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JERZY KOSINSKI





He loved to tell outrageous lies, particularly to the rich, intellectual and famous. They were so eager to be entertained, he explained, that they willingly suspended disbelief, and they were so confident of their superiority that they deserved to be played for fools. "Court jester" to his powerful American friends, that's how Jerzy Kosinski sometimes referred to himself.

Even the truths of Kosinski's life are astonishing in their variety and complexity. Though he was never the mute, brutalized child hero of "The Painted Bird," he probably really did escape being killed in Sharon Tate's house the night of the Manson murders because, according to James Park Sloan, he missed his plane to Los Angeles. A skilled photographer, Kosinski really was invited by the dying Nobel Prize-winning French biochemist Jacques Monod to document his final hours, although we are not told what Monod expected him to do with the photographs.

And after arriving as a penniless foreigner to go to graduate school at Columbia, Kosinski really did live out the American dream, marrying a millionaire socialite (from whom he was subsequently divorced, and who later committed suicide), earning national awards and huge sums of money for his books and a screenplay, on the way achieving that greatest of dreams, to be a movie star, playing a small but important role role in "Reds."

His suicide in 1991 at age 58 shocked the outside world but did not surprise many friends.

Kosinski came to the U.S. in 1957, from his native Poland. Here, as he had there, he gradually became known for a spectrum of sociopathic behavior ranging from mere megalomania to brutal sexual coercion, fraud and plagiarism. Yet he was so convincing that his powerful supporters (including Yale University and the New York Times) believed his side of these accounts for 25 years before evidence was finally published in the Village Voice showing the depth of his cons and dishonesty.

According to Sloan, Kosinski couldn't help being a pathological liar and a control freak. Born Jerzy Nitodem Lewintopf in Lodz in 1933, this son of well-to-do secular, intellectual Jews learned by the age of 9 that to live, he must not be himself. At the beginning of World War II, his father carefully invented a Gentile identity that allowed his family to survive the Holocaust. Sloan argues that Kosinski's psyche was permanently damaged by the absolute necessity of his disguise as the Catholic Jurek Kosinski; he must hide his otherness--especially his circumcised penis--for to be found out was death. The central metaphor of Kosinski's first novel, "The Painted Bird," elaborates a medieval Polish legend: If a captured crow is beautifully painted and released to go back to its flock, the other crows will attack and kill it because it is different.

No wonder Kosinski lost track of truth. Truth was dangerous. Survival depended on play-acting and lies. So he became an expert actor and storyteller. Paradoxically, since his father had chosen Kosinski, the Polish equivalent of Smith, as the family's new name, Kosinski could tolerate disguise, but not anonymity. Thereafter, he created many selves, each more beautifully painted than the last, and although his gloss and shimmer attracted others, often his uniqueness made him suspect. In school in Poland, later at Columbia and most significantly when his novels became bestsellers, his masks eventually were questioned, and his audience turned on him, furious at his hubris.

Rumors about his plagiarisms and ghostwriters were rampant for at least 10 years before a 1982 article in the Village Voice revealed that Kosinski, who won the 1969 National Book Award for "Step" and whose novel and prize-winning screenplay "Being There" became a hit movie, couldn't write English well enough to put his words on paper. The striking stylistic differences apparent from one novel to another can be explained by the fact that he often changed the poorly paid, never-credited "editors" with whom he would sketch out a story line and collaborate as they filled in the details.