EVERY YEAR novelist Jerzy Kosinski retreats to the Dominican Republic, into the medieval streets of an artists' community called Altos de Chavron. He goes to the mountaintop village with his companion of 15 years, the tall lithe Katherina "Kiki" von Fraunhoefer, ostensibly to play polo. The game ranks with writing, skiing, photography and women among his consuming passions. This winter, he mounted his ponies twice a day, the hot Dominican sun turning his taut, sharp-featured face the color of mahagony.
The dark-skinned Kosinski looked like one of the natives, taller perhaps. And that is what he allowed the peasants in the nearby sugar town of La Ramona to believe. To them, he was a mute who came to visit once a year, a man who somehow had enough cash to pay for two rounds of beer. Unheard of among people of such poverty. If you are a stranger in a strange land, Kosinski learned long ago, keep your mouth shut and automatically you become one of the natives. He became friends with a peasant, "a very poor man, an ugly beast," who had no idea the mute was in fact a talkative and famous novelist, a Polish e'migre' to the United States who now resided in New York, traveled extensively and was generally regarded as an energetic member of the international jet set.
This sort of camouflage is not unusual for Kosinski. He regards disguises as necessary to his obsessive investigations into alien universes. It is part of what he calls his "professional life" as a novelist. "I like to go out at night," he says. "I like to see strange things, meet strange people, see people at their most abandoned. I like people who are driven. The sense of who they are is far greater."
Most nights in New York he can be found moving in and out of the city's more eccentric and unusual haunts, playing, as he does in the Dominican Republic, one of the natives, in order to gather the sort of abnormal experiences that, he says, somehow reassure man's normalcy.
The physical evidence of these encounters is often bizarre: Jerzy-snapped photographs of the transsexuals who figure in his 1979 novel, "Passion Play" and 1968 "Steps," sometimes stunning man-woman figures posing naked. Or else illustrated records of freewheeling sex orgies, carefully lit and orchestrated by Kosinski, miles of flesh unfurled in the thick photo albums he stores in his office.
In the Dominican Republic the investigations are just as earthy, if not quite so sexual: cockfights and bullfights, rubbing shoulders with the peasantry. It was there that larger fame collared him. Jerzy Kosinski, the novelist of 17 years, was transformed momentarily into a movie star--the steely bureaucrat Grigory Zinoviev to Warren Beatty's romantic fool John Reed in the $40-million epic "Reds." Reporters and photographers who previously ignored him suddenly descended. There was Jerzy's face in all the local papers. Everyone in La Ramona was shocked, particularly Kosinski's friend. He took one look at the newspaper and went berserk. The peasant was a simple, trusting fellow. He could not believe that his mute barroom buddy had deceived him all these years. He got so crazy that the police arrested him and tossed him in jail. Kosinski was mortified.
The incident bolstered Kosinski's conviction that celebrity has grave pitfalls for a man who occasionally uses anonymity as an on-the-job tool. With "Reds" in the movie theaters, the existence of the necessary private man over the public one becomes even more precarious. Ironically, given the attention he is getting these days, the subject of his latest novel, "Pinball," to be published in both paper and hardback next month, is the harmful effects of going public, the terrible consequences that can result when one's cover is blown.
Patrick Domostroy is a failed classical composer living in the South Bronx, and, like all Kosinski characters, on the edge of a moral wasteland. He is non-judgmental about his fate, resigned to his anonymity, even taking some pleasure in it. Kosinski heroes--Tarden in "Cockpit," Jonathan James Whalen in "The Devil Tree," Fabian in "Passion Play"--are all celebrations of rootlessness. They never waste time with regrets about what was or what could have been. They accept the moment and attempt to exist within it.
Domostroy is visited by the sensually beautiful, infinitely sexual and conniving Andrea Gwynplaine, who enlists him to help her find a mysterious rock star known only as Goddard. Goddard is famous, but he keeps his true identity a secret, never giving interviews, never performing or appearing in public. Everyone is obsessed with discovering who Goddard is. "Of all people--why Goddard?" Domostroy asks Andrea. She replies, "Why not Goddard? I'm his public. I have a right" to know him.
