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Authors: Sylvie Simmons

I'm Your Man

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I'm Your Man

The Life of Leonard Cohen

Sylvie Simmons


To N.A., in loving memory


The way you do anything is the way you do everything.




e is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners. He bows when he meets you, stands when you leave, makes sure that you're comfortable and makes no mention of the fact he's not; the discreet stroking of the Greek worry beads he carries in his pocket gives the game away. By inclination he is a private man, rather shy, but if probing is required he'll put his feet in the stirrups with dignity and humor. He chooses his words carefully, like a poet, or a politician, with a habit of precision, an ear for their sound, and a talent and a taste for deflection and mystery. He has always liked smoke and mirrors. And yet there is something conspiratorial in the way he talks, as there is when he sings, as if he were imparting an intimate secret.

He is a trim man—there's no excess to him at all—and smaller than you might think. Shipshape. You imagine that he wouldn't find it hard to wear a uniform. Right now he is wearing a suit. It is dark, pin-striped, double-breasted, and if it's off-the-rack it doesn't look it.

“Darling,” says Leonard, “I was born in a suit.”


Born in a Suit

When I'm with you

I want to be the kind of hero

I wanted to be

when I was seven years old

a perfect man

who kills

—“The Reason I Write,”
Selected Poems 1956–1968

he chauffeur turned off the main road by the synagogue, which took up most of the block, and headed past St. Matthias's Church on the opposite corner, and up the hill. In the back of the car was a woman—twenty-seven years old, attractive, strong featured, stylishly dressed—and her newborn baby son. The streets they passed were handsome and well-appointed, the trees arranged just so. Big houses of brick and stone you might have thought would collapse under the sheer weight of their self-importance appeared to float effortlessly up the slopes. Around halfway up, the driver took a side road and stopped outside a house at the end of the street, 599 Belmont Avenue. It was large, solid and formal-looking, English in style, its dark brick softened by a white-framed veranda at the front and at the back by Murray Hill Park, fourteen acres of lawns, trees and flower beds, with a sweeping view of the St. Lawrence River to one side and, on the other, downtown Montreal. The chauffeur stepped out of the car and opened the rear door, and Leonard was carried up the white front steps and into his family home.

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21, 1934, in the Royal Victoria Hospital, a gray stone pile in Westmount, an affluent neighborhood of Montreal, Canada. According to the records, it was at six forty-five on a Friday morning. According to history, it was halfway between the Great Depression and World War II. Counting backward, Leonard was conceived between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas Day during one of the subarctic winters his hometown managed to deliver with both consistency and brio. He was raised in a house of suits.

Nathan Cohen, Leonard's father, was a prosperous Canadian Jew with a high-end clothing business. The Freedman Company was known for its formal wear, and Nathan liked to dress formally, even on informal occasions. In suits, as in houses, he favored the formal English style, which he wore with spats and tempered with a boutonniere and, when his bad health made it necessary, with a silver cane. Masha Cohen, Leonard's mother, was sixteen years younger than her husband, a Russian Jew, a rabbi's daughter and a recent immigrant to Canada. She and Nathan had married not long after her arrival in Montreal in 1927. Two years later she gave birth to the first of their two children, Leonard's sister, Esther.

Early photographs of Nathan and Masha show him to be a square-faced, square-shouldered, stocky man. Masha, slimmer and a head taller, is in contrast all circles and slopes. The expression on Masha's face is both girlish and regal, while Nathan's is rigid and taciturn. Even were this not the required camera pose for the head of a household at that time, Nathan was certainly more reserved, and more Anglicized, than his warm, emotional Russian wife. As a baby, Leonard, plump, compact and also square-faced, was the image of his father, but as he grew he took on his mother Masha's heart-shaped face, thick wavy hair and deep, dark, sloping eyes. From his father he acquired his height, his tidiness, his decency and his love of suits. From his mother he inherited her charisma, her melancholy and her music. Masha always sang as she went about the house, in Russian and Yiddish more than in English, the sentimental old folk songs she had learned as a child. In a good contralto voice, to imaginary violins, Masha would sing herself from joy to melancholy and back again. “Chekhovian” is how Leonard described his mother.
“She laughed and wept deeply,”
said Leonard, one emotion following the other in quick succession. Masha Cohen was not a nostalgic woman; she did not talk much about the country she had left. But she carried her past in songs.

