Latin type, to set off my pale skin. It was as if he were composing a meal.

 

 

GAY TALESE  2008
New York

The night Kosinski killed himself he attended a party at my apartment for Bill Cohen, the then-Senator from Maine and later Clinton's Secretary of Defense. There were a lot of other people there, so I wasn't focusing on him, of course, but he seemed in good spirits.

Q.

The mouth, yes. He didn't bother to conceal it that night, which was unusual. It seemed to have a mind of its own. Sticking a fat tongue out at all the girls. Whistling.

 

 

OSCAR de la RENTA  1994
Star Island, Miami

He wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered just off a small cove in the Casa de Campo near my own place in the Dominican Republic. It was a beautiful day, I remember, but there was a stiff breeze that kept pushing the yacht towards the beach. After that, there was a small memorial party at the hotel. Dominican beer and pasteles and sancocho, that kind of thing, very light. It was mid-afternoon, but because we were in the shadow of the mountains, everything was strangely dark, even with this brilliantly blue sky overhead. The whole thing seemed slightly unreal to me.  

Q.

So, OK. The party's over. And I go home and discover ash on my white shirt. It must have been blown back by the breeze. I was a little disturbed no one had told me. But I removed the shirt. Carefully. And for thirty seconds, perhaps, I thought about wiping the ash off and bringing it back to the cove. But what would have been the point? So instead, I left the shirt on the bathroom floor for one of the maids to retrieve, a young, light-skinned girl my wife used to think was mute because she'd never heard her speak, but who in reality was simply shy because she'd grown up in a shack without electricity. Pilar was her name, I think. And I wore the shirt only one more time. At a horse auction in Virginia, where I bought a gray Arabian stallion that had to be destroyed a few years later. The horse had broken its leg and killing it, I remember, brought me more pain than I have ever felt at the death of any human being.

 

 

JUSTINE RZECZYCKA  2009
Cos Cob, Connecticut

Yes, that's right. When I think of Jerzy Kosinski I imagine a crazy dog standing up on its hind legs and talking shit.