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Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words

“Though his work for human rights is unassailable, the books grow worse and worse, the tales of his derring-do more and more farfetched. Finally, without at all forgiving him his lies, one feels sorry for Kosinski.”

by

Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine — and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every fucking galley — ­first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paper-­back editions.

— Jerzy Kosinski, May 13, 1982

None of the trappings — the appearances on Johnny Carson, the adulatory profile in the Times magazine, the featured part in Reds — ­would matter if Jerzy Kosinski weren’t apparently a writer of talent. But he did astonish the world with his first novel, The Painted Bird, in 1965, and followed that triumph by winning a National Book Award for Steps in 1969. Though his fiction has been in precipitous decline since then — Pinball, the latest, is a mess — those first two novels alone would seem to guarantee Kosinski an honored place in the literary history of our time. That place is in jeopardy, however, for Kosinski’s ethics and his very role as author have been seriously challenged, and his many explanations lack the ring of truth.

There are, in the world of publishing, certain conventions. Informed readers are not surprised to discover that cabinet ministers or major league pitchers have re­ceived professional assistance in preparing their books. We assume, too, that even “literary” novelists — Updike, Barth, Tyler — are edited by the people who pub­lish their work. But no novelist with any claim to seriousness can hire people to do without acknowledgement, the sort of composition that we usually call writing. To purchase another’s words is to cheat the reader, to trash the tradition. For al­most 10 years now, Jerzy Kosinski has been treating his art as though it were just another commodity, a widgit to be as­sembled by anonymous hired hands.

He evidently grew used to this mode of work during the late 1950s when, under the pen name of Joseph Novak, he published the first of two anti-Communist tracts in which the Central Intelligence Agency ap­parently played a clandestine role. It is perhaps this dirty little secret that ex­plains the fast shuffle of autobiographical tales making up the Kosinski myth.

Kosinski is, it should be noted, an abso­lutely spellbinding teller of tales. Whether he is providing after-dinner entertainment to the de la Rentas or charming the brains out of a reporter, he is a pleasure to be with. But in the frantic manufacture of fables, as if to cloak his hollowness, Kosinski is, if anything, too inventive. He has made it a central fact of his biography that at some point during his lonely youth­ful flight from the Germans, he was struck dumb. Yet even though he, like many children of the Holocaust, is the sole source for our knowledge of that time in his life, there is more than one story about how the trauma occurred.

Barbara Gelb in a recent New York Times Magazine profile writes that “Kosinski’s dreadful journey reached its climax when, aged 9, he was flung for pun­ishment by sadistic peasants into a pond of human ordure that closed over his head. Something in his mind clicked off and he was struck mute.” But in an interview in the current Penthouse, Kosinski says the key incident happened “in June 1942, while I was serving in a Mass as one of the altar boys. I was supposed to transfer the Bible from one side of the altar to another but fell with it … I am convinced I lost my speech from the tension before the actual fall.” Kosinski, who called the Times and had the paper run a correction of the date his mother died, let the lurid Gelb nar­rative stand unchallenged.

The point here is not to question which (if either) version is true, but to note that Kosinski encourages the conflicting stories which surround him, that he denies the notion of truth. To some extent, this may be the almost reflexive desire of a Holocaust survivor for disguise — a habit of con­tinuous self-invention — but it may also be a sophisticated smokescreen laid down to obscure objective truths Kosinski would rather hide.

Consider, for instance, the question of precisely how Kosinski came to this coun­try in 1957. A reporter who interviewed him for Life magazine shortly after his arrival now says that “there was no mys­tery. He just came over on a student visa and decided to stay.” A few years later, he told the editor of an early novel that he’d “escaped ” from Poland by adding a zero to the check he’d won in a photography con­test and increasing his prize tenfold. The notion that he’d created fictional professors in Poland to write recommend­ations for him and thus fooled the bu­reaucracy into giving him a visa seems to have appeared for the first time six years later, in a 1974 interview with Professor Jerome Klinkowitz. The same story appeared a year later, as straightforward fic­tion in his novel Cockpit, but it is alto­gether absent from Kosinski’s first Eng­lish-language “autobiography,” a 1958 let­ter he wrote to the Ford Foundation apply­ing for a grant.

