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Leonard Cohen, the women he loved, and the women who loved him
By
Andrea Warner

Published

November 11, 2016

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Interviewer: Do you ever feel that you have exploited relationships by writing about them?

Leonard Cohen: That's the very least way in which I have exploited relationships. If that was the only way I'd exploited a relationship then I'm going straight to heaven. Are you kidding me?

Q magazine, 1991

This is from an interview that 57-year-old Leonard Cohen did with Q in 1991. It’s easy to imagine a small chuckle bouncing off the page, him shaking his head a little, a slight smile on his lips.

Cohen was in his early 30s when he stepped into the spotlight, guitar in hand, a poet’s worth of evocations pouring from his mouth. Wise and articulate, tender and alive, Cohen the songwriter was somehow even more compelling in this naked state, his vulnerabilities heightened, his confidence tilted by slight outsider/imposter feelings about claiming a space occupied by the likes of Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Phil Ochs.  

His reservations, though, were tempered by his age, and the relative vastness of a grownup life already lived and abandoned by the time he hit New York. He was already a master of words by the age of 33 thanks to early successes: a published poet at age 15; the author of two critically acclaimed novels by 32. He was at least 10 years older than most of his disciples and fans, the women and men who worshipped at his feet, eager to manifest their connection to the man’s works with the man himself.

He was a gentleman, prone to a self-deprecation that has come off as self-confidence since his youth. His pursuit of beauty, appreciation of beauty, the ways in which he exulted and coveted and captured beauty in his words — what man couldn’t understand that? What woman wouldn’t be flattered to be the focus of such a fiercely artistic, intellectual, romantic man? In 1967, Cohen told the Village Voice, “I really am for the matriarchy.”

Cohen’s charisma was part prophecy (he claimed to be a direct descendant of Aaron), inheritance (his father died at the age of nine, leaving him the de facto “man of the house”), and learned behaviour. His charm was old-world and European, but it was not pure instinct or birthright. It was also observed and chosen, as if he realized early on the power of a man who could occupy the shape of a doomed romantic, who would be able to control and master, even subconsciously, gendered social conventions that would earn him favour with women and men, that would make him something of a legend or a hero on his artist’s journey.

He was always good at approximating the angles and bent neck of a man who listened with understanding and appreciated women with his whole body. But he also projected the spirit of a wanderer, a rogue, a man who was restless and eventually reckless. Someone who would always see himself as the one who was left behind even as he was taking to the sea, putting cities and countries and oceans between himself and the goddesses who could no longer inspire brilliance, who were best preserved in memory rather than contend with their gradual transformation from muse to mere woman.

Since the beginning, he was painted as equal parts long-suffering, lonely boy and lanky lothario, and to a certain extent, Cohen fed into both of those personas. In this Newsday article from 1992, he apparently found it amusing that he was “an object of lust” in the 1960s.

"It's so curious, because I couldn't get a date," he said. "I couldn't find anybody to have dinner with. By the time that first record came out, which rescued me, I was already in such a shattered situation that I found myself living at the Henry Hudson Hotel on West 57th Street, going to the Morningstar Cafe on Eighth Avenue, trying to find some way to approach the waitress and ask her out. I would get letters of longing from around the world, and I would find myself walking the streets of New York at three in the morning, trying to strike up conversations with the women selling cigarettes in hotels. I think it's always like that. It's never delivered to you."

Reading Cohen’s own words and thoughts about sex, marriage, women and dating, is both intoxicating and exhausting. His intellect was deep and precise — even his conversational musings were an intricate choreography of language — so much so that every sentence was a complex seduction. But in an effort to better understand a man like Leonard Cohen, we have to know a bit more about the women he loved and the women who loved him in return.

Judy Collins

Collins discovered Leonard Cohen, sort of. She told CBC Music about the event in a 2013 interview.

“When I met Leonard, in 1966, he came to my house and was sent to me by one of our mutual friends who said, ‘This guy has just written some songs and he wants you to tell him whether you think they’re songs and whether there’s any point in sending them around to various singers, and he’d like to start with you.’ When he came to see me, he sang a few songs to me and of course I started recording him right away, and actually launched his career.”

