Her Private Devil

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.

From 1978 until 1981, Jerzy and I explored New York’s erotic nightlife and club scene, including Plato’s Retreat, Hellfire S&M Parlor, and Drag Cabaret. We also talked literature and philosophy. Apart from Norman Mailer, there was no living American writer whose work Jerzy found worthy of admiration: Philip Roth was constipated and phobic. Truman Capote was a hostile faggot and backstabber. Joseph Heller was a one-shot wonder. Gabriel García Marquez? Too surrealistic and muddled with superstition. Jerzy was my erotic knight. I was his intellectual Lolita.

Genetics may have provided Jerzy with the mechanism, but vanity kept the machine well toned and running. A vanity that extended to the women he was seen with in public, which is why I am so utterly perplexed by the supposedly biographical accounting of his preference for plump, voluptuous women who reminded him of Mom. True enough, he liked full breasts, but ideally these breasts were to be affixed to a reed-thin figure. Jerzy would compliment me constantly, but never without the admonition to watch what I ate. He said that with my broad shoulders, slim waist, and narrow hips, I looked like a boy from the back, an observation he would heatedly repeat during lovemaking. My full breasts, and the makeup I wore may have been the perfect foil to a homosexual taboo.

Those who chose to enter Jerzy’s life, an elaborate, high-budget production, had to commit first to suspending belief. Jerzy’s clear aversion to using the word autobiographical was a red flag in and of itself. I stopped asking him to tell me the truth about his childhood: Was he really physically tortured? Had he, in fact, been mute for so many years? Did he ever lose his voice at all? Were his sexual experiences as perverse as he had represented them to be? Was he a Jew? The answers would have had little impact on the direction of our relationship, which functioned very much for the moment. The need to dominate and outsmart one another yielded a suspenseful balance – both of us always teetering on the edge of integrity and dishonesty. Waiting for the other one to fall, neither of us could be trusted to provide a safety net.

Jerzy would show me his disguises, but I never saw him wearing one. Then again, maybe they were so good, I failed to recognize him. Jerzy would withdraw if there was a climate of bad press, which either hurt or scared him terribly, but the only people I know of whom he actively avoided on the streets of New York were transsexuals and transvestites. They were a big part of his nightlife, which in essence was his life, and he had often photographed them. In exchange for an evening of sex, he would, along with some money, promise to give them copies of the photographs for their modeling portfolios. Seldom delivering, he rationalized behind their backs that the money and the chance to strut for a celebrity were compensation enough. Nevertheless, he would scan the midtown streets waiting for any sign of these nocturnal threats making a rare daylight appearance.

I am leaning against the wall near a private room at Plato’s, eating from a small bowl of melon balls and strawberries. I am about five feet away from two men, one white, one black, having anal intercourse, and I’m waiting for them to finish so that I can take the chair nestled in the corner behind them. Soon the men are wiping themselves off with fresh towels. Jerzy applies a squirt of pHisoHex soap and politely offers some to the black man.

“Thank you, Jerzy Kosinski,” the black man says, with a South African accent.

Jerzy, stunned to be recognized and not at all thrilled about it, denies being the author of The Painted Bird, which the black man is saying he read. He knows what it’s like to be persecuted, he says.

“My name is Roberto,” Jerzy insists, pushing me toward the locker facility, where we dress quickly and leave.

Once outside, Jerzy realizes he forgot his eyeglasses and pleads with me to go back inside – to the room – to get them.

The man is still there, and so are Jerzy’s glasses.

“That was really Jerzy Kosinski, wasn’t it?” he asks almost desperately, as if he wouldn’t have been intimate with him if he weren’t.

Spitting image, I tell him, but honestly, his name is Roberto.

“Was he still there?” Jerzy asks as I hand him the glasses.

“I told him you’d autograph his copy of The Painted Bird. All he’d have to do is send it to you, which will be no problem, since I gave him your address.”

I would not have to go to Hawaii to see a volcano erupt. Jerzy was spewing lava.

“Okay, I’m kidding, Jerz – I mean, Roberto. But it would have served you right.”

Jerzy was extremely fond of Warren Beatty but complained to me that after playing the role of Zinoviev in Reds, he had two major problems: First, being perceived as a person similar in real life to the despicable Zinoviev; and second, coping with the sudden and numerous requests to meet Warren.

If they weren’t requesting an introduction to Warren Beatty, he complained, they would happily settle for Jack Nicholson, who was also in Reds. Just the other night, he and Jack had gone out for drinks at One Fifth Avenue, where a drunk, bloated, and balding Nicholson attracted gorgeous women like a human testosterone magnet while Jerzy was virtually ignored.

