Growing Up Leonard Cohen
A Leonard Cohen Primer1
The Not Too Big, Not Too Little Pyritic Book Of Leonard Cohen
While the preceding post, Field Guide To The Current Life Of Leonard Cohen, dealt primarily with people and places integral to Leonard Cohen’s contemporary life, today’s post steps back in time to focus on his childhood. As before, the names of people and places that play an important, ongoing role in Cohen’s life and work are displayed in dark red in their first use in this post.
Update 17 August 2011: See New Video – Growing Up Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s Family Home, Montreal2
Four Useful Generalizations About Leonard Cohen’s Childhood
1. Leonard Cohen’s childhood was comfortable.
Born September 21, 1934,3 Leonard Cohen spent his childhood, along with his sister, Esther, in Westmount, an upper-middle-class suburb of Montreal, located on the slope of Mount Royal. They grew up in what used to be called a “well-to-do” family. Their father, Nathan Cohen (pictured on right), was a successful clothing manufacturer. Their mother, Masha, is described as romantic, emotional, and given to singing Russian and Yiddish folksongs. Cohen has repeatedly spoken of his childhood in positive terms, characterizing it as “very decent.”
2. Leonard Cohen grew up in a family with a rich Jewish heritage living in a city intimately intertwined with the Catholic church and was influenced by both.
His maternal grandfather was a well known rabbi and scholar, with whom Cohen studied, while his paternal grandfather was founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and a central figure in Montreal Jewish life. Cohen’s family followed traditional Jewish customs, attended the synagogue presided over by his grandfather, and observed Jewish holidays and ceremonies. Analogously, Montreal was a city where priests and nuns were plentiful and the Catholic influence on daily life extended far beyond the extensive parochial schools, newspapers, and cultural institutions dedicated to the Church.
3. The impact of his father’s death when Leonard Cohen was nine was important to his growth as an artist even though its psychological impact remains ambiguous.
First the ambiguous part – it’s an oft repeated anecdote that weeks after his father’s death and burial, Cohen buried one of his father’s bow ties wrapped in a paper containing a few lines of verse. While some have identified that act as an especially significant point in Cohen’s artistic development, Cohen himself accounts it as “just a singular gesture,” going on to note, “I don’t know why I did that.” On the other hand, his father’s death also resulted in Cohen receiving an inheritance large enough to allow him to pursue the afore mentioned artistic development as a poet and novelist as well as to live, to some extent, as he wished without the immediate urgency to earn enough money selling poetry and prose to pay the rent.
4. Leonard Cohen integrates his own early experiences and the local geography into his work.
He routinely, for example, studs his work with biblical allusions (e.g., The Story Of Isaac) learned at an early age. Even more direct are those echoes of his own encounters in his songs; e.g., the lyrics in Suzanne portray actual events,4 down to lines that reference the chapel of the church overlooking the entry to Montreal, Our Lady Of The Harbour.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
Previous Leonard Cohen Primer Post: 2008 Leonard Cohen Field Guide
Next Leonard Cohen Primer Post: Leonard Cohen – Boy Wonder
- A Leonard Cohen Primer is a simple, easy to understand introduction to Leonard Cohen for anyone who has recently tuned in to his music and for fans who may have listened to the songs for some time and now want to learn something about the singer-songwriter who produced them. The goal of this series of posts is to avoid both (1) overwhelming readers with details and tangents, however interesting those channels might be, and (2) omitting fundamental elements of Cohen’s life. [↩]
- This photo is from A Short Walk In Leonard Cohen’s Westmount, a web page which contains more photos of this home and a charming essay about the area, especially as it relates to Leonard Cohen growing up there and to references in his books, poetry, and songs. [↩]
- The date of Cohen’s birth is significant to a new fan insofar as one should be aware that Cohen is, well, old enough to qualify for the Senior Discount at the movies. Also, many fans have taken to extending natal day greetings or otherwise celebrating the date, especially since his 70th birthday. You don’t want to be the one who doesn’t even send a card, do you? See Birthday Countdown Page For Leonard Cohen & Friends [↩]
- OK, take out a pencil and a sheet of paper for the pop test. True or False: Was the Suzanne in the song the same Suzanne that was the mother of Cohen’s two children? See Field Guide To The Current Life Of Leonard Cohen for the correct answer. [↩]