Mordecai Richler Threatens To Punch Leonard Cohen In The Nose

The recent celebration of Leonard Cohen as the Ninth Laureate of The Glenn Gould Prize calls to mind the story of Mordecai Richler, called “the great shining star of his Canadian literary generation” by Robert Fulford,1  going into full Norman Mailer mode when he learned that Cohen refused to accept his 1968 Governor General’s Award.2

Leonard Cohen Declines The Governor General’s Award

A bit of background is helpful:  The Governor General’s Literary Awards, first granted in 1937,  have become Canada’s premier book awards and are viewed as

a significant achievement by both Canadian authors and their publishers. Winning the award has almost always resulted in increased sales.3

In addition, winners since 1951 have received not only medals but also monetary prizes ($250 in 1951; $25,000 in 2007).4

In short, turning down The Governor General’s Literary Award is not a trivial gesture.5

According to the Globe and Mail (28 May 1969, p. 6), Cohen would not accept the honour  for his winning collection, Selected Poems 1956-1968, because

The world is a callous place and [he] would take no gift from it.

He did, however, note, “I would like to be Governor-General.”

Mordecai Richler Responds

According to Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain by Reinhold Kramer,6 Richler (then 38 years old, three years senior to Cohen), infuriated that Cohen refused his Governor General’s Award when Richler wanted to accept his own GG Awards,7

herded him [Leonard Cohen] into the bathroom and bawled him out.

Ira Nadel, writing in Various Positions,8 provides a more detailed account.  The scanned excerpt below  (click on image to enlarge) begins the night of the award ceremonies:

I’m a tad unclear why “I don’t know,” Cohen’s response to Richler’s query about his reason for turning down the award, would be an answer, let alone the only answer, that  would quell Richler’s wrath but, for the record, I think it a good thing that Richler, who also threatened Austin Clarke, another Canadian novelist and short story writer, with a knuckle sandwich,9 settled for venting his spleen verbally and did not resort to fisticuffs.

Credit Due Department: The image atop this post is a portrait of Mordecai Richler by Gordon Stuart (1996). Found at Library and Archives Canada/

  1. Mordecai Richler: an obituary tribute by Robert Fulford. The National Post, July 4, 2001. Accessed 05 June 2012 []
  2. 1968 was a rough year for the Governor General’s Award; Hubert Aquin also refused the French language fiction prize for his book, Trou de mémoire. Source:  Wikipedia []
  3. The Governor General’s Literary Awards  by John H. Meier, Jr. McMaster University web site. Accessed 05 June 2012 []
  4. Ibid []
  5. Including Cohen’s refused prize, The Governor General’s Literary Award has been declined on five separate occasions. Source: 75 Years of Controversy: The GG’s come to UBC by Faculty of Arts, posted on the University of British Columbia web site, January 3, 2012. Accessed 05 June 2012 []
  6. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain by Reinhold Kramer. McGill-Queen’s University Press, April 1 2008 []
  7. Richler won GGs in 1968 for both Hunting Tigers Under Glass and Cocksure.  Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia; accessed 05 June 2012 []
  8. Various Positions – A Life Of Leonard Cohen by Ira Nadel.  Random House of Canada, 1996 []
  9. Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain by Reinhold Kramer. McGill-Queen’s University Press, April 1 2008 []

One Response to Mordecai Richler Threatens To Punch Leonard Cohen In The Nose

  1. I don’t what it is with these Canadians – most of my favourite authors, singers. songwriters etc. are Canadian – must be something in the Canadian air. I loved Richler’s books (even if I never learnt how the hell to pronounce his name)