As a writer, journalist and jazz connoisseur, Leopold Tyrmand was a legendary figure. He was an icon of the Polish artistic world of the 1950s, and associated with the phenomenon of bikini-ers – the “Polish beatniks” - even though he didn’t consider himself a bikini-er. He was born on the 16th of May, 1920, and died on the 19th of March, 1985, in Fort Myers in Florida.
Writer, journalist, jazz connoisseur, icon of the Polish artistic life of the 1950s.
Childhood, Paris and war
He was born into an assimilated Jewish family. His father, Mieczysław Tyrmand owned a leather wholesaling business. Leopold’s mother, Maryla Oliwenstein, was said to be one of the most beautiful women in the capital; Anotni Słonimski remembered her as a frequenter of the Ziemiańska coffeehouse.
As a child and teen Leopold Tyrmand lived in affluence but not in wealth. After he completed his education in one of Warsaw's gymnasiums, he went to Paris to prepare to become an architect at the local Academy of Fine Arts. However, as he himself put it in his Diary 1954 / Dziennik 1954, “history wanted otherwise”: after a year of studying, apart from giving private lessons in Polish to potential doctors and lawyers, he took up smuggling.
The first substantial amount of money I earned was for guiding a woman with a child and packages, on a dark night, across the river Bug, on the line between Włodawa and Luboml, that is from the Nazis to the Bolsheviks.
The year-long stay in Paris turned out to be fruitful – in France Tyrmand encountered Western European culture and American jazz for the first time, which deeply influenced his works and outlook on life.
The war broke out when Tyrmand was on vacation in Warsaw. From there he managed to get to Wilno, where he soon became a well-known figure among the refugees. After the Russian forces took the city in 1940 he began to work at the daily “Prawda Komsomolska”. In the newspaper he published the daily political-propagandistic feuilleton “Based on the Day” / “Na kanwie dnia” and dealt with sports topics. At the editorial office he was considered the newspaper’s best writer. When he was working for “Prawda Komsomolska”, he met Czesław Miłosz’s brother Andrzej, who reproached Tyrmand for being involved with said newspaper. Tyrmand kept telling Andrzej Miłosz that it was imperative to maintain contact with the Polish population of Wilno and that a means of doing this was the newspaper, which may indeed be communist, but is published in Polish. Nevertheless, after the war, the writer kept the fact that he worked for “Prawda Komsomolska” a secret, which may surprise, considering his tough moral standards and his feeling of the need to assess the change of views that occurred during Stalinism.
In Wilno Tyrmand contacted one of the underground independence organizations, which led to his incarceration by the NKVD in the spring of 1941. He was sentenced to eight years of prison, but after Germany attacked Russia he managed to escape from a train transport that had been wrecked by bombs. He returned to Wilno where, in order not to be identified as a Jew, he got false documents stating that he was a French citizen. Afterwards, he volunteered for labour in the Reich. The plan to get to France this way didn’t succeed, but saved Tyrmand's life. He worked various jobs for the whole war - he was amongst others a translator, a railway worker and a librarian’s assistant.
In 1944, Tyrmand signed up as a sailor on a German ship and he tried to reach neutral Sweden this way. He ran away in the Norwegian port of Stavanger, but he was captured and later was detained at the concentration camp Grini, near Oslo. He remained there until the end of the war.
The fates of Tyrmand's relatives were dramatic. His father was murdered at the concentration camp Majdanek, and his mother emigrated to Israel after the war. Except for her son and husband, her entire family died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the post-war years Tyrmand never mentioned his Jewish identity.
Journalist and beginning writer
After the war Tyrmand stayed in Scandinavia for a year, where he worked for the International Red Cross, as a correspondent in Norway for the press agency Polpress and later as director of the press office of the Polish legation in Copenhagen. In April 1946 he returned to Warsaw. Here, he started to work as a journalist for the Press Information Agency which had been organized by Jerzy Borejsza. This agency was located in the building of the publishing house Czytelnik in Wiejska Street. Tyrmand moved into the nearby building of the Polish YMCA in Konopnicka Street, which he captivatingly described in Diary 1954. The story of this edifice is characteristic of the changes that were occurring in Poland in those days. Soon after the war, the half-burnt building turned from the seat of a Christian sports institution into a social entertainment centre. The building was later taken over by the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party and fell into complete decline under the governance of this political organ.
Tyrmand quickly showed that he was a witty journalist. He published theatre, musical and sports reviews in such periodicals as “Ekspres Wieczorny”, “Tygodnik Powszechny”, “Rzeczpospolita”, “Dziś i Jutro” and “Ruch Muzyczny”.
