The Leonard Cohen Corrections Agency
The Leonard Cohen Corrections Agency is a privately-funded organization dedicated to the rectification of inaccuracies promulgated by Leonard Cohen, no small task given the Canadian singer-songwriter’s admission that “I don’t want to let the facts get in the way of the truth.”1
Cases already completed have ranged from cleaning up simple verbal typos such as Cohen’s misidentification of the decade in which he met the young Spaniard who taught him guitar lessons (it was the 50s, not the 60s)2 to setting right mistaken references such as the name of the fast food chain that ran the 1984 “Where’s The Beef?” advertising campaign (it was a promotion for Wendy’s not Burger King or McDonald’s as Mr. Cohen stated)3 to spotlighting inconsistencies such as Mr. Cohen taking both sides in a debate about the relationship of his songs and his poems:
… I regard everything I write as being set to music, almost as if I hear a giant guitar accompanying me!4
I never did set poetry to music. … I got stuck with that. It was a bum rap. I never set a poem to music. I’m not that hopeless. I know the difference between a poem and a song!5
Life, Death, Art, & Misattributed Quotes
The problem begins in a 2001 interview ‘I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors’ by Nick Paton Walsh in the 13 October 2001 edition of The Observer, in which Leonard Cohen is quoted:
‘I don’t think much about [death], but in a certain stage in your life it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: “Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.” I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.’
I thought this an appropriately pithy expression to warrant its publication as a “Words By Leonard Cohen” post, and as I am wont to do, checked the source of Tennessee Williams quote.
And I indeed found several references to that Tennessee Williams quote, but, oddly, every example save one mentioned not only the epigram itself and Tennessee Williams, but also Leonard Cohen offering the quote.
It turns out that the quote is actually worded a bit differently:
Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.
It also turns out that the source of the quote is significantly different; it was produced by Truman Capote rather than Tennessee Williams.
But pointing out a mistake made by Leonard Cohen – while great fun – is not my primary mission.
Even at my most pedantic, I find it difficult to view attributing a clever remark made by Truman Capote to Tennessee Williams a signal of the end of civilization as we know it. 6
The remarkable thing, it seems to me, is that none of the interviewers or their publications checked the source of the quote.
Cohen, who is known for repeating successful phrases and anecdotes in interviews, has, true to form, used the third act line with other interviewers:
A Happy Man by Mireille Silcott. Saturday Night, Canada: September 15, 2001
“Tennessee Williams had this famous quote: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,’” says Cohen, flicking an ash off the table. “And I’m at the beginning of the third act. The end of the third act — nobody has a handle on that one. But the beginning — there is a certain relief for me here. It is palpable.”
Leonard Cohen returns to music by Robert Hilburn. Chicago Tribune: October 18, 2001
I remember something Tennessee Williams said about life being a fairly well-written play except for the third act. By this point in my life, we have the experience of the first two acts, but we haven’t really encountered what is in store in the third.
Even worse, this has become a popular quote writers have recycled, misattribution intact, into articles about the Canadian singer-songwriter.
The godfather of gloom lightens up for third act by Barry Egan. Independent.ie: March 23, 2008
Asked about death a few years old, Bono’s favourite poet answered with a wisdom that suggested that perhaps he was descended from the Kohanim after all. “I don’t think much about [death],” Laughing Lenny said, ” but, in a certain stage in your life, it becomes very clear that your time is not unlimited. Tennessee Williams said: ‘Life is a fairly well-written play, except for the third act.’ I’m maybe at the third act, where you have the benefit of the experience of the first two acts. But how it ends is nobody’s business and is generally accompanied by some disagreeable circumstances.”
‘I’m blessed with a certain amnesia’ by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: 9 July 2009
In 2001, you said to the Observer that you were at a stage of your life you refer to as the third act. You quoted Tennessee Williams saying: “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act.” You were 67 when you said that, you’re 74 now – does that ring more or less true for you still?
The same line is also quoted in, among many others, the following pieces:
- Leonard Cohen: his wit, warmth and wisdom. The Telegraph: 14 Jun 2008
- The Rock& Roll Hall of Fame welcomes a renewed Leonard Cohen by Nate DeMontigny. Precious Metal: March 10, 2008
- Leonard Cohen. World Tour. Europe, USA. Through 13 November 2009, Las Vegas. Another Travel Guide
- The Color Orange and My First Cousin Jesse: Rediscovering Family by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring. Huffington Post: March 7, 2013.
Still worse, the exact line as misquoted by Leonard Cohen and credited to Tennessee Williams, has almost certainly been lifted from a Cohen interview and been used in an article about Michael Jackson.7
So, now you know Truman Capote is responsible for “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,” that, as far as I can determine, Tennessee Williams did not come up with his famous quote “Life is a fairly well-written play except for the third act,’” that Leonard Cohen makes the occasional error, and, that, apparently, one can’t rely on interviewers and publcations to check the information they receive before presenting it to the reader.
- See Leonard Cohen Tells Sexologist About His Dog, His Mother, His Impermanence, Seduction, Men As Cocker Spaniels, and Rules Between Men & Women [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: The Prince Of Asturias Awards Speech With Annotations & Commentary [↩]
- Rarely Viewed Video – Leonard Cohen On His Atrocious Voice, Dylan, Lead Belly, Ice-T, Songwriting, Love, & Where’s The Beef [↩]
- Leonard Cohen Seventeen. March 1968 [↩]
- “Porridge? Lozenge? Syringe?” by Adrian Deevoy, Q Magazine, 1991 [↩]
- For one thing, the two are easy to confuse. Capote and Williams not only shared many qualities but also knew each other and occasionally hung out together. [↩]
- The boy in the bubble, the man in the mirror by Peter Murphy. Hot Press: July 3, 2009 [↩]