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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.

May 04, 1991|DAVID TREADWELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — 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.

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