Goddard could be any one of a number of reclusive stars, including Bob Dylan or, as Kosinski suggests, Warren Beatty. Most likely, both Goddard and Domostroy are fashioned using the spare parts of Kosinski's own personality. He never strays far from his own life in order to discover his novel's protagonists, and given the life he leads, who can blame him? Everything including his past and present seems calculated to yield a novel every three years or so.
"Pinball" is strewn with signposts excavated from experience and transformed into fictional incident. Convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott, author of "In the Belly of the Beast," becomes a country singer and composer. A quote from a Jerzy Kosinski Washington Post interview now tumbles from Domostroy's lips. A music award is named after Kosinski's mother. There is even a reworking of the incident involving a young reporter who retyped Kosinski's National Book Award-winning "Steps," submitted it to publishers under a different name, then reported gleefully that it went unrecognized and totally rejected by everyone.
If Kosinski knows how to create fiction from his life, he is even more adept at manufacturing a salable image from it. This being the age of the celebrity author, it is necessary not only to be taken seriously in The New York Review of Books, but also to cavort on "The Tonight Show." The Mailer-Capote-Vidal gang cannot touch Kosinski when it comes to packaging personality. While they gray and soften under the gaze of Johnny Carson, Kosinski bounds around all vibrant, striking good looks, advertising himself as a nomad, "existential cowboy," adventurer, fighter for human rights. While Mailer talks about Hemingway, Kosinski outstrips him with physical stuff: skiing, polo playing. He is the most athletic of American authors, and by implication, the most overtly sexual. His novels are imbued with a sexual spirit that at times is violent, outrageous, sensual and always supremely erotic. As with everything else in his life, the sex is an extension of his childhood, surely the most horrifying and therefore fascinating of any American man of letters. "I am a child of a period when human extermination was normal," he says of growing up in Poland during World War II. "To us sex was the only positive force left in society. Everything else is distracting and dehumanizing. It's a life force, God-given, not man-made, something to be worshiped to a degree. Every one of us in Poland was preoccupied with it. We rebelled because of it."
One of the characters in "Pinball" calls Domostroy "a sex nut," and Kosinski has reason to believe there are a lot of people around who regard him the same way. "Some think I'm manipulative and self-centered," he says. "They think I'm perverse. There are people who simply would not sit beside me at dinner. They have read my fiction, and it has made them uneasy."
His ego is never far from the surface in anything he undertakes. When Warren Beatty, a friend for years, asked him to play a part in "Reds," he initially turned down the offer. "It was such a collective enterprise that I thought I would have to surrender much more than time," he says. "Someone else would be in charge of my image, I would not be able to take it out later."
Beatty was in Finland shooting "Reds" when Barry Diller, the head of Paramount, called and argued that it was a big mistake for a man who wanted to experience everything to turn down an opportunity to witness first-hand the making of a Hollywood epic. "As a novelist," Diller told Kosinski, "you cannot afford not to go." The novelist was convinced. He jumped on a plane.
To his surprise he enjoyed the experience, although characteristically he views it in totally personal terms. "I received a good deal of insight into myself," Kosinski says. "I discovered things that I never expected. In 'Reds' I was afraid of being smaller, of looking ridiculous. I said I didn't care, but I was lying to myself. I said to Warren, 'What if I make a fool of myself?' and Warren replied 'Then we have a fool in the film.'
"As a result of the film, I developed far more respect for myself as a novelist. It helped make 'Pinball' a braver book. Goddard is, to a large degree, Warren. Warren knows exactly what he is doing. He has all the aspects of the creative personality: humility and vanity at the same time. He has enormous need to succeed, but at the same time is resigned to failure; a desire to be idolized, and an awareness one is growing old and falling apart. He oscillates between John Reed, a romantic figure in a popular movement, and Howard Hughes."
Kosinski loves the machinations of life, the complex, pleasurable twistings of power. When he came to Washington for the filming and later the opening of the movie version of his novel "Being There," he described Washington as being from Disneyland to Byzantium. A city, "once poor and innocent" now "obsessed by betrayal, the usurpation of power, by camouflage, the corruption of the spirit."
Washington, he explained, was far closer to the nature of his fiction, a town with superb elements of "unsanity." Doctors describe unsanity, he said, as the line of demarcation between mental health and mental illness, to Kosinski--Washington.