But thanks to Reds, Jerzy became an insufferable name-dropper: Jack this, Dustin that. Larry rejecting the role of Rand in Being There. Warren and Diane coming to his apartment to plead with him to take the part.

During production in Spain in the late spring of 1980, Jerzy and Warren shared an extremely small house, with anything-but-luxurious accommodations. Warren is envious of my life, Jerzy said. Actually, he corrected, Warren is envious of my freedom. He could never go with us to Plato’s, Hellfire, none of the clubs or shows. Warren is a very sexual person. Very erotic. He would love to explore the clubs. Be a voyeur. Turn the tables for once. He will never be able to. All I can do, as his friend, is show him my photographs. I would like you to meet Warren. You should. He would definitely be interested in your writing. But I would expect you to be my gift to him. Completely.

One night at a discotheque in the warehouse district, on the packed dance floor, our attention was drawn to a woman with pearlized skin that looked to have been illuminated by a moonbeam. Waves of rich, auburn hair cascaded past her shoulders; her eyes were a haunting blue-gray. She wore a peach lace camisole and a flowing gauze skirt that grazed her ankles. Oblivious to the flashing lights and deep, pounding vibrations, she was slow-dancing, alone, to a fast dance song.

She continued to sway gracefully to music that had now stopped playing. Jerzy offered her a glass of wine, which she accepted without looking at him. Her partner, handsome and tall, brushed past Jerzy and joined his weeping willow on the empty dance floor.

We were about to leave when the couple wandered up behind us, and the woman tapped her empty wine glass on Jerzy’s shoulder. “I’d like another,” she said. “My boyfriend is into love but out of money.”

“Good title for a country-western album,” I whispered to Jerzy as he ordered a bottle of wine for the couple, who sat down at our table.

“It’s so hot,” the woman said. “Do you mind if I take off some of my accessories?” Jerzy came back to life.

“Go right ahead,” he answered.

Bending over, she reached high under her skirt and detached her left leg below the knee. She handed the prosthesis to her boyfriend, who nonchalantly placed it under his chair, as though she had removed nothing more than a pair of clip-on earrings.

“Wanna hang with us out back?” the boyfriend asked, referring to back rooms that were opened to swinging couples who wanted to swap. I couldn’t wait to hear Jerzy, still looking like a stunned deer in the road, get out of this one.

“Sorry, but no thanks,” he said, taking a big swallow of rum and Coke. “If I’m late for work in the morning, I’ll be fired. Besides,” he went on, pointing at me, “she has syphilis.”

“Ooo, real drag, man,” the boyfriend said, touching my hand sympathetically.

The woman with the haunted sky for eyes reattached her leg and off they went, swaying again on the dance floor to an imaginary love song.

If Jerzy had been born in the nineteenth century, his vast array of physical ailments would have been called nerves, or nervous condition. Here in the twentieth century, he was a plain old hypochondriac, with real cardiac arrhythmia to milk for all it was worth. A cold was pneumonia, reflux was esophageal cancer, and a dip in energy was hypoglycemia.

Jerzy never went anywhere without medicated eye drops, anti-bacterial soap, and a flask of Myers dark rum. Worried that someone was going to drug or poison him, he seldom ate anything at clubs or swing parties and always drank from his own supply of alcohol. Because he drank rum and Coke exclusively, he’d often ask me if I minded bringing some slices of lime for him in my purse. No problem. I’d toss a few pieces in, along with my house keys.

Jerzy was also a collector: He liked to collect my broken fingernails, which were always long, well manicured, and polished red. If I broke a nail, I would tape it to a note card and send it to him. He would respond with a letter, thanking me for keeping him on my nailing list. Over the years, Jerzy had filled a small box in his desk drawer. I had no idea what he used the nails for until I saw him pull the box out in order to scare the hell out of a freshman English student. He told her it was proof that one jealous transvestite would murder another over beautiful fingernails.

Being there is an official entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, and Jerzy, in one of his manic highs, is trying to persuade me to go with him. He is speaking fast enough to turn milk into butter. His extremities move frenetically with his speech because he is an evangelist with a Cannes Film Festival mission and I am his sole target. Jerzy is a comic disaster when he is on a manic high. He will race at top speed until his batteries burn out. Today, he wants me to go with him to Cannes. Tomorrow, when he finds that neither his checkbook nor his female assistant is in favor of it, he will find a way to renege. At this moment, though, I will enjoy his trek to the summit.