The Ford grant is itself the subject of yet another confusion. In his second inter­view with the Voice, Kosinski ridiculed the notion that he had a multiyear grant: “Nonsense,” he said, “I had a grant for a year.” The Ford Foundation’s press office reports that he had grants totaling about $8000 from 1958 through ’61, a very re­spectable stipend for a full-time graduate student. Indeed, working thorough the var­ious accounts of that period in his life, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Kosinski was uniquely favored. According to the most thorough academic biography, Norman Lavers’s Jerzy Kosinski, pub­lished in 1981 by Twayne Press, Kosinski arrived in the United States on December 20, 1957, without having any prior contact with any U.S. institution, with only a rudi­mentary knowledge of English, and $2.80 in his pockets. A few weeks later, he was accepted as a doctoral student at Columbia; a few months more and he received a generous foundation grant; less than two years after that, he had signed a contract with Doubleday and Company for a non­fiction book about daily life in Russia. (In his final interview with us, by the way, Kosinski denounced Lavers’s book, saying he had never heard of it until it was done, and could correct it “only on the phone, never in letters.” Emily McKeigue, the book’s editor, reports that Kosinski was sent a manuscript which he corrected heavily. Not all of the changes were ac­cepted, but when he was sent a copy of the finished book, Kosinski “told us that he was fairly pleased with it.” According to McKeigue, there were “many” exchanges, but Kosinski never objected to the book’s description of his 1957 English as “rudimentary.”)

•••

Kosinski, it appears, has a habit of say­ing anything that he thinks his listeners will find interesting, or attractive, or flattering. The net effect is that almost noth­ing he says can be relied on; everything must be checked (as the Times magazine should have done before it awarded him a nonexistent Columbia doctorate). In an interview with Eliot Fremont-Smith a few weeks ago, Kosinski was utterly plausible, even winning, as he discussed his hiring of assistants.

Yes, it happened regularly, but always with the knowledge and approval of his present publisher, and only after that publisher had set the original, Kosinski-pre­pared manuscript in type and returned the printed galleys to him for correction.

“The book doesn’t end with galleys,” Kosinski explained. Instead, that’s when revisions begin — “and I pay for it.” First galleys are worked over, then retyped into a “new manuscript,” and sometimes this process can be repeated through several successive sets of galleys. Since, he says, house editors can’t spend the effort and time necessary to satisfy his bent toward the meticulous or his urge to perfection (“Hardly anybody can spell better than I can”), he hires free lancers to collate corrections, check galleys against retyped manuscript, and watch for errors (e.g., a word used too many times, an action inadvertently repeated).

As he described the process in a later interview, the job of his assistants was mechanical. Sitting on the couch and dis­playing the two colors of pencil scrawl all over an early galley of Cockpit, Kosinski said, “This has to be now retyped, all retyped, once again. Now imagine how many things can go wrong, do you realize? For instance, let’s say I write ‘I also have also,’ … Little things like this, nobody is going to catch. This would be retyped by Kiki [von Frauenhofer, his assistant and companion] to a new manuscript, then Hackett [the assistant in question] would be given the new manuscript to make sure that all this was properly transferred.”

Earlier in our discussion, Kosinski had insisted that Cockpit had been put to­gether without any outside assistance, but when I mentioned the name of John Hackett, he relented and allowed that Hackett had done some proofreading. He further minimized Hackett’s work by de­scribing him as “a student, who needed money … it didn’t work out … he couldn’t sit still … there were drugs.”

I was stunned. I first met John Hackett, now an English professor at the University of Texas, more than 20 years ago, when he was my best friend’s roommate at Holy Cross College, and I had believed him ab­solutely when he’d insisted that his work for Kosinski had been strictly editorial. Though there is an ethical question about a novelist secretly retaining a private editor as his own employee before showing his manuscript to a publisher, it seemed to me clearly a venial rather than a mortal sin, and I’d been expecting Kosinski to be as generous to Hackett as Hackett had been to him. The assault on his former friend’s character seemed senseless.

Perhaps, being as kind as possible, one could assign this casual calumny to ten­sion. (Kosinski, in a bit of manipulation so clumsy as to be nearly winning, had asked if he could have an observer attend our interview. Thinking it was his lawyer, who had already called the Voice, we agreed. “Good,” he said. “It is a woman examining victims of the Holocaust under situations of stress.”) But it also seems that Kosinski has a great deal invested in maintaining the image of absolute veracity, as though any chink in the armor, however small, would render him suddenly and com­pletely vulnerable

In any case, Kosinski’s character as­sassination didn’t work. Hackett, told of the conversation, coldly remarked, “I was at that time an assistant professor of Eng­lish and Master of East College at Wesleyan. I was not the sort of person you would hire as a proofreader.

