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From the archives: Leonard Cohen and the Casanova paradox

In this 1978 story, a look at Leonard Cohen’s book ‘Death of a Lady’s Man’—and how untrue that was


 

We are remembering Leonard Cohen—a Canadian artist, poet and visionary we have written about many times in the pages of our century-old magazine—with stories from the Maclean’s Archives. Here, Barbara Amiel spends time with Cohen in 1978 before the publishing of his book Death of a Lady’s Man and finds that declaration to be entirely premature.
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When he opened up his guitar case in Jerusalem there were still a few traces of “magic powder” in it. “Well,” said poet-singer Leonard Cohen to his band, “shall we take one last ride to the moon?” As he came on stage that warm July night in 1974 Cohen felt the shock of the acid race through his system. He held up his guitar to strum the opening to his song Avalanche. The words came out soft and easy. “I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul.” Cohen stopped. The hillside covered with Israelis was changing in front of him, shifting into the likeness of a man. “It was one huge Jew,” says Cohen. “I couldn’t go on. There I was standing on the platform clutching my guitar and singing about my little troubles to the eternal Jew who had seen everything and suffered all. I left the stage and asked the manager to give them back their money. ‘There’s nothing I can tell that Jew,’ I told him.”

He was wrong of course. Cohen’s great strength in his lyric poetry is his ability to take “my little troubles” and turn them into something approaching universal pain and ecstasy. This month in his new book Death of a Lady's Man Cohen weighs in once again with his story of lost love and errant travels. It is a story that first surfaced publicly in the mid-’60s when Cohen emerged as a media figure.

By then he had published four books of poetry (including The Spice-Box of Earth, Flowers for Hitler and Parasites of Heaven and Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers). His best work dovetailed with the Western world’s newly discovered urban and sexual angst. Wrote novelist Stephen Vizinczey in a review of Spice-Box: “I know no one—poet or otherwise—who has given as compelling an account of the individual’s lot in the airless, spaceless metropolis.”

Cohen’s career took a new jog when, one day in the summer of 1965 in a suite in Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, Cohen sat on a sagging couch composing tunes on a mouth organ. In between he tried singing his poems to a friend. In an adjoining bedroom, visible through an open door, a naked couple twisted and moaned through the songs, their concentration on Leonard’s music and their own rhythms clearly affected by middle-class amounts of cocaine and marijuana. Cohen chose to interpret their noises positively. “I think I’m going to record myself singing my poems,” he said. His friend winced at the sound of Cohen’s nasal voice. “Please don’t,” she replied. The admonition showed much esthetic sense but lacked all commercial judgment. In 1967 Cohen released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and a cult of international dimensions was

established. Today his books can be read in 11 languages: book sales are over two million volumes and record sales are around the 9‘/2-million mark. His Selected Poems sold 700,000 copies in the United States alone. “A phenomenal sale for a book of poetry,” says Viking Press President Thomas Ginsburg.

A two-year delay before the publication of Death of a Lady’s Man occasioned some speculation about the withering of Cohen’s talent, while the title garnered much ink about the possible end of what some view as Cohen’s career as a heartless philanderer. “Death of a Ladies’ Chauvinist” speculated Chatelaine this month and went on to suggest that Cohen’s forthcoming book may “mean rejection of his former womanizing self.” Whatever the critical reaction to the new book (an advance look certainly indicates no deterioration of Cohen’s work—beside the usual pseudo-psychology of minor interest, it contains a number of perfectly exquisite troubador lyrics about the breakup of his marriage) any claims that Leonard is a male chauvinist amuse those men and women close to him. In fact, Cohen illustrates the paradox of the Casanova: when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of male-female politics which Cohen sings about, writes about and lives, it is not Leonard who has taken the ladies for a ride but the ladies who have more often taken Leonard. In the parlance of the Oldest Profession: Leonard like Don Juan is a trick.

The time: July 1, 1978, 7 a.m. The scene: the nursery of the Cohen house in Montreal. The children, Adam Nathan Cohen, 5, and Lorca Sarah Cohen, 3, are asleep. The phone rings. Their babysitter listens to the operator, puts the receiver on a table and snatching a wrap runs out of the house to the studio around the corner at 28 Rue Vallière where father Leonard Cohen comes to the door. “Suzanne,” says the babysitter.