If I go to the festival by his side, I go in a position of power. I will meet executives from Lorimar, the most respected writers, film directors, and cinematographers. Dinner with Roman Polanski. Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, all of whom will be approaching him to write the material that would keep their careers alive. Modesty was absent from Jerzy’s manic highs, and so were spending limits. Of course, he was going to buy me the most beautiful outfits on earth for this adventure.

He made equally compelling intellectual, literary, and historical appeals. He would show me the café where Jacques Monod (1965 Nobel Prize winner for medicine and physiology) and he shared coffee and Monod’s last days of life. Many times, I had admired the album of beautiful, melancholy photographs Jerzy had taken of Monod. He captured his friend’s final tears on film.

Jerzy and I agreed to go shopping the following Thursday. On Wednesday evening, he called, saying he had to make it fast. He was packing. The hot-air balloon transporting his manic high had crashed. Reneging on his invitation, Jerzy said he couldn’t understand why my goddamned rich father couldn’t blow some pocket change on a ticket to Cannes and a cheap hotel room.

I am convinced that Jerzy was an undiagnosed manic-depressive. But because psychotherapy would demand from him some focal point of analytical truth, which he had spent a lifetime fragmenting into kaleidoscopic pieces, he would never submit to it. Opening Pandora’s Box would have been contrary to Jerzy’s clearest objective: the preservation of its damaged contents at all costs.

The challenge, for me, was in being able to anticipate his downward spirals before we were both sucked into the quicksand. It was best, whenever possible, to stay away from Jerzy during his lows. Once, when I was fifteen minutes late for dinner, he smacked me in the face, publicly, and accused me of having been detained by a lover. I grabbed his wrist and told him I would break it off if he ever hit me again. He calmed down, but, detached and robotic, he was lost in a dark chasm I could neither see nor reach. The maître d’ rightfully kept his eyes on us until I could persuade Jerzy to leave. Outside, he told me our relationship was over. I was too shallow to fulfill even his simplest needs. He would leave me to burden my other lovers, and by being a burden, I was less than a whore.

I knew he would call again when the depression lifted. He would act as if nothing had happened, but would be oversolicitous of my affections. Only when even the deepest understanding of Jerzy’s torment failed to elicit my sympathy was our relationship, as lovers, over.

When the revised and expanded edition of The Devil Tree was published, Jerzy inscribed a copy for me, which read FOR LAURIE, FROM HER PRIVATE DEVIL, AFFECTIONATELY, JERZY – MAY OF 1981.” Comparing the new edition with the original, I was startled to discover that I had become a published author. Among the relatively few changes in the text were metaphors and images copied verbatim from personal notes I had written to Jerzy. He had also incorporated portions of paragraphs and sentences into his work. The notes were intended to be kept between us. Now they were copyrighted – officially adopted by Jerzy. I had lost custody.

The Devil Tree in hand, guilty passages underlined, I called Jerzy and suggested he revise the inscription. Perhaps FOR LAURIE, FROM HER PRIVATE COPYCAT, THANKS FOR PUTTING WORDS INTO MY MOUTH. JERZY – MAY OF 1981.

He said, “Many people have made that claim about all of my books, but from you, I believe I may … Tell me where.”

I did.

His long, humble silence would have to suffice as an admission.

The plagiarism was not as disturbing as the bold lack of conscience. Jerzy knew I would let him get away with it, and clinging to the notion that everything that goes around comes around, I did.

Everything came around on June 22, 1982, compliments of The Village Voice. An article by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Jerzy Kosinski of plagiarizing The Painted Bird and Being There. It attacked the way he relied upon editors, without due credit, to make exhaustive corrections and rewrites. Questioning his overall veracity as a human being, it shattered his integrity as a writer as well. Although loyal friends and literary peers rallied to his defense, Jerzy never fully recovered from it.

In many ways, neither did I. The allegations in the Voice, combined with what I knew to be true about the revised edition of The Devil Tree, left me with a gnawing mistrust in all aspects of our relationship.

I hadn’t wavered, however, from my opinion that he was an extraordinary intellectual and philosopher, a brilliant storyteller and, yes, writer. But ego, and the fear of having his credibility strip-searched by erudite Polish or Russian editors, were behind his insistence on writing in English rather than using translators. By borrowing too greedily, Jerzy inadvertently wrote the Village Voice article himself.

Jerzy has admitted that he lied to me about his brother Henryk – Henio – although he didn’t use the word lie. He said it was “autofiction” and that his impressions about Henryk were true at the time, the time being 1942, when Jerzy was 9 and his adopted brother was an unwelcome 2-year-old.