“Jerzy asked me as a friend and col­league to come down and help him because he’d had an accident and was worried about his ability to function efficiently. I came as a friend, and I am disappointed in him.” The drug use charge, he added, “was absurd.”

Despite Kosinski’s claim, Hackett did apparently work on the manuscript and not on galleys. Their joint efforts were spread over about a month during the summer of 1974; Houghton Mifflin archives show that the manuscript of Cockpit wasn’t even received at the pub­lishers until October 10.

But Hackett was just brought up to give Kosinski a chance to be gracious. Barbara Mackey is a different story. She met Kosinski in 1971, when she was a graduate student at Yale, while Kosinski was on the faculty. A friend, Rocco Landesman, who was working with Kosinski during the final revisions of Being There, introduced them, and a year later, when Mackey was in New York working for Joseph Papp’s Perform­ance and Scripts magazines, she began to help Kosinski on The Devil Tree.

As she describes their work situation, “We were in [his] apartment on 57th Street. He would give me a sentence, talk philosophy, then come out with an idea that he wanted crystallized in a paragraph, a page, a chapter. Sometimes it was a little like taking dictation, at others, I was more like an instant editor. I prepared a first, handwritten draft that was then typed out by Kiki.

“The ideas were all his — I think he is a brilliant thinker, central in the world and in American culture — but the words were often mine. The term ‘collaborator’ isn’t right — I shouldn’t say that, anyway — it was more organizational. A collaborator would have a roughly equal input, but the intellectual notions are all his. If I had been a collaborator,” she added wryly, “the book would have been very dif­ferent — especially about women.” (I had agreed to get back to her to verify these quotes, but Mackey, now assistant director at the Denver Arts Center, suddenly stop­ped returning phone calls.)

Asked again to clarify the work pattern, to make certain that galleys were not in­volved, Mackey reiterated that her “hand­written copy was typed up overnight so that we could work on it again,” and that all the ideas were Kosinski’s. “All I did was put it into English.” (On the other hand, putting a novel “into English” is what writing is all about.)

Mackey also worked on the early stages of Cockpit, and was eventually succeeded by Hackett. On the next book, Blind Date (1977), Faith Sale, now an editor at Put­nam, worked with Kosinski at what he calls the “proofreading” stage; we have been unable to reach the woman alleged to have been of earlier assistance. For 1979’s Passion Play, however, Kosinski retained Richard Hayes, a former professor of drama at NYU and Berkeley. Hayes, whose name Kosinksi brought up only in his final interview with us last week, says that his association with Passion Play be­gan when he “met Jerzy, in full military regalia, on the corner of 88th Street and Broadway one hot August night.”

Unlike Mackey, who worked sometimes from typescript, sometimes from conversa­tion, Hayes invariably worked from lengthy sheets of typing — “triple spaced and with wide margins, so there was room for my work.” Though he is emphatic that his work was not mere proofreading, he too rejects the “collaborator” title. “I would say instead that I combed, fileted, elevated or amplified his language — that I invested it with a certain Latinate style which was sometimes more Hayes than Kosinski” (and on which style, indeed, the Village Voice reviewer remarked when the book was first published).

As an example of a typical working exchange, Hayes (who like all of Kosinski’s assistants was paid by checks drawn on Kosinski’s corporation) says, “Often I wouldn’t see him for several hours; it would be just Kiki and I there in the living room, but I recall his once coming out with a rather exotic passage and jauntily drop­ping it down in front of me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Poeticize this sex.’ ”

Suppose, I asked Hayes, he had not worked with Kosinski. What would Pas­sion Play have been like? After some thought, he responded, “That’s really im­possible to say; the initial manuscripts were so raw they could have led in many directions. All one can say for certain is that it would have been very, very dif­ferent.”

•••

A number of people scattered across the geographical and age spectrums — without any discernible axe to grind — agree that they have “assisted” Kosinski. Beyond that, one of us has actually seen xeroxed sheets of reworked manuscript. Thus the question is how an author whose grip on the English language and on himself was so attenuated that he needed help putting early drafts of his novels together, ever managed to write — all by himself, and as claimed, in English — the book that stands out among all his works, The Painted Bird. Despite his frequent moving pleas that he could only have written it in English be­cause he remained inhibited by his native languages of Russian and Polish, he proba­bly wrote it in Polish.