"Watergate, for instance, would qualify as unsane," he added."There are a lot of things there that a normal person wouldn't do--like recording yourself. And the public tragedy of Martha Mitchell, at the time, struck me as unsane. This quoting her all the time. The woman was not well."
Kosinski, when he is in New York, lives in an unprepossessing two-room apartment on West 57th Street. There is a living room containing some functional furniture, respectable art, and a sideboard crowded with liquor bottles. The dining room table, partially concealed by a louvered screen, has been turned into Kiki's desk and spills over with papers and correspondence. Kosinski spends most of his time in his office at the back. Here there are two desks, a sofa which pulls into a bed. That way, he says, he can be closer to his work. He does not like to waste time.
The shelves behind one of the desks are jammed with books, including various editions of his own novels. On one of the desks lies a worn and scuffed leather binder containing the rough draft of the script he is adapting from his polo novel, "Passion Play." As was the case with "Being There," the only one of his novels he has allowed to be filmed, "Passion Play" is financed independently. This allows Kosinski to control all the elements, not only writing the script, but choosing the director as well as the cast. He wanted Peter Sellers in "Being There," and now he wants Tommy Lee Jones, the actor who played Howard Hughes on television, to star in "Passion Play."
This morning, Kosinski, his dark curly hair freshly washed and cut, is outfitted in a lemon-colored shirt, beige turtle neck and beige slacks, all of which dramatize the darkness of his tan. "That's right. Mount Karkonosze," he says into the telephone impatiently. The adjacent wall is crowded with caricatures and photographs of Jerzy Kosinski. There is also a large photo of Kiki, floating nude on her back in a swimming pool. "Yes, it's the second-largest mountain range in Poland. Yes, we were reunited in Lodz. L-O-D-Z. Right . . . right."
The promotion for "Pinball" is about to commence and Kosinski is answering questions about his early life. Those details are available, of course, in the pages of his novels. "The Painted Bird" recounts his childhood. "Cockpit" chronicles his escape from Poland. The meeting of his wife is described in "Blind Date," and the richness of their lives together is detailed in "Being There."
He comes from a distinguished Polish family. His father, Mieczyslaw Kosinski, was a classical scholar, withdrawn, but ultimately happy. "My father spiritually could not understand why anyone would want to be part of contemporary life. What with World War I and II, and the disappearance of all members of his family, he thought the world offered nothing but unhappiness." His mother, Elzbieta Weinreich-Liniecka, was a pianist, although she never had much of an opportunity to perform.
When the war started and the Germans occupied Poland, Kosinski's parents felt he would be safer in a rural village. As it turned out, he suffered unimaginable hardships, shunted from peasant farm to peasant farm in the rough, backward marshland and bogs of the Ukraine.
Kosinski writes of his parents' strategy in "The Painted Bird": "Because of the prewar anti-Nazi activities of the child's father, they themselves had to go into hiding to avoid forced labor in Germany or imprisonment in a concentration camp. They wanted to save the child from these dangers and hoped eventually they would be reunited."
Events upset their plans, however. In the confusion of war and occupation, with continuous transfers of population, the parents lost contact with the man who had placed their child in the countryside. They had to face the possibility of never finding their son again.
The Kosinskis did locate Jerzy in an orphanage in Lodz, but not until after the war. The boy had become mute, a condition that continued until 1947 when he suffered a concussion in a skiing accident. "Actually being mute from the age of 9 until I was 15 1/2 was a useful process," he says. He is sitting in his office, fiddling with paper clips strung across the glass top of his desk. "It made me more self-reliant and observant." In the orphanage he was classified as "mildly retarded," and therefore was pretty much left alone. That was fine with him.
As a mute, he could safely avoid the world around him. When he started speaking again, this was impossible, and trouble began. "For the first time I had to confront others. Before that wasn't necessary. That's why in the YMCA in Poland I became so interested in skiing and horseback riding. Neither sport requires verbal contact. But as soon as I began talking I became politically involved. The political confrontation made me unhappy, particularly being forced to interact with people I found reprehensible. I was forced to support a doctrine I found instantly anti-life."
