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Her Private Devil

In his heyday, Jerzy Kosinski cut a wide, bizarre swath through New York's literary and sex-club scenes. One of his constant companions was a young law student. This is their story.

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On May 2, 1991, Jerzy Kosinski committed suicide. Rumors of AIDS and Alzheimer's surrounded his death, but I discount them as speculative and mean-spirited. Jerzy did tell me, during the months before he died, that he had been depressed, was dissatisfied with his work, and had experienced episodes of memory loss. But it is my opinion that Jerzy, as life's grateful guest, determined that his visit here had run its course. His suicide was very much a death of natural causes.

In the beginning, Jerzy and I were lovers. At the time of his death, we had been intimate friends for 15 years. Jerzy was the outlaw I rooted for. I was, interchangeably, his partner and audience. Jerzy was, for me, a permission slip. I was, for him, the reflection of his worth. A protégée.

I met Jerzy in 1978, when I was a 24-year-old law student in New York City. I had written him a letter seriously, if simplistically, critiquing his novels, which I had read in reverse order of both their publication and renown -- Blind Date, then Steps, Cockpit, The Devil Tree, Being There, and his Holocaust masterpiece The Painted Bird. But the real purpose of the letter was to entice him. To tantalize the tantalizer. I was not looking for a literary mentor.

When Jerzy called, I could manage to say only, "Oh, my God!" To which he replied: "No. God would be more considerate than to phone at 2 a.m." I didn't tell him that my reaction was prompted less by awe than by the dilemma of having my boyfriend, David, sound asleep in bed beside me at the time. David, who had introduced me to Jerzy's books in the first place, would not be pleased. Jerzy and I made plans quickly to get together the following evening, and I went back to sleep.

I was pretty smug getting dressed to meet the famous author who was going to have wine and cheese in my law-student living room on 14th Street, and I continued feeling pretty smug until the doorman announced Jerzy's arrival.

I must have been crazy. I regretted writing to Jerzy at all. I could bolt the door and not let him in. I could slip a note into the hallway, telling him I'd reconsidered and that I was much too naïve to be involved with a man as complicated as he was. Having sex with barnyard animals is fine if you've written The Painted Bird. Personally, I'm not attracted to oxen. Maybe I could refer to the Holocaust as "a bummer," like some leftover space cadet from Woodstock. That would send him running.

The sound of the doorbell nearly jolted me out of my skin. Looking at him through the peephole, I was relieved to find him as apprehensive as I was. His head was turned away from my door and he seemed to be gauging the distance to the elevator. I don't know what his problem was. I wasn't the author of all that weird stuff.

I opened the door, borrowed a hazy smile from an old Ingrid Bergman movie, and hugged him, as if being reunited with an old friend. He was trembling slightly; warmed by the greeting, he confessed that he almost didn't show up. He was sure Roman Polanski had orchestrated the whole thing as a joke and had coached me on what Jerzy called remarkably accurate insights I wrote in the letter to him. Jerzy said he expected I would be a 300-pound carnival freak wearing a GOTCHA! T-shirt.

Instantly attracted to one another, we stayed up talking well into the early morning hours. While I was making scrambled eggs and toast, Jerzy told me he would someday commit suicide and always carried a lethal dose of cyanide pills with him. Unusual first-date banter, but I had read Jerzy's bio from The Painted Bird. The cyanide pills were mentioned. For fun, I played along with 007. "Cyanide is a poor choice," I said. "You'll die in pain, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Besides, the Nazis used Zyklon B." Jerzy asked me what it was. Cyanide-acid gas. Their main murder weapon. I suggested that if he were really serious, he could contact Derek Humphrey, who wrote his wife's story, Jean's Way, about voluntary euthanasia. Jerzy said he wasn't referring to euthanasia -- that he would never allow himself to be at the mercy of others, nor at the mercy of diminishing faculties or debilitating illness. He would never be a burden to anyone. He would stick with the cyanide. Ironically, it was Derek Humphrey's book Final Exit that years later guided Jerzy peacefully home.


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