In 1948, Tyrmand’s collection of short war stories titled Hotel Ansgar appeared. The book, which was of average literary quality, was passed over in silence by the critics, but the author was becoming an increasingly recognized and popular figure in Warsaw, thanks to his easy writing style, lifestyle - which was unconventional for the times of the post-war socialist mundaneness - and uncompromising views. These views caused Tyrmand to lose his job at the magazine “Przekrój”. He had to leave the editorial team of this periodical after he wrote a review of a boxing tournament in which he criticized the unfairness of the Soviet referees. Thanks to the help of his friend Stefan Kisielewski, the author of Hotel Ansgar found work at the weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny”. However in 1953, after “Tygodnik Powszechny” refused to publish Stalin’s official obituary, this periodical, which had up to then fought to remain relatively independent, was taken over by the authorities, which meant that the weekly de facto ceased to exist.
After Tyrmand refused to collaborate with the new regime of “Tygodnik Powszechny” he became officially unemployed. It was then that he came up with the idea of keeping a diary that would be a testimony to him and to the era that dawned after Stalin’s death, as well as an expression of the rebellion of a writer pushed to the margins of life and deprived of the possibility of being printed.
To many. Diary 1954 is his greatest book. It differs from other famous journals – of Nałkowska, Iwaszkiewicz or Gombrowicz – mainly because it doesn’t cover entire years, but only three months, from the 1st of January to the 2nd of April 1954. This didn’t prevent Tyrmand from creating a whole panorama of places, times and human portrayals: he describes post-war Warsaw, which was being rebuilt from ruins, but he also reminisces about his occupational journeys through Europe and about the 30s; he is an ironic chronicler of current cultural life; he looks at his contemporaries acutely and spitefully and he observes the everyday life of the city and the town’s “private initiatives” that flourished despite the regime restrictions; he gives an account of his affair with the eighteen year old Krystyna (in the version that was revised and amended by Tyrmand after many years she appears as the sixteen year old Bogna).
In Diary 1954 one may also find vivid portrayals of important figures of the Polish cultural scene – a warm and humorous homage paid to Kisielewski or the exceptionally spiteful fragments about Zygmunt Kałużyński. But the author equally passionately described people that nobody would remember if not for Tyrmand’s notes – for instance Mr. Dyszkiewicz, the pre-war shirt specialist who altered Tyrmand’s tacky shirts from department stores so that these pieces of garment looked noble and stylish. On every occasion the writer mocks the absurdities of life in Poland of the 1950s. At the same time he observes the various forms of social reality with great sensitivity to the details.
Diary 1954 is, therefore, a mine of knowledge about post-war Warsaw; a chronicle of social life, a manifestation of intellectual independence from a time that didn’t favour individualism; and, especially in the context of coping with communism, a defence of beauty and culture.
Jan Zieliński wrote the following about the author of Diary 1954:
Leopold Tyrmand was attacked by some critics – for instance by Kijowski – for exercising easy literature. Throughout the pages of his diary, Tyrmand, the glorifier of jazz and existential fashion, grows into a chronicler of current times, who knows and remembers what it was like before and who uses every occasion to repair the broken continuity, to remind about tradition and to testify to the existence of tradition with his own self. Even if this is only the tradition of pre-war sport, on which he gives a whole lecture to a student of the Academy of Fine Arts who marvels at the achievements accomplished immediately after the war (“Tyrmand 1945”).
At this point it ought to be mentioned that Tyrmand’s diary was published in its entirety for the first time in London in 1980. As the author prepared the text for printing he introduced numerous, small changes that didn’t have a major influence on the content of these notes, but gave the diary a literary finish. These changes might have caused the text to lose its initial spontaneousness. A question arises: was this finish, this smoothing out of style, necessary or not?
The Man With White Eyes
Diary 1954 ends in the middle of a sentence. Tyrmand stopped writing this book when he received a commission from Czytelnik to write “a thriller novel about hooligans and bikini-ers” (as the certificate from the 10th of May 1954 states), that is to write Zły / The Man With White Eyes. This commission was a sign of the pre-October thaw and of Tyrmand’s return to favour. This book, which merges the conventions of a crime story and a romance, tells the tale of a mysterious, inapprehensible avenger who defends the wronged by fighting the Warsaw criminal world. The novel, filled with humour and panache, became popular instantly - it was a sensation in post-war literature, in which socialist realist productions were predominant.