Early in 1973, one Halina Bastianello, a translator, wrote a letter to a New York Times reporter claiming that some years earlier she had answered an ad for a Polish to English translator placed by Kosinski in the Saturday Review, and that he had wanted to hire her as the translator for The Painted Bird. (Though the Times never followed the story up, Bastianello retains a copy of her letter.) After a three­-and-half-hour interview, she wrote, Kosinski “found me ‘perfect.’ ”

“There was one hitch, unique in my experience: he was adamant about his re­fusal to give me credit for the translation, or have my name mentioned in connection with the preparation of the book. (Query: Who WAS the ghost?)”

Pressed in an interview to confirm this story, Bastianello was adamant that the man who had interviewed her was Kosinski, that the work to be translated was in manuscript form in Polish and in no way a collection of documents or of previously printed materials, and that “be­fore I did sight translation, I asked him for a scenario of the book, and he gave me, as though he was a book reviewer, the plot of Painted Bird.” When the novel subsequently appeared in English, she read it and reports that it appeared to be substan­tially the same, though she cautions that “without that original manuscript before me, there is no way I could swear to its being identical.”

Asked, in his first interview with Fre­mont-Smith, about a time when he might have advertised for a translator, he said that after Painted Bird was published (in 1965), there were challenges to its factual veracity. In order to counteract these charges, he acquired two collections of documents by and about children of the Hitler era published in Polish. The project was dropped, he said, when Paul Brooks, one of four editors he worked with at Houghton Mifflin, said that since The Painted Bird was fiction, the defense was unnecessary.

Subsequently, however, perhaps realiz­ing that the date of an advertisement could be checked, Kosinski moved the date of his search for a translator back a year, claim­ing that it took place while he was having difficulty finding a publisher for Painted Bird. His fall-back notion of a nonfiction book about children of the Holocaust was, he says, dropped once Houghton Mifflin accepted the book in the late fall of 1964.

All things considered, this was a pru­dent alteration. During the five-year pe­riod from 1962 to 1966, research shows that only one advertisement seeking a Polish-English translator appeared in Sat­urday Review. That ad, which reads ”TRANSLATOR WANTED, Polish to English, for full-length fiction to be translated in short time. Must be thoroughly experienced in both. Box F-9-35,” is dated March 7, 1964, more than a year before The Painted Bird was published.

In his follow-up interview with the two of us, Kosinski claimed that Fremont-Smith had asked whether Kosinski had consulted translators’ ads (an odd question, given Fremont-Smith’s knowledge of Bastianello’s letter) and said, “I don’t recall advertising certainly not for fiction.” The qualification seemed disingenuous since we had politely agreed that our conversation was solely about that slippery time when he was seeking a translator for nonfictional documents.

Kosinski’s attempts to distance himself from the ad lend credibility to Bastianello’s claim. Absent his strange response in the second interview, one might be tempted to think that her memory had grown confused over the years especially since an English manuscript of The Painted Bird was submitted to Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which declined it) less than two months after Bastianello says she met with Kosinski. This is very close to the absolute minimum time it  would take a translator to handle a work of that length. (After five different owners, two transcon­tinental moves and one bankruptcy, Sat­urday Review‘s box-holder records for that era are no longer available.)

•••

These discoveries further complicate the murky history of Kosinski’s early American years, for now we must ask how a man who needed assistance and transla­tion through his novelistic career managed unaided to turn out two early and ex­tremely smooth books of journalistic prose in 1960 and 1962. Once again, it appears more than likely that he didn’t.

As Kosinski has told other interviewers, and as he told us last week, the “Joseph Novak” books began when a fellow student in the Columbia doctoral program read some of his papers and thought they would make a book. Since the student, Roger Shaw, was a junior editor at Doubleday, this judgment was more than cafeteria conversation, and ultimately led to a profitable contract for Kosinski. The first of the two books, The Future Is Ours, Com­rade, was promptly serialized by the Sat­urday Evening Post, condensed and trans­lated by Reader’s Digest, and sold to many foreign publishers. Eventually, it earned its author over 150,000 pre-inflation dollars.

There are, however, a couple of prob­lems with the Kosinski version of this lucky tale. First of all, Doubleday’s person­nel files for the period show no record whatsoever of any employee named Roger Shaw. Second, the Doubleday editor who did handle the book never met Kosinski. Adam Yarmolinsky, at that point Double­day’s public affairs editor, says he was told the author’s identity needed to be pro­tected and recalls that “all work on the book was handled through an in­termediary.” He professes to be unable to recall who that figure was, but at the time he told colleagues it was Frank Gibney. (Prompted, Yarmolinsky now says he suspects it might have been Gibney, but is not sure. Gibney has denied both to us and to Yarmolinsky that he was the conduit for this book).

