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Leonard Cohen excerpt: ‘Raised in a house of suits’

A young Leonard Cohen

Courtesy of Leonard Cohen

The chauffeur turned off the main road by the synagogue, which took up most of the block, and headed past St. Matthias's Church on the opposite corner, and up the hill. In the back of the car was a woman – twenty-seven years old, attractive, strong-featured, stylishly dressed – and her newborn baby son. The streets they passed were handsome and well-appointed, the trees arranged just so. Big houses of brick and stone you might have thought would collapse under the sheer weight of their self-importance appeared to float effortlessly up the slopes. Around halfway up, the driver took a side road and stopped outside a house at the end of the street, 599 Belmont Avenue. It was large, solid and formal-looking, English in style, its dark brick softened by a white-framed veranda at the front and at the back by Murray Hill Park, fourteen acres of lawns, trees and flower beds, with a sweeping view of the St. Lawrence River to one side and, on the other, downtown Montreal. The chauffeur stepped out of the car and opened the rear door, and Leonard was carried up the white front steps and into his family home.

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21, 1934, in the Royal Victoria Hospital, a grey stone pile in Westmount, an affluent neighbourhood of Montreal, Canada. According to the records, it was at six forty-five on a Friday morning. According to history, it was halfway between the Great Depression and World War II. Counting backward, Leonard was conceived between the end of Hanukkah and Christmas Day during one of the subarctic winters his hometown managed to deliver with both consistency and brio. He was raised in a house of suits.

Nathan Cohen, Leonard's father, was a prosperous Canadian Jew with a high-end clothing business. The Freedman Company was known for its formal wear, and Nathan liked to dress formally, even on informal occasions. In suits, as in houses, he favoured the formal English style, which he wore with spats and tempered with a boutonniere and, when his bad health made it necessary, with a silver cane. Masha Cohen, Leonard's mother, was sixteen years younger than her husband, a Russian Jew, a rabbi's daughter and a recent immigrant to Canada. She and Nathan had married not long after her arrival in Montreal in 1927. Two years later, she gave birth to the first of their two children, Leonard's sister, Esther.

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Early photographs of Nathan and Masha show him to be a square-faced, square-shouldered, stocky man. Masha, slimmer and a head taller, is in contrast all circles and slopes. The expression on Masha's face is both girlish and regal, while Nathan's is rigid and taciturn. Even were this not the required camera pose for the head of a household at that time, Nathan was certainly more reserved, and more Anglicized, than his warm, emotional Russian wife. As a baby, Leonard, plump, compact and also square-faced, was the image of his father, but as he grew he took on his mother Masha's heart-shaped face, thick wavy hair and deep, dark, sloping eyes. From his father he acquired his height, his tidiness, his decency and his love of suits. From his mother he inherited her charisma, her melancholy and her music. Masha always sang as she went about the house, in Russian and Yiddish more than in English, the sentimental old folk songs she had learned as a child. In a good contralto voice, to imaginary violins, Masha would sing herself from joy to melancholy and back again. "Chekhovian" is how Leonard described his mother. "She laughed and wept deeply," said Leonard, one emotion following the other in quick succession. Masha Cohen was not a nostalgic woman; she did not talk much about the country she had left. But she carried her past in songs.

Excerpted from I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Copyright © 2012 Sylvie Simmons. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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