Arthur Koestler, the only child of Henrik Koestler (1869-1940), Jewish businessman, and Adele Zeiteles (1871–1963), was born in Budapest on 5th September, 1905. Koestler was close to his father but had a difficult relationship with his mother which lasted until her death.
In 1919 the Koestler family fled Hungary after a right-wing coup which deposed the ruling communists, and in 1922 Koestler began studying engineering and physics at the Vienna Technische Hochschule. Koestler became a Jewish nationalist and in 1925 left the university for a kibbutz in Palestine. According to his biographer, Kevin McCarron: "Koestler soon discovered that he was temperamentally unsuited to communal life. He moved to Tel Aviv, where he began to concentrate on journalism, publishing articles in Budapest's Pester Lloyd and in several Zionist papers. In 1927 he was employed by the Ullstein press as their correspondent in the Middle East. Koestler's journalistic work is considered by some to contain his best writing. As his reputation as a writer grew, so too did his disenchantment with Zionism. In 1929 he abruptly left Palestine for Ullstein's Paris office, and in 1930 he moved to Berlin to take up his new position as science editor."
Koestler was deeply concerned by the emergence of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party and in 1931 joined the German Communist Party. This resulted in him being sacked by Ullstein Verlag. The Communist International sent him to the Soviet Union to write about its first five-year plan. He travelled extensively through the USSR to research for the book but it was rejected by the Soviet authorities for containing too many criticisms of the communist system. Koestler now moved to Paris where he edited the weekly journal, Zukunft . On 22nd June 1935 he married Dorothea Ascher, a Communist Party worker.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he was sent by the party to spy on the Nationalist forces. Koestler posed as a right-wing Hungarian journalist working for the News Chronicle, but he came under suspicion and was arrested in Seville in February 1937. He was released the following year in an exchange of prisoners. Upon his release Koestler moved to England, where Victor Gollancz commissioned him to write a book about his experiences. Spanish Testament was published to considerable acclaim in 1937. In 1938 Koestler left the British Communist Party, because of the way Joseph Stalin was dealing with his critics in the Soviet Union.
In 1939 he published his first novel, The Gladiators (1939), a novel about the Spartacus slave revolt. However, he uses the story of Spartacus as an allegory for the corruption of socialism by Stalin. In September of that year Koestler was arrested in France, wrongly assumed to be a security risk, and was interned as a political prisoner in Le Vernet Concentration Camp until January 1940. His views on totalitarian rule appeared in his second novel, Darkness at Noon (1940). This was followed by The Scum of the Earth (1941), an account of his experiences of internment.
Koestler's biographer, Kevin McCarron, has argued: "Clearly influenced by his experiences in the condemned cells in Spain, Darkness at Noon (1940) describes the arrest and imprisonment of Rubashov, one of the early Bolsheviks, during the purges of 1936. During his numerous interrogations Rubashov reviews his career and his unthinking allegiance to communism. At the end of the novel, as he is beginning to doubt the party, he is shot in the back of the head. The novel was an immediate critical as well as commercial success. The novel became a weapon in the arsenal of the Cold War and remains one of the best-known and most widely read political novels of the twentieth century."
A. J. Ayer became one of Koestler's friends. In his autobiography Part of My Life (1977): Arthur Koestler had already published Darkness at Noon and Scum of the Earth, and I had read and admired them both.... Among other things, Darkness at Noon was the expression of Koestler's own disillusionment with the Communist party. The attraction which Soviet communism held in the middle nineteen-thirties had waned in England as a result of the Moscow trials and the Russian-German pact, but it was renewed with the entry of Russia into the war and increased with the success of Russian arms."
Koestler joined the British Army in 1941, but he had difficulty with military discipline and the following year he went to work for the Ministry of Information film unit and for the BBC, while beginning his third novel, Arrival and Departure (1943). In 1944 Koestler met Mamaine Paget, who was eleven years younger than him. By the end of the war Koestler had returned to his earlier Zionism and was a vocal advocate of the Jewish national cause. After a visit to Palestine he published Thieves in the Night (1946).