Suzanne Elrod, 29, better known since meeting the Canadian poet in 1969 as Mrs. Leonard Cohen (though they’ve never been legally married), mother of Cohen’s two children and a female of conspicuously sultry beauty and appetites, was on the phone from the Greek island of Hydra making the one telephone call the police would permit her. Separated from Cohen, 44, for the past six months, Suzanne’s enjoyment of younger men and their rituals had become something of a sore point with her tradition-bound village neighbours on Hydra who loved Leonard and were protective of him—according to their own lights. There on the white-washed walls of Leonard’s old house, Suzanne had hung erotic woodcuts beside religious icons. Next to pictures of the saints, prints of Eastern rituals involving exaggerated and enthusiastic phalluses decorated the walls. “I warned Suzanne,” explained Cohen later, “the local cleaning lady would be offended.” The combination of an illustrated Kama sutra on the wall and the absence of the appropriate patriarch in bed was too much for the community. Suzanne and her young boy-friend-of-the-moment were arrested for drug possession after aggrieved villagers complained about “commotions” at the villa. Though all charges were dismissed against Suzanne when the case was investigated, the cost of lawyers, Greek justice and bail for the young man took close to $25,000 out of Cohen’s pocket. “These days I work to support my wife, my children and my responsibilities,” says Cohen. They come numerous and dear.

But Don Juan always paid for his pleasure: his secret could certainly not be ascribed to good looks. The men to whom women have flocked throughout fiction and history have tended on the whole to be a rather seedy-looking lot. Giovanni Casanova de Seingalt was accurately depicted in Fellini’s film by an aging Donald Sutherland with receding hairline, unpleasing features and bowlegged gait. In this one aspect Cohen differs from the legendary lovers: Leonard is cute. Reed-thin from meditating and fasting at a Zen centre on California’s Mount Baldy (says Cohen: “Meditation cleans the intestines and the mind”) his tanned torso slips neatly along the streets of Montreal. The porcelain-skinned girls who brush next to him in the smoky atmosphere of after-hours clubs like Nuit Magique (with a backroom named Les Beaux Ratés—the Beautiful Losers) gaze into his thickly lashed hazel eyes apparently responding to a face on which the experiences of the world are writ manifest in deep facial lines running symmetrically next to his curved nose.

But it is not looks at all. A thousand other men share Cohen’s thin frame and aquiline nose. What in fact the women are responding to is the quality Cohen shares with the original Don Juan. The open-sesame to a woman’s heart is easy though unlearnable—it is genuine adoration. One or two females may be turned on by a conqueror, a few more by a slave or a stud. But virtually all women find genuine interest in them irresistible. Explains sculptor Morton Rosengarten, Cohen’s closest friend and widely believed to have inspired the ^naracter of Krantz in The Favourite Game: “Leonard treats women so gently, he’s such a perfect host, that each one always feels very special to Leonard.” Confirms longtime friend and next-door neighbor Hazel Field: “No matter what time they knock on his door or who they are, Leonard never turns anyone away. He always has a cup of coffee, a few dollars and time to help some stray lady find a place to stay.” The secret that Leonard shares with Casanova is one that costs him dear: it is real desire. Like some winged bull of a mythical herd he wants to pull all cows under the shadow of his protective self.

“God,” he says in the rainy night of August 19 in Montreal’s Moishe’s Steak House as two bewigged, tarted-up and dishevelled girls totter in: “Look how beautifully they hold themselves. Isn’t that lovely.” Sitting one evening last winter in Toronto’s Courtyard Café two young girls play Mozart sonatas while patrons eat. Cohen watches the long-haired girl playing the flute. Her fingers, pale and fluid, run along the woodwind’s stem. He calls the waiter. “Send the girls playing the music two of your best bottles of wine,” he says. The bottles selected cost nearly $150 each. Cohen calls the waiter back: “And don’t tell them who sent it. Just tell them they look lovely.”