The autofiction was that Henryk had been uneducated, mentally impaired, and deceased. Also autofiction was that he had been Jerzy’s half-brother, born of their mother’s affair with a classical musician because Jerzy’s father’s heart disease and war trauma left him impotent. The father, assuming responsibility for his wife’s philandering, had raised the child as his own. Jerzy resented it.

The truth: Henryk is alive and well – and mentally sound – in Poland. Henryk, the fair toddler, with Aryan features, which Jerzy also resented, had been left by his desperate parents with the Kosinskis. They were able to escape German invasion of their village under the protective cloak of ecclesiastical authority. By agreeing to take the child and shelter him, in a way, Jerzy’s mother had given Henryk life.

Jerzy rationalized that since most toddlers are uneducated and deemed, by rivalrous siblings, to be mentally impaired, his impressions had been truthful at the time. His father, cold toward and critical of both Jerzy and his mother, was emotionally impotent, if not physically. Jerzy said his closest friends had known all along that Henryk and he were estranged, which, in Jerzy’s mind, was the same as Henryk’s being deceased. The implication, however, was that I wasn’t close enough to Jerzy to know the difference. This is how a liar manipulates guilt, but I told Jerzy I was happy to know he still had a brother.

Then there was Jerzy’s deceased wife, Mary Weir, of whom he spoke with a reverence bordering on pristine, parental love. I was led to believe that he had searched tirelessly for a physician or hospital that could cure her brain cancer and that no stone had been left unturned. He would fly with his infirm wife to remote places, hoping that some obscure clinic for alternative medicine might be able to save her with an herb, extract, or treatment as yet undiscovered by the world of modern medicine that had failed them. The sorrier I was for him, the more he embellished the story.

As I began to know Jerzy better, it was harder to believe that he could be genuinely nurturing toward any living thing, least of all a woman. Still, he was determined to write the story of the bereaved widower in indelible ink. I didn’t question it.

A few years later, the son of one of Jerzy’s oldest friends told me that Mary Weir died of depression and alcoholism. That her drunken stupors and blackouts enabled Jerzy to hide his infidelities. He was never a widower because they were divorced before she died. Laughing, the son said that if anyone had a brain tumor, it was, metaphorically, Jerzy.

There wasn’t a grand finale whenJerzy and I decided to stop being lovers. At first, there was too much residual jealousy to become close friends, but we spoke intermittently and went out occasionally, without being physically intimate. I met my future husband, Andrei, at a party I went to as Jerzy’s guest. When I told Jerzy I was going to marry the man he introduced me to, he recalled my former boyfriend, asleep in my bed the night Jerzy first telephoned. Life is a great equalizer, isn’t it?, Jerzy said.

Jerzy and I had little contact until 1984, about a month before I was due to give birth to my first child, Alexandra. I listened to him rant about how New York City has been murdered by the AIDS crisis. Brooding and nostalgic, he said that I would not believe the ghost town the streets of Manhattan had become. The sexual climate was parched beyond rejuvenation, leaving Jerzy to bear, as he never had before, the oppressive weight of emptiness.

It’s a few months before Jerzy died, and he and I are having dinner at a quaint Japanese restaurant a short walk from his 57th Street apartment. We haven’t seen each other for a couple of years. Jerzy has a wife, and a lover, who is a singer from Poland. He tells me she has great promise here in America. I don’t know if he is referring to her career as a singer or her career as his lover.

Jerzy and I are enjoying dinner together for the last time, but I don’t realize it. His face is an unmade bed where ghosts wrestle. He is worn out. I am looking for a glimpse of the younger Jerzy, who inspired and dazzled. I don’t find it.

Jerzy tells me he is losing his mind.

He says he cannot trust anything to be familiar. His lover’s favorite restaurant. The name of her perfume. His talent and ability to write. He is a sitting duck for memory lapses, sometimes disoriented in his own environment of intellect and erotica. I try to shake him with humor.

“Are you telling me you forgot where to put it?”

“Put what?” he answers.

Dinner should be over. We’ve had enough to eat, but Jerzy is starving for something intangible and so he stalls. He avoids asking for the check and continues to draw circles in his cup of soy sauce with a chewed chopstick.

Outside, we linger beneath a lamppost. Jerzy looks better. The harsh light flatters his intensity. He kisses me on the lips rather than on both sides of my face, and he holds me much longer than expected. I have been forewarned.

Her Private Devil