Leonard Cohen, Untold Sto­ries: The Ear­ly Years

  • Review
By – June 14, 2021

Read­ing Leonard Cohen: Untold Sto­ries is like being in a room full of peo­ple who had known the poet, singer, and song­writer, and catch­ing snip­pets of their con­ver­sa­tions. Every so often, the author, Michael Pos­ner, inter­jects with a few sen­tences of expla­na­tion, to give con­text to a con­ver­sa­tion or clar­i­fy a ref­er­ence. The crowd­ed room includes fam­i­ly mem­bers; for­mer neigh­bors in Mon­tre­al, where he grew up; class­mates from ele­men­tary and high school through his years at uni­ver­si­ty; long-time friends, teach­ers, rab­bis, writ­ers, singers, fans, and of course, lovers. It’s an eclec­tic mix, reflect­ing the man himself.

There are numer­ous biogra­phies of Leonard Cohen cur­rent­ly avail­able. What Pos­ner has done is not to dupli­cate them but to offer a view of Cohen from those who knew him; togeth­er, they are writ­ing the sto­ry of his life. The first of a pro­ject­ed three vol­umes, this one cov­ers Cohen’s child­hood in the 1930s and 40s to 1969.

Since Posner’s source mate­r­i­al is not found in archives but in people’s mem­o­ries, there are con­tra­dic­tions, and here he serves as more of a host than a ref­er­ee. He doesn’t attempt to deter­mine whose rem­i­nis­cence gets it right, but instead records diver­gent mem­o­ries that con­tribute to fill­ing in the per­son who was Leonard Cohen. He posits that Cohen him­self would have approved of such an approach. Read­ers will as well.

It was around 2007 that Pos­ner approached Cohen with the idea of an oral biog­ra­phy. Cohen was gra­cious in his response, but non-com­mit­tal, and Pos­ner didn’t pur­sue it. Then in 2016 Cohen died, and Pos­ner revis­it­ed the idea. That revis­it stretched into some five hun­dred inter­views, and the result, in this first vol­ume, offers a por­trait of a qui­et boy from a wealthy Jew­ish fam­i­ly who was expect­ed to go into the fam­i­ly cloth­ing busi­ness but instead became an acclaimed poet and nov­el­ist in Canada.

Much of that acclaim came by way of his Cana­di­an pub­lish­er, Jack McClel­land, who was com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing Cana­di­an lit­er­a­ture and whose sup­port for his authors was leg­endary. Even when he and Cohen quar­reled, as they did, for exam­ple, over his nov­el Beau­ti­ful Losers and his book of poet­ry Flow­ers for Hitler, McClel­land remained sup­port­ive. In 2004, when McClel­land died, Cohen ded­i­cat­ed his album Dear Heather to him.

Cohen’s lit­er­ary suc­cess did not mean finan­cial suc­cess, and he decid­ed to pur­sue a career in music. It didn’t look promis­ing. When folk singer Ram­blin’ Jack Elliott first heard him he thought, What fine poet­ry. Too bad he can’t sing.”

In New York, Cohen played three songs for Judy Collins. I fell off my chair at all three,” recalled Collins. She record­ed two of them, Suzanne” and Dress Rehearsal Rag,” with more to follow.

Along the way were drugs, time spent on the Greek island of Hydra, cross-Cana­da poet­ry pre­sen­ta­tions in cof­fee hous­es and on cam­pus­es, and women, so many women. Women swarmed around Leonard,” recalled Avi­va Lay­ton, wife of poet Irv­ing Lay­ton, a men­tor of Cohen’s from his ear­ly writ­ing years in Montreal.

And yet, in the hun­dreds of inter­views there is agree­ment — Leonard Cohen was charis­mat­ic, gen­teel, gra­cious, gen­tle, kind, fun­ny. Cana­di­an folk singer and long-time friend Buffy Sainte-Marie sums it up: he had a sweet heart about the impor­tant things in life, the aches and pains, the kiss­es and hugs.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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