His commitment began in high school. He fell in love with the girl down the street who was about to be married. Explains Cohen: “After one muggy summer night in the back gardens of Westmount she was no longer engaged.” But when a 19-year-old Leonard refused to formally marry her she left for England and an older man of some wealth. A year later Leonard turned up in London, haunting the streets where he thought she lived. For six months he waited. At last, one day she came toward him, pushing a pram. Her long blonde hair and aquiline features brushed past Cohen. “Hello, Leonard,” she said and was gone. He was disconsolate. He would have been ready to offer her everything, except of course fidelity. For Casanova will bail a woman’s lover out of jail, stand on the streets for six months to catch a glimpse of cheekbones, but is unable to give exclusive rights to his bed. In his own terms he is not unfaithful to anyone because he cares for them all.

Still, in the early years before popstar status, Leonard seemed to have little to offer women but himself and the (always remote) possibility of immortality in a poem. He grew up in a modest semidetached house in Westmount and though he wanted for nothing, there was none of the high living associated with the stone walls and hedges of establishment Montreal. His father died when he was six and, besides, the family’s deep commitment to the precepts of conservative Judaism and wartime patriotism frowned on excessive concern with making money. And so Leonard’s ladies had to content themselves with poetry and the somewhat ephemeral presence of Leonard.

There was Marianne, Norwegian, blonde, with a young son from another liaison, who met Leonard in 1960 and climbed the slippery streets of Montreal to live with Cohen in a bare white room on Pine Street. Suzanne (the First), was the gypsy wife of Quebec sculptor Armand Vaillancourt who became the Suzanne of Leonard’s best-known song. “We were never lovers,” maintains Cohen, “but she gave me Constant Comment tea in a small moment of magic.” Annie, Nancy, Monica—their names dotted his poetry and their being gave him the sweet burden of love he needed.

Lists of Cohen women are not simply the stuff of gossip columns. Behind the troubador’s songs comes the troubador and he can’t be expected to strum his lute then return at the stroke of five to cut the grass while his wife bakes a meat loaf in their Westinghouse kitchen. Says Cohen: “The troubador’s essenpe is to roam.” It is the reality of his emotions behind his nasal twang that makes Cohen’s charisma so strong. His love lyrics, like most fine lyrical poetry, make emotional rather than intellectual sense. They ought not to be analysed. Like Mona Lisa under the magnifying glass, the magic would disperse into a thousand cracks.

For two years while Cohen’s mother lay dying of cancer in Montreal and Suzanne was, in Leonard’s words, “off to find herself in first-class hotel rooms,” Cohen seemed to vanish from the pop scene. He cancelled a promotion tour foi his latest album because of his mother’s illness. His manuscript for Death of a Lady’s Man was postponed and then rewritten to mirror the struggle with Suzanne. “She’s the mother of my children, a good mother to them,” says Cohen, “and whether or not we continue to live apart this will always be my marriage.” His mind goes back to the day he first saw her when she was staying at New York’s Plaza Hotel supported by a wealthy industrialist. “God, whenever I see her ass, I forget every pain that’s gone between us.”

Unlike a rolling stone Leonard will continue to gather moss. There are the cheques to Marianne “to help her out because she’s a fine lady”; the payments to support Suzanne, the children and smooth over whatever Suzanne’s latest contretemps may be. In the semidetached house Leonard’s mother willed to him, a sweet moon-faced girl lives with her illegitimate baby who thinks Leonard is her father. (He isn’t, but the real father is already married to two other women.) “I ought to sell the house,” says Leonard, “but where will she go?” And then there are all the women to come, the young girls with soft liquid eyes and warm voices who need help or shelter and will give Leonard, in return, more poetry. He’s planning a new record now and in his room on Rue Vallière he sings some of its lyrics to a fragile beauty named Constance who wants Leonard’s advice on setting up a show of her photography.

“I’ve never seen your eyes so wide / Your appetite quite this occupied.”

The troubador plays his instrument, Don Juan climbs his ladder and The Trick reaches for his wallet. The ladies’ man is alive and well.

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