The Man With White Eyes which was published in December 1955 – wrote Henryk Dasko – proved to be not only Tyrmand’s biggest literary success, which fully showed his great narrative talent and gift of observation, but also the greatest publishing success of Polish post-war prose. Everybody was reading The Man With White Eyes; never before and never after was a book created that electrified all the reading communities in such a way; except for Marek Hłasko no other writer gained such immediate popularity.
As is often the case with bestsellers, the opinions of critics and writers on The Man With White Eyes were polarised. Gombrowicz marvelled at the novel, as did Stefan Kisielewski and Tadeusz Konwicki, but Andrzej Kijowski for instance scornfully called Tyrmand a “great writer for squirts”, the Balzac and the Dostoyevsky of youngsters.
The continually unabated appeal of The Man With White Eyes is based on the way in which the actual main character of the book – Warsaw – was portrayed.
Tyrmand dedicated his book to Warsaw. On the pages of the novel he portrayed the city’s streets, squares, cafés, ruins and bustling life with such pietism that The Man With White Eyes could very well be a guidebook to the Warsaw of the 1950s. Here the portrayal of the city is different, more filmic and idealized, than in Diary 1954.
On the Border of Jazz
The success of The Man With White Eyes was the beginning of good times for Tyrmand. The royalties he earned for the novel enabled him to buy a car – a Wartburg. In April 1955 he married a student of the Academy of Fine Arts named Małgorzta Rubel-Żurowska and moved into the district of Bielany. In 1957, he published the tome of stories The Bitter Taste of Lucullus Chocolate / Gorzki Smak Czekolady Lucullus. He also became the main organiser of jazz festivals in Poland. In Mariusz Urbanek’s book Bad Tyrmand / Zły Tyrmand (1992) Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz reminisces about the author of The Man With White Eyes from that period:
(The literary community) considered him to be flippant. A writer dressed up as a bikini-er that listened to jazz and besides that didn’t want to belong to their company, which was tired of ideological problems and dealt with engineering human souls. They looked at him condescendingly, and he hated them for it. The scorn of the – as he put it – Brandyses, who were to him a symbol of the literary establishment favoured by the communist party, was hurtful to him.
Jazzmen were his community – says KTT. Even when you have a most nonconformist stance you orient yourself on some group. They dressed and thought similarly to him and they loved this music. Among them, in the jazz underground, he felt at home and was greatly respected. He attributed to jazz a far greater meaning than a purely musical one. To him jazz was about weltanschauung - he expressed this in the book On the Border of Jazz / U brzegów jazzu.
This book, which was published in 1957, is a fascinating essay about Tyrmand’s great passion. Jazz is analysed here, as Stefan Kisielewski wrote in the foreword, on three levels: as a sound phenomenon, as a musical style that undergoes evolutions and as a social-sociological and an aesthetical-emotional phenomenon.
Tyrmand’s good streak didn't last. The years from 1957 until 1965 were a period of a deepening crisis. Everything was seemingly in order: the writer enjoyed his popularity, the fashion designer Barbara Hoff became his second wife, they moved into a big apartment in Dobra street, the Wartburg was substituted with a better car, an Opel Rekord. But the censors kept stopping the publication of Tyrmand’s new books (for instance Seven Long Voyages / Siedem Dalekich Rejsów was charged with being “pornographic and supportive of private initiative”) and denied him re-editions ; his last novel published in Poland, which was issued after many efforts and delays, was Filip (1961). After 1958 he couldn’t even get a passport.
In the first half of the 60s he finished writing the novel Życie Towarzyskie i Uczuciowe / Social and Emotional Life.
This was supposed to be his opus magnum – wrote Henryk Dasko – a book different from the consciously apolitical The Man With White Eyes, strongly embedded in the realities of the Warsaw community of creative intelligentsia, which Tyrmand hated and considered morally corrupt and subservient to the regime. (…) In the 500 page Life, which was intended to be a roman à clef, he deals with the world of writers, journalists, filmmakers and cultural officials in a most ruthless way. The semi-fictional characters of the book represent easily identifiable real persons.
The publishing house Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy was delaying the publication of the novel. In the meantime Tyrmand finally managed to get a passport and in 1965 he left Poland. He made his decision about whether to come back or not dependent on whether Social and Emotional Life would be printed. The publication didn’t occur and he stayed abroad. The book was issued by the Literary Institute in Paris, but went unnoticed.