As a student he was twice kicked out of university in Lodz, and was reinstated only after the dean interceded. Still, the Polish government liked to show him off to foreign visitors as proof that dissent was tolerated. Kosinski was a brilliant student, studying 19th-century Russian political history in Moscow and Leningrad, somehow finding time to work as a ski instructor during the winter in the Tatra Mountains, and attending the film school at the University of Lodz in order to feed his fascination with photography.
It was at school in 1950 that he met director Roman Polanski. The two of them have been friends ever since. Kosinski was on his way to visit Polanski's Beverly Hills house the night the Manson gang broke in and killed Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, as well as Kosinski's friends Wojtek Frykowski and Abigail Folger. Kosinski's luggage was lost and he had to stay overnight in New York. The inconvenience saved his life.
"Sure I still see Polanski, but you know, only in Paris." Kosinski is pacing back and forth in his office. Polanski is of course in self-imposed exile, having fled the United States after pleading guilty to having sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl. "As far as Polanski is concerned, I have my own theory," he says. "I think he was his own worst enemy. But I also think Polanski was set up for money. When he wouldn't pay . . ." The sentence drifts off and is punctuated with a shrug. "Anyway, that's my theory. I'm not trying to excuse what he did in any way, but of all the 13-year-old girls in the Western hemisphere, she was the oldest."
He moves to the shelves behind his desk and begins to leaf through some photographs. "He's all right, but his attention span gets shorter. He can't concentrate. In many ways he is perfect to be a moviemaker. Everything for him is superficial. I don't know how he keeps going to all those discos. You can't hear anything. You can't talk." He finds a photograph of the two of them posing together and tosses it on the desk with a smile. "Two Polish perverts," he cracks.
Kiki enters the office. "Come," she says, "let's go to lunch. I'm starving. Work later." They go around the corner to a restaurant where the manager is plump, friendly, and flattered that Kosinski is in her establishment. She embraces him warmly. "I saw you in 'Reds,' " she says. "You were wonderful." She motions to the maitre d'. "This is Mr. Kosinski," she announces. "He was in that movie. You know the one. 'Reds.' " The maitre d', obviously impressed, pumps Kosinski's hand.
Kosinski relishes this sort of attention, takes an impish, almost childlike amusement in it. He jokingly refers to himself as "the Polish Gregory Peck," and regrets that all this did not happen 20 years ago, when he was younger and could enjoy it more. "Let's sit by the window here," he says moving toward a corner table. "That way we can see what's happening on the street."
The manager bustles over with a menu. "Could you sign this, please?"
"Of course," Kosinski says. He begins to sketch a caricature of himself on the flyleaf of the menu. Several patrons at nearby tables glance over at him.
The conversation is interrupted by an elderly gentleman named David Wolf, who originally opened this restaurant and owns a number of delicatessens in Manhattan. Kosinski gets up and embraces him warmly. "This man," he says, "I applied to this man for a job when I first came to New York. Only he wouldn't give it to me because he said I was overqualified. He was right, of course. We've been friends ever since."
Kosinski could have used the work. He landed in New York at the age of 24, after finally getting permission to leave Poland by pulling off an elaborate ruse that included the creation of several fictitious American sponsors. He spoke no English, and the only work he could find was scraping the paint off ships for 30 cents an hour. Nonetheless he was delighted to be in America. "It was tailor-made for me," he says. "No one paid any attention to me. I could hide in so many places." He worked at all sorts of offbeat jobs that have since found their way, in one form or another, into his novels: long-distance truckdriver, parking lot attendant, movie projectionist, race car driver, and chauffeur for a black entrepreneur in Harlem. Then the Ford Foundation finally came through with a long-promised scholarship to Columbia, and Kosinski might have settled into the anonymity and pennypinching of a foreign student, except someone came across a series of essays he had written in Poland and showed them to an editor at Doubleday.
In quick succession, Doubleday collected the essays together, called them "The Future Is Ours, Comrade," and in 1960 published them as a book, which was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest. People were running around discussing Kosinski's view of the social psychology of the totalitarian state. For a country just emerging from the Cold War, it was hot stuff. No one knew Kosinski was the author of "The Future Is Ours, Comrade." "I didn't think my spoken English was good enough," he says. "So I published it under the pen name Joseph Kovak." But Kovak-Kosinski was getting surprisingly rich. He earned $250,000 from the book, not bad for an immigrant who three years before couldn't even speak English.