In 1948 Koestler became a British citizen. The following year he published The God That Failed (1949). It included an analysis of faith in politics and religion: "A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith - but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act. Persuasion may play a part in a man's conversion; but only the part of bringing to its full and conscious climax a process which has been maturing in regions where no persuasion can penetrate. A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree. Its crown points to the sky; its roots grown downward into the past and are nourished by the dark sap of the ancestral humus."
Mamaine Paget became his second wife on 15th April 1950. They divorced in 1952 and she died aged 38 in 1954. In 1955 he had a daughter, Christine, with Janine Graetez, but he immediately disowned the girl. According to Kevin McCarron: "Koestler was short, handsome, and energetic, and attractive to women. He was, however, sexually predatory all his life - among other affairs he was the co-respondent named in Bertrand Russell's divorce from his third wife, Patricia Spence - and he was capable of treating women brutally.... A chain-smoker and heavy drinker, he could be arrogant, dogmatic, and violent, but he was financially generous, especially to continental intellectuals and refugees, and he was considered a welcoming host, and very lively, often too lively, company."
David Cesarani, the author of Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), has provided first-hand accounts of his violence towards women. Richard Brooks has argued that "Koestler was a compulsive adulterer who conducted hundreds of affairs throughout his marriages". His official biographer, Michael Scammell, the author of Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual (2010) agreed with this view and accused him of "chronic promiscuity" and claims that Koestler's lovers included Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Sonia Brownell, who described him as a "sadist". Scammell quotes a letter written by Koestler where he argues “without an element of initial rape in seduction there is no delight”. However, Scammell raised doubts about an earlier claim made by Michael Foot that Koestler had raped his wife, Jill Craigie.
In 1951 he published his fourth novel, The Age of Longing. From 1952 to 1955 he worked on two volumes of autobiography: Arrival and Departure (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954). According to one critic: "Lucid, analytical, yet emotional, Koestler depicts himself in his autobiographical writings as both a unique human being and a representative, universal voice of the twentieth century." Other books by Koestler during this period included Reflections on Hanging (1956), The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1959) and Hanged By the Neck (1961).
On 8th January 1965, the sixty-year-old, Koestler, married the thirty-seven year old, Cynthia Jefferies, who had been his secretary and occasional lover since 1948. He continued to write and published The Ghost in the Machine (1967), The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971), The Call Girls (1972), The Roots of Coincidence (1972) and Life After Death (1976).
In 1976 Koestler was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease and his health deteriorated over the next seven years, during which he also succumbed to terminal leukaemia. He wrote in his suicide note: "My reasons for deciding to put an end to my life are simple and compelling: Parkinson's Disease and the slow-killing variety of leukaemia (CCI). I kept the latter a secret even from intimate friends to save them distress. After a more or less steady physical decline over the last years, the process has now reached an acute state with added complications which make it advisable to seek self-deliverance now, before I become incapable of making the necessary arrangements... What makes it nevertheless hard to take this final step is the reflection of the pain it is bound to inflict on my surviving friends, above all my wife Cynthia. It is to her that I owe the relative peace and happiness that I enjoyed in the last period of my life - and never before."
Michael Scammell has argued that Koestler had a “sadomasochistic” relationship with his wife and despite being in perfect health agreed to commit suicide with her husband. She wrote in a note: “I fear both death and the act of dying... Double suicide has never appealed to me, but now Arthur’s incurable diseases have reached a stage where there is nothing else to do.” Scammell sees his wish for her to die with him as evidence of his selfishness.
On 3rd March 1983, Arthur and Cynthia Koestler were found dead in their flat at 8 Montpelier Square, Kensington, London. They had killed themselves with a mixture of tuinal and alcohol. Koestler left bequests which totalled almost £1 million to further the study of parapsychology.