The residents of Westmount were well-to-do, upper-middle-class Protestant English Canadians and second- or third-generation Canadian Jews. In a city that was all about division and separation, the Jews and Protestants had been filed together on the simple grounds of being neither French nor Catholic. Before the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec in the sixties, and before French became the sole official language of the province, the only French in Westmount were the domestic help. The Cohens had a maid, Mary, although she was Irish Catholic. They also had a nanny, whom Leonard and his sister called “Nursie,” and a gardener named Kerry, a black man, who doubled as the family chauffeur. (Kerry's brother held the same job with Nathan's younger brother Horace.) It is no secret that Leonard's background was privileged. Leonard has never denied being born on the right side of the tracks, has never renounced his upbringing, rejected his family, changed his name or pretended to be anything other than who he is. His family was well-off, although there were certainly wealthier families in Westmount. Unlike the mansions of Upper Belmont, the Cohens' house, though big, was semidetached, and their car, though chauffeur driven, was a Pontiac, not a Cadillac.

But what the Cohens had that very few others came close to matching was status. The family Leonard was born into was distinguished and important—one of the most prominent Jewish families in Montreal. Leonard's ancestors had built synagogues and founded newspapers in Canada. They had funded and presided over a lengthy list of Jewish philanthropic societies and associations. Leonard's great-grandfather Lazarus Cohen had been the first of the family to come to Canada. In Lithuania, which was part of Russia in the 1840s, when Lazarus was born, Lazarus had been a teacher in a rabbinical school in Wylkowyski, one of the most rigorous yeshivas in the country. In his twenties, he left his wife and their baby son behind to try for his fortune. After a brief stay in Scotland, he took a ship to Canada, stopping in Ontario in a small town called Maberly, where he worked his way up from lumber storeman to the owner of a coal company, L. Cohen and Son. The son was Lyon, Nathan's father, whom Lazarus sent for, along with his mother, two years later. The family eventually made their way to Montreal, where Lazarus became president of a brass foundry and started a successful dredging company.

When Lazarus Cohen first arrived in Canada in 1860, the country's Jewish population was tiny. In the middle of the nineteenth century there had been fewer than five hundred Jews in Montreal. By the mid-1880s, when Lazarus assumed the presidency of the synagogue Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, there were more than five thousand. The Russian pogroms had led to a wave of immigration, and by the end of the century the number of Jews in Canada had doubled. Montreal had become the seat of Canadian Jewry, and Lazarus, with his long, white, biblical beard and uncovered head, was a familiar figure among its community. Along with building a synagogue, Lazarus established and headed a number of organizations to aid Jewish settlers and would-be immigrants, even traveling to Palestine (where Lazarus bought land as early as 1884) on behalf of the Jewish Colonization Association of Montreal. Lazarus's younger brother Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, who joined him in Canada soon after, would become chief rabbi of Montreal.

In 1914, when Lyon Cohen took over the presidency of Shaar Hashomayim from his father, the synagogue could claim the largest congregation in a city whose Jewish population now numbered around forty thousand. In 1922, having grown too big for its old premises, the synagogue relocated to a new building in Westmount, almost a block in length, just minutes down the hill from the house on Belmont Avenue. Twelve years later Nathan and Masha added their only son to the synagogue's “Register of Births of the Corporation of English, German and Polish Jews of Montreal,” giving Leonard his Jewish name, Eliezer, meaning “God is help.”

Lyon Cohen, like his father, had been a very successful businessman—clothing and insurance. He also followed Lazarus into community service, being appointed secretary of the Anglo-Jewish Association while still in his teens. He would go on to establish a Jewish community center and a sanatorium, and preside over relief efforts for victims of the pogroms. Lyon held top positions in the Baron de Hirsch Institute, the Jewish Colonization Association and Canada's first Zionist organization. He went to the Vatican on behalf of his community to talk to the pope. He cofounded the first Anglo-Jewish newspaper in Canada, the
Jewish Times,
to which he contributed the occasional article. Lyon had written a play when he was sixteen years old titled
which he produced and in which he acted. Leonard never knew his grandfather—he was two years old when Lyon died—but there was a strong connection, which intensified as Leonard grew older. Lyon's principles, his work ethic and his belief in “the aristocracy of the intellect,”
as Lyon always referred to it, all sat well with Leonard's own persuasion.

