Leonard Cohen And His Mother, Masha
Shortly thereafter, she married Nathan Cohen, 16 years her senior, and together they had two children, Esther and Leonard.
Leonard Cohen credited his mother with encouraging his poetic and musical aspirations and described how she would, as she went through her day, sing Yiddish and Russian folk songs she had learned as a child.
He characterized her as romantic, beautiful, sensitive, and emotional, given to bouts of both joyfulness and melancholy.
Cohen wrote his mother into his music and poetry and enjoyed relating anecdotes about her to interviewers and biographers. Two of those stories he most frequently told about her follow:
Best Advice My Mother Gave Me: Before I had gone down to New York – I was already a grownup man – she said, “Now Leonard, you be careful of those people, they’re not like we are. They’re different from us.” I said, “Mother, come on, don’t embarrass me by giving me that kind of advice.” I hadn’t been living at home for about sixteen years. I thought it was very amusing and charming that she said that to me, but it turned out she was right. Some of the renaissance folk singers I met pretended to represent my interest and love my work and eventually pilfered a lot of my work – stole all my songs – “Suzanne,” “Strangers.” They tricked me. I had surrendered half of my publishing on all of the songs and all of the publishing on all of my hits.1
Out Of The Country But Not Out Of Mother’s Thoughts: A little later it hit the newspapers in North America that the airport had been bombed. I’m in this little seedy hotel in Havana and somebody knocks on my door and says, “You have to go down to the Canadian consulate right away.” They don’t like the look of me there because I really do look like a Cuban revolutionary – I had a beard and wore khakis. Finally I’m brought in to one of the secretaries of the consulate – I’m pretending to be pretty tough. And he says to me, “Mr. Cohen. Your mother is very worried about you.”2
A third, congruent narrative has somehow remained unpublished – until now.
Masha’s Deathbed Note To Leonard Cohen
By June 1977, leukemia had severely debilitated Masha. Leonard Cohen, then engrossed in the tumultuous recording of his “Death Of A Ladies’ Man” album with Phil Spector, frequently interrupted his work to travel to Montreal to see his mother and, in fact, after the album was released returned to his home town so he could spend more time with her, including daily visits during her hospitalizations. After a long and arduous illness, Masha died in February 1978.
Many years later, Leonard Cohen is sharing a dinner at a restaurant with a friend, when the table talk somehow turns to the final days of his mother’s life. That friend, Sean Dixon,3 reports, with Leonard Cohen’s permission,4 the conversation that took place:
As Leonard related it, he was holding vigil with Masha at the hospital. She was still cogent and intermittently alert, but because of her illness and the medication, she was no longer able to speak.
Leonard showed how she motioned to him to give her a pen and paper because she had something important to tell him. Leonard fetched her a notepad and watched patiently as she began to write.
Masha struggled, carefully forming the letters one by one, a process that required several minutes. It was obvious that this was a herculean task for Masha but she was determined. Before she broke free from this world, there was something her son had to know, something only she could tell him.
Leonard confessed that at the time he couldn’t imagine what would be so important. Regardless, he was profoundly moved by her superhuman effort.
Finally, after what seemed like twenty long, painful minutes, she put down her pen with a sigh. Then, with trembling hands she passed the note to Leonard.
While telling me the story, Leonard had busied himself composing a sketch, hidden from my view, on a cocktail napkin. He now revealed his drawing, a representation of her handwritten message, so that I could see the note just as she presented it to him.
This is a Heck Of A Guy Confessional post. For the description and background of this category, see Meet The Confessionals.
- Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen. Found at the indispensable Speaking Cohen site. [↩]
- “Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough” by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988. Also found at the incomparable Speaking Cohen site. [↩]
- Seam Dixon, aka Sleep66, has previously shared two Leonard Cohen anecdotes with Heck Of A Guy readers: Leonard Cohen, The Cat Whisperer and Leonard Cohen & The Sweet Smell Of Indifference [↩]
- My email requesting his “blessing” to post this story resulted in this response:
Completely forgotten about that story.
Not quite up to recreating it right now.
Happy to go with Sean’s version.
She has an amazing memory.