Novelist Jerzy Kosinski, 57, Kills Himself in N.Y. Home : Literature: Works by the Polish native include ‘The Painted Bird’ and ‘Being There.’ He had been ill.


Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish-born novelist and World War II Holocaust survivor who won acclaim with such best-sellers as “The Painted Bird” and “Being There,” killed himself Friday morning, apparently despondent over failing health.

His body was discovered by his wife, Katherina von Fraunhofer-Kosinski, at about 9:30 a.m. in the bathroom of their mid-town Manhattan apartment, police said. Kosinski, who was 57, was found naked in a tub half full of water with a plastic bag tied over his head.

A suicide note was left in the office of his apartment, located in a swank section of West 57th Street near Carnegie Hall, but authorities refused to divulge the contents.


In a statement issued through a publicist, the writer’s widow said that he had been in deteriorating health as the result of a serious heart condition.

“He had become depressed by his growing inability to work, and by his fear of being a burden to me and his friends,” she added.

She told police that she had last seen him alive at 9 p.m. Thursday, authorities said, adding that the couple slept in separate bedrooms.

Author Gay Talese said that Kosinski had been at a party at his house until late Thursday night and appeared to be “as cheerful and smart as ever.”

Talese said that Kosinski’s suicide was ironic considering the horror of his early childhood after the Nazi occupation of Poland. “He took it all and he didn’t seem--I emphasize seem--to be undermined,” Talese said.

Born in Lodz in 1933, Kosinski was 6 years old and the only child of cultured, well-to-do Jewish parents when the Nazis overran Poland in 1939. His father was a distinguished classics professor at Lodz University and his mother was a pianist who had trained at the Moscow Conservatory.


Kosinski’s parents sent him away into the remote countryside in a desperate effort to save his life. But he was abandoned by the friend to whom his parents had entrusted him and, like many other children who were similarly abandoned during that period, became a wanderer. He led a nightmare existence, forced to beg for food and shelter among often unsympathetic and brutal peasants in rural Eastern Europe.

He arrived in the United States in 1957 as a penniless immigrant who, as he recounted in a newspaper interview in 1979, borrowed money to make a living as a trucker. To repay the loan, he said, he moonlighted as a parking lot attendant, movie theater projectionist and chauffeur for a black nightclub owner in Harlem.

He taught himself English by a variety of methods, including memorizing Shakespeare, going to the same movies repeatedly, and calling up telephone operators late at night for help in grammar. After two years in the United States, he launched his literary career with the first of his two nonfiction books, “The Future Is Ours, Comrade,” which he published under the pen name of Joseph Novak.

In 1965, the same year in which he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, he published the highly acclaimed novel “The Painted Bird,” which was based on his experiences as a child during World War II and is considered a classic of Holocaust literature. It won the best foreign book award in France that year.

Critics praised the book for treating horror with such controlled language. “The surrealistic quality . . . is a blow on the mind. . . . You have made the normality of it all (the Nazi experience) apparent,” playwright Arthur Miller wrote to Kosinski.

A later novel, “Being There,” was published in 1971 and was made into a Hollywood movie starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas. A bitingly satirical comedy, the 1980 film features Sellers as a simple-minded gardener who knows only what he has seen on television but manages to reach great political heights in Washington.

Kosinski’s other books include “The Devil Tree,” “Cockpit,” “Blind Date,” “Passion Play,” “Pinball” and “The Hermit of 69th Street.” Another work, “Steps,” won a highly coveted National Book Award in 1969.

Kosinski’s literary career was tarnished in 1982 after the Village Voice, a weekly newspaper of New York’s cultural avant-garde, charged that parts of his books were actually written by assistants.

The article, titled “Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words”--a play on “The Painted Birds”--ignited a literary furor which saw the New York Times mount a spirited defense on Kosinski’s behalf.

Besides raising questions about the way Kosinski wrote his novels, the Village Voice also contended that the writer had given different stories about his life and how he had entered the United States.

As evidence, the Village Voice article cited a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile appearing in February, 1982, in which Kosinski is described as being flung into a pond of human offal for punishment by sadistic peasants during his World War II ordeals and was so traumatized that he was struck mute.

But in a later interview in Penthouse magazine, the Village Voice writers said, Kosinski is quoted as saying that he lost his speech while serving as an altar boy during a Mass and fell with the Bible when he was supposed to transfer the book from one side of the altar to another.

“In fact, there is no discrepancy in the two accounts,” New York Times writer John Corry wrote in a 6,444-word article defending Kosinski. “In ‘The Painted Bird,’ the boy is impressed into serving in the Mass. He drops the Bible. The outraged peasants then fling him into a pit of human ordure. It is a memorable section of the novel.”

Corry said that the Village Voice’s controversial claims were part of a campaign extending over almost two decades to discredit Kosinski through lies, innuendoes and half-truths, many of them spread by agents of the Communist Party hierarchy in Poland, which had always reviled the author for his “anti-Polish” writings.

Corry’s article in the New York Times became the source of further contention after critics charged that two of the paper’s top editors, both friends of Kosinski’s, had encouraged the writing of the piece and were intimately involved in its preparation.

Kosinski vehemently denied the charges in the Village Voice article.

In 1988, after the liberalization in Poland, Kosinski returned to the country he had fled 31 years before to a triumphal welcome. Crowds packed the auditoriums where he appeared. He cut a slim, elegant figure and, speaking in flawless Polish, “his outrageous statements, rich wordplay and puns quickly won over his audiences,” according to an Associated Press report from Warsaw.

“The Painted Bird,” which had long been banned in Poland, was published there the following year. Thousands of book lovers and admirers besieged the Warasw bookshop where the novel went on sale. Kosinski himself was on hand to autograph the first copies.

Kosinski earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Lodz in 1953 and a master’s degree in history two years later. He was a post-graduate student at New York’s Columbia University for eight years until 1965, earning a doctorate in Hebrew letters.

Between 1969 and 1973, he served successively as a visiting lecturer in English at Princeton, a visiting professor in English prose at Yale and a resident fellow at Davenport College.

In 1981, he appeared in the Warren Beatty movie “Reds” as a Bolshevik hatchet man.

He also served two consecutive terms as president of the American Center of PEN, the international association of authors.

“We shall mourn him,” said Karen Kennerly, executive director of the PEN American Center. “His work evoked a deeply imaginative and powerful response to the terrors of the world. He will be remembered as one of the few writers in English who contended with the unspeakable.”

Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said, in a statement released through a spokeswoman, that Kosinski was “a provocative writer and a stimulating friend.”

Of death, Kosinski once wrote: “You don’t die in the United States, you underachieve. . . . Dying is merely a stage of being alive, slightly below the top.”

His suicide in a bathtub of water struck a grimly ironic note. In an article he wrote for Time magazine in 1984, he said that he had feared water ever since he was 10 years old and was pushed under the ice while ice-skating on a lake in Poland as a prank by village kids.

“Ever since--whether in an ocean, river, lake, swimming pool or, occasionally, even in a bathtub--I’ve been terrified of water closing over me again,” he wrote.

Kosinski had no children.