Gibney, a Time-Life correspondent who worked with the CIA in publishing The Penkovskiy Papers through Double­day, was one of many figures involved in what the USIA described to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967 as its “book development” program. Under this scheme, which began in 1956, at least 104 titles were published — some with direct subsidies to the author, others with purchase guarantees to the publisher — by American companies and distributed abroad by USIA. At least some of these titles were later discovered to have been chosen — and funded — by the CIA. All the books were sold through domestic book stores and book clubs as well — with, of course, no indication whatsoever of government subsidy or sponsorship.

The program was extensive — Praeger was the most notorious publisher involved; Farrar Straus the most prestigious — but Doubleday was a highly enthusiastic par­ticipant. Though many publishers drop­ped out as Vietnam heated up, Doubleday continued to participate at least through 1966, when it published Time correspon­dent Jay Mallin’s Caribbean Crisis: Subversion Fails in the Dominican Re­public. It is just barely possible — though it would require prodigies of naiveté — that neither Kosinski nor Yarmolinsky suspected that “Joseph Novak” was re­ceiving a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Yarmolinsky, carefully drawing no in­ference from the fact, points out that the manuscript “came in clean. There was virtually no editing to be done on it.” Cer­tainly, based on a comparison of Kosinski’s 1959 letters to the Ford Foundation (which he showed us, but refused to let us copy) with the text of the book he allegedly wrote at the same time reveals so vast a gulf in language and style that it appears virtually impossible for him to have written The Future Is Ours, Comrade without substantial editorial help — which, all parties agree, he did’t receive from Doubleday.

•••

Jerzy Kosinski has a lot of questions to answer. But though he promised effusively at the end of our second interview that he would answer follow-up queries left with his service over the weekend and would even call us on Monday during a change of planes from La Guardia to Kennedy, he did neither.

The silence is not because he takes our probing lightly, however, for a number of the people we talked to over the past few days reported they’d just heard — for the first time in years — from him. He is, I think, right to be worried, for unless he can come up with some answers to the obvious questions, it appears that he has betrayed his own talent along with his craft. No one thinks less of Italo Calvino because he writes in Italian (though one praises his translator, William Weaver), and Italians presumably don’t complain that they get twice-translated Beckett. And even the compositional help, though it is obviously more problematic, would seem less of­fensive if it hadn’t been screened behind a passionate, believable — and therefore ultimately repugnant — wall of denials.

But even without Kosinski’s answers, one can construct a scenario that explains his odd behavior and his contradictory stories — and Novak is at the root of it. Not only did the book bring him considerable wealth, it brought him a wife. In 1960, Mary Weir, the millionaire widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir, wrote “Novak” a fan letter and ultimately married him. When the sequel, No Third Path, which reworked much of the same territory, failed to do as well, Kosinski turned to fiction.

With the success of The Painted Bird, and his wife’s death (and the reversion of her trust to her late husband’s estate), Kosinski was virtually “trapped” into the life of an author — which at least in its talk­show and charm-the-Times aspects, he has carried out with quite spectacular success. But though his work for human rights is unassailable, the books grow worse and worse, the tales of his derring-do more and more farfetched. Finally, without at all forgiving him his lies, one feels sorry for Kosinski.

•••

“When I was a little girl,” says “Vavara” in No Third Path, “I wanted to learn all I could about the behavior of various animals. I remember how once a group of us kids caught a sparrow in a trap. He struggled with all his might — tiny heart thumping desperately — but I held on tight. We then painted him purple, and I must admit he actually looked much bet­ter — more proud and unusual. After the paint had dried we let him go to rejoin the flock. We thought he would be admired for his beautiful and unusual coloring, become a model to all gray sparrows in the vicinity, and they would make him their king. He rose high and was quickly surrounded by his companions. For a few minutes their chirping grew much louder and then a small object began plummeting earthward. We ran to the place where it fell. In a mud puddle lay our purple sparrow — dead. His blood mingled with the paint … The wa­ter was rapidly turning a brownish-red. He had been killed by the other sparrows, by their hate for color and their instinct of belonging to a gray flock. Then, for the first time, I understood …”

This “nonfictional” account, which eventually became the central metaphor of The Painted Bird, is compelling, but checks with the Museum of Natural His­tory, the Audubon Society, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal no variety of sparrows that would possibly behave in such a way. Besides, as a Fish and Wildlife special agent said, “If you paint a bird, it won’t fly.” ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 28, 2020

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