Tyrmand settled down in the USA. At first he received a scholarship from the State Department and was published in the Paris periodical “Kultura”. He soon entered into a collaboration with The New Yorker. There, Tyrmand printed a text entitled American Diary and four essays that were later collected in the tome Notebooks of a Dilettenate / Zapiski dyletanta (the English original appeared in 1970). Thanks to these writings he quickly became known to the circles of American intellectuals. But Tyrmand the journalist of The New Yorker proved to be somebody completely different than Tyrmand the author of The Man With White Eyes and Diary 1954. His views underwent an evolution that may seem shocking to some: from a liberal, like he was in Poland, he turned into a conservative, who condemned leftist and protesting tendencies in American culture. His motto was: “I came to America to protect it from itself”. Where did this radical change in a writer that was always fascinated by pop culture from across the ocean come from? Maybe Tyrmand, who had himself experienced communism, wanted to caution the young rebels in the USA about naive leftism, which in his view was linked to the “hippie” moral permissiveness. A similar permissiveness in Warsaw of the 50s was an expression of protest against the mundaneness of communist Poland which provided healthy contrast; in the USA Tyrmand viewed moral looseness differently - as an element of chaos that endangered traditional values. One thing is for sure: as an immigrant from behind the Iron Curtain, he wanted to enlighten Americans about what a slavish political system consists of.
His Notes on Life Under Communism / Zapiski o życiu w komunizmie, which was published underground under the title The Civilization of Communism / Cywilizacja komunizmu (1972), was however rejected by The New Yorker. This didn’t happen because of ideological reasons, as Tyrmand himself believed (although the magazine certainly didn’t want to publish a harsh political lampoon), but because the text was deemed literarily and intellectually second-rate. And indeed The Civilization of Communism isn’t a fine work; the long and detailed ponderings don’t form any original conception. The book contains a few absurd theses, for example that under Hitlerism, with its massive cruelty, “one could die with dignity, even with pride, without denying who one is” but that “Communists could (…) take everything away from people, even their identicalness, their shadow like in that old German fairy tale, even their past and future”.
After he was affronted by The New Yorker Tyrmand discontinued his involvement with this magazine in 1971, thus he left the main current of American journalism. He also entered a conflict with Jerzy Giedroyc and stopped printing for the Paris Kultura. In this period he contacted the conservative circles in the USA. He received an offer to work for the Rockford Institute in Illinois, which was founded by John Howard as a bastion of resistance against the social changes occurring in America in the 1960s. In 1976 the two began to publish the monthly Chronicles of Culture, which over time became known for supporting anti-globalisation and anti-immigrant politics.
Whatever one makes of these diatribes by Tyrmand, it seems that the role of an aggressive journalist didn’t absorb him completely. He also had his private life: in exile he started the family he had always wished for, if one is to believe the confessions from Diary. In 1971 he married Mary Ellen Fox, his reader, a PhD student of Iberian studies of Yale University. In 1981 the couple’s twins, Rebecca and Mathew, were born. In the 70s, Tyrmand had edited Diary 1954. During that decade this work was published in fragments by the London periodical Wiadomości. Diary 1954 later appeared in book form. In 1985, while on vacation in Florida, Tyrmand unexpectedly died of a heart attack.
Was he a great writer? His Diary and The Man With White Eyes stood the test of time. On the Border of Jazz is filled with passion and expertise and is still worth reading. Tyrmand was an exceptionally interesting figure, full of contradictions. He still troubles, he inspires awe but also doubt. This is how Henryk Dasko characterized him:
He liked to think of himself as of an ideologist, but his domain and passion was dissent. Like many dissenters, he may have bothered others with his arrogance, manneristic poses and snobbism, which often crossed the line of good taste. But his exceptional courage, of which he gave proof on many occasions in his life, was also a part of his legend. It indeed required a special kind of courage to go to the Reich, to, as he liked to call it, the eye of the cyclone, having only lousy documents issued by some village head in a village near Wilno. It required courage to solitarily and ostentatiously applaud, from a silent press box, the entrance of Deputy Prime Minister Mikołajczyk. To reject the offer of further collaboration with Tygodnik Powszechny in 1953, when this newspaper was turned over by the authorities to the PAX Association, the leadership of which was dominated by former members of the extreme right-wing organization Falanga – Piasecki, Przetakiewicz, Puzyna. Regardless of how one may judge his beliefs and activities from the American period today, his courageous decision to part from the social and emotional life of New York, in order to remain faithful to what he believed in, ought to be respected.
Translated by: Marek Kępa