Born in Łódź, 1933, Jerzy Kosiński stands out as one of the 20th centuries great literary talents, with a life story every bit as sinister and dramatic as his books. Originally named Jerzy Nitodem Lewintopf, his life was turned upside down with the outbreak of WWII. His father chose to hide his families Jewish blood, and Kosiński was sent away – forged papers et al – to live with a catholic family in the east. Having survived WWII he was reunited with his family and went on to gain degrees in history and political science from the University of Łódź. In 1957 he emigrated to the States, later claiming he forged the required documents himself. Having graduated from Columbia University he was recruited by the steel heiress Mary Haywood Weir to catalogue her library, and following a whirlwind romance married Weir, 18 years his senior, in 1962. Three years later his seminal work, The Painted Bird, was published to global acclaim. Following the adventures of a boy on the run in the villages and forests of Central Eastern Europe just how much was based on Kosiński’s own wartime experiences remains open to debate. For over two decades the book was banned in Poland for its anti-Polish sentiments, and the work – and its tales of abuse – infuriated the family which had shielded Kosiński during the war. Nevertheless the manuscript catapulted him into the big time and it has since come to be regarded as a modern classic – one story recounts how when it was finally released in Poland bookworms queued for over eight hours for signed copies.
More success followed The Painted Bird; Steps won the 1969 National Book Award while Being There was turned into a BAFTA winning film starring Peter Sellers. Scandal and controversy were never far away though; a committed S&M freak and compulsive liar he has faced numerous accusations of plagiarism, with one book going so far as to claim he wasn’t even fluent in English when The Painted Bird was published, asserting instead that he used uncredited editors and ghost writers to pen his story. In 1969 he dodged death at the hands of the Manson family when he missed a plane to LA, therefore canceling his planned appearance at Roman Polański’s villa on the night of the Sharon Tate murders. Plagued with heart pains he ended his suffering in 1991, taking a mix of drugs and alcohol before taping a bag over his head and drowning himself in a bathtub. His suicide note simply stated: ‘I am going to put myself to sleep for a bit longer than usual. Call the time eternity.’ He leaves an extraordinary legacy, with total book sales topping seventy million and his works translated into over thirty languages.