One of the many admiring letters he received in the wake of the book was from a woman named Mary Hayward Weir, the widow of entrepeneur Ernest T. Weir, whose billion-dollar steel empire was the fourth largest in the United States. She offered to let Kosinski use her library in the researching of his second book, which eventually would be titled "No Third Path: A Study Of Collective Behavior."
When Kosinski stopped by her lavish triplex in New York, he assumed the wife of the 82-year-old steel baron would be in her late seventies. Instead he was confronted by a thirtyish woman he assumed was Mrs. Weir's nurse. Kosinski liked her and invited her out for dinner. After dinner that night he took her to bed. She was seven years older than he, not particularly attractive. But she had beautiful skin, a good mouth, a narrow waist, "and there was something girlish about her, very innocent." As it turned out, she was not Mrs. Weir's nurse, but Mrs. Weir herself. Two years later they were married.
Mary's wealth was enormous. "She would say things like, 'Tomorrow let's fly to Greece,' " he remembers. Suddenly there was a table available at 21, and at foreign airports the customs officers disappeared, replaced by the local bank representatives who had come out to greet Mrs. Weir and her new husband. There were houses in Pittsburgh, Hobe Sound, Southampton, Paris, London and Florence, all sorts of places where they could hide and not hear the occasional whispers from her friends that he was "an interloper." "And I was, to a large degree," he concedes. "Do you think I would have married Mary if she really had been a nurse? Of course not. The sexual attractiveness is increased by what a person represents. Ours was the stuff of romantic fiction. She became a princess and I was the vagrant knight."
He insists the marriage was "profoundly satisfying," both of them freed from respective totalitarian states of living, each opening new worlds up to the other. "The Painted Bird," Kosinski's first novel, was written especially for Mary, so that she would know who he was and where he had come from. It was published in 1965, and although the book launched him as a novelist, it also marked the beginning of the end of his life with Mary.
Kosinski is back in his apartment after lunch, slightly subdued as he remembers Mary's illness. He first noticed that something was wrong. She began falling backward and losing her balance. Her condition was diagnosed as brain cancer. "Yes," he says, "when she was dying it was difficult. But I'm not affected by illness. My father died of a heart attack, my mother of cancer. Others from the Nazis."
Mary died in 1968, and in a curious way her death provided him with the ultimate freedom. Now he could draw on all the possibilities of his life without worrying about embarrassing wives and children. He had nothing to lose, certainly not money because it had long before been agreed that he would not inherit any of his wife's wealth. There was no need to censor either his writing or his life. He taught English at Wesleyan, then Princeton and Yale, before ending his teaching career to become president of P.E.N., an association of writers and editors.
He was merely marking time. His every act is geared to the next novel. Nothing gets in his way, not even Kiki, whom he met at a Polish ball shortly after Mary's death. He has been with her ever since, although they still maintain separate apartments and there is no talk of marriage or children. "I would not be a good father," he says. "What's more I don't believe I should have children. I'm a nomad, it's part of my life. I can only be honest to myself if I'm honest."
What happens if the nomad, strictly in the pursuit of knowledge, as a writer, meets another woman and goes to bed with her? He waves aside such questions. "I go out to collect what I need in order to write," he says. "I have to know what is usual, what is painful, pleasurable, frightening. It's an act of verification. It doesn't matter what it involves. If a traveling salesman shakes hands with a stranger, does that make shaking hands with his sons less valid?"
At the moment the act of verification requires him to fulfill certain obligations as the celebrity novelist. "It may not be as joyful as polo," he says with a wry smile, "but it certifies that I have not wasted three years, that what is the essence of my life has some bearing outside my life. That I am not just a spoiled middle-aged man writing what he wants." He shakes his head. "When you think about it, why should a man my age write tales? The brain starts to rust. Hell, I could run a bank, teach polo to kids at least, be a ski instructor." Or become a movie star? He laughs with genuine pleasure at that notion. "Movie star? That's easy," he says. "That requires nothing."