Lyon was also a staunch Canadian patriot, and when World War I broke out he launched a recruitment drive to encourage Montreal's Jews to enlist in the Canadian Army. The first to sign up were his sons Nathan and Horace (the third son, Lawrence, was too young). Lieutenant Nathan Cohen, number 3080887, became one of the first Jewish commissioned officers in the Canadian Army. Leonard loved the photographs of his father in uniform. But after his return from the war, Nathan suffered recurring periods of ill health, which left him increasingly invalid. This might be why Nathan, although the oldest son of the oldest son, did not continue the family tradition of holding the presidency of the synagogue, nor of much else. Although on paper he was president of the Freedman Company, the business was largely run by his brother Horace. Neither was Nathan an intellectual nor a religious scholar like his forebears. The dark wooden bookshelves in the house on Belmont Avenue held an impressive leather-bound set of the great poets—Chaucer, Wordsworth, Byron—Nathan's bar mitzvah gift, but their spines remained uncracked until Leonard took them down to read. Nathan, Leonard said, preferred the
Reader's Digest,
but “his heart was cultured; he was a gentleman.”
As to religion, Nathan was “a Conservative Jew, not fanatical, without ideology and dogma, whose life was purely made up of domestic habit and affiliations with the community.” Religion was not something that was discussed in Nathan's house, or even thought about. “It was mentioned no more than a fish mentions the presence of water.”
It was simply there, his tradition, his people.

Masha's father, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, was a noted religious scholar. He had been the principal of a school for Talmudic study in Kovno in Lithuania, some fifty miles from the town where Lazarus had been born. He was also an author, whose two books,
Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms
Thesaurus of Talmudic Interpretations,
would earn him the sobriquet “Sar HaDikdook,” the Prince of Grammarians. When the persecution of Jews made life in Lithuania untenable, he moved to the U.S., where one of his daughters lived and had married an American. Masha had gone to Canada, where she had taken a job as a nurse. When Masha's work permit expired, he turned to his American son-in-law for help, which led to his introduction to Lyon Cohen's resettlement committee. It was through the subsequent friendship of the rabbi and Lyon that Masha and Nathan met and married.

Leonard, as a young boy, heard about Grandfather Kline more than he saw him, since the rabbi spent much of his time in the U.S. Masha would tell Leonard stories about how people came hundreds of miles to hear his grandfather speak. He also had a reputation as a great horseman, she told him, and Leonard was particularly pleased with this information. He liked it that his was a family of important people, but he was a young boy and physical prowess trumped intellect. Leonard was planning to attend the military academy once he was old enough. Nathan told him he could. Leonard wanted to fight wars and win medals—like his father had done, before he became this invalid who sometimes found it hard to even walk up stairs, who would stay home from work, nursed by Leonard's mother. Through Leonard's early childhood, Nathan had often been ill. But the boy had proof that his father had been a warrior once. Nathan still had his gun from World War I, which he kept in his bedside cabinet. One day, when no one was around, Leonard slipped into his parents' bedroom. He opened the cabinet and took out the gun. It was a big gun, a .38, its barrel engraved with his father's name, rank and regiment. Cradling it in his small hand, Leonard shivered, awed by its heft and the feel of its cold metal on his skin.

Five ninety-nine Belmont Avenue was a busy house, a house of routine, well ordered, and the center of the young Leonard's universe. Anything the boy might need or want to do orbited closely around it. His uncles and cousins lived nearby. The synagogue, where Leonard went with the family on Saturday morning, and on Sunday for Sunday school, and to Hebrew school two afternoons a week, was a short walk down the hill. So were his regular schools, Roslyn Elementary School and, later, Westmount High. Murray Hill Park, where Leonard played in the summer and made snow angels in the winter, was immediately below his bedroom window.

The Westmount Jewish community was a close-knit one. It was also a minority community in an English Protestant neighborhood. Which was itself a minority, if a powerful one, in a city and a province largely populated by the Catholic French. Who were themselves a minority in Canada. Everybody felt like some kind of outsider; everyone felt like they belonged to something important. It was “a romantic, conspiratorial mental environment,” said Leonard, a place of “blood and soil and destiny.” “That is the landscape I grew up in,” he said, “and it's very natural to me.”

Leonard's community, half a city away from the working-class immigrant Jewish neighborhood around Saint-Urbain (which formed the backdrop to Mordecai Richler's novels) might have appeared to be hermetically sealed, but of course it wasn't. The Cross on the top of Mount Royal; Mary, the family maid, always crossing herself; and the Easter and Christmas celebrations at school were part of the young Leonard's landscape just as the Sabbath candles his father lit on Friday evenings were, and the imposing synagogue down the hill, from whose walls Leonard's great-grandfather and grandfather stared down at him in large, framed portraits, reminding him of the distinction of his blood

BOOK: I'm Your Man
6.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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