She also wrote about their close relationship in her book, Judy Blue Eyes — My Life in Music: “I remember being in bed with a man I did not know who was coming down from an acid  trip and wanted me to ‘comfort him,’ no sex involved. Leonard sat in the room with us, singing ‘The Stranger Song’ softly  to himself, not paying any attention at all to what was happening on the bed. The Chelsea Hotel indeed! I trusted Leonard completely in very intimate situations and although we never had an intimate exchange of that kind ourselves, he was a constant ally I could take into battle with no fear of betrayal.”

Joni Mitchell

The longtime friends and one-time lovers go back ages. These photos of them are lovely and allegedly represent the first time they met, backstage at a Judy Collins workshop at the Newport Folk Fest in 1967.

According to Cohencentric, Cohen, who was nine years older than Mitchell, spent a month living at her Laurel Canyon home when Hollywood wanted him to score a movie based on his song “Suzanne.” The movie never happened.

Mitchell also told Malka Maron in the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, that Mitchell wrote “Rainy Night House” for Cohen as a farewell when their relationship ended.

“I went one time to his home and I fell asleep in his old room and he sat up and watched me sleep. He sat up all the night and he watched me to see who in the world I could be.”

“A Case of You” may also be about Cohen, but there’s an equal chance it’s about James Taylor.

And after years of her constantly being told that Cohen was “obviously” an influence on her own songs (but never that Mitchell could have possibly been an influence on Cohen), Mitchell said this in a 2001 Border Crossings interview: “I met him when I was around 24, around the time of my first record. But thematically I wanted to be broader than he was. In many ways Leonard was a boudoir poet.”

Janis Joplin

“Chelsea Hotel #2”

“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
You were talking so brave and so sweet.
Giving me head on the unmade bed,
While the limousines wait in the street.”

Leonard Cohen

“I named Janis Joplin in that song,” Cohen told BBC Radio 1 in 1994. “I don't know when it started, but I connected her name with the song, and I've been feeling very bad about that ever since. It's an indiscretion for which I'm very sorry. And if there is some way of apologizing to a ghost, I want to apologize now for having committed that indiscretion.”

"I was saddened by her death,” Cohen told Sounds in 1976. “Not because someone dies — that in itself isn't terrible. But I liked her work so much; she was that good that you feel the body of work she left behind is just too brief….There are certain kinds of artists that blaze in a very bright light for a very brief time: the Rimbauds, the Shelleys, Tim Buckley — people like that; and Janis was one of them.”

Marianne Ihlen

Cohen’s one-time partner, and the famed subject of his beloved song “So Long Marianne,” Marianne Ihlen died earlier this year on July 29 at the age of 81. Though she and Cohen parted ways in the ’60s, she asked her close friend, documentarian Jan Christian Mollestad, to notify Cohen of her impending death from leukemia. Cohen wrote back quickly, and the story went viral. This is an excerpt from Mollestad’s interview on CBC’s As It Happens.

Rosemary Barton: I know you don't have the letter in front of you, but can you remember part of it?

Mollestad: It said, “Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road…” When I read the lines "stretch out your hand," she stretched out her hand. Only two days later she lost consciousness and slipped into death. I wrote a letter back to Leonard saying in her final moments I hummed "A Bird on a Wire" because that was the song she felt closest to. And then I kissed her on the head and left the room, and said "so long, Marianne."

In 2005, Ihlen agreed to be interviewed about her relationship with Cohen. When asked what he looked like then, she replied, “Oh, he was beautiful! Haven't you seen pictures of Leonard when he was young? Oh yes, you have. He was marvellous. Neither did he think that he looked like much. We both had problems. You have no idea. We often stood in front of the mirror before going out and wondered who we were today and stuff like that. Oh God, how strange we human beings are.”

She detailed the humble and sweet beginnings of their courtship in Hydra.

“I wasn't exactly pampered in being used to meeting a man who behaved the way he did. I have to say that. He in fact reminded me very much of grandma. Her energy, her enormous presence. You could really trust in him. It was like ... is it really possible to be so fond of me as he says he is? You know?! I can impossibly be all that much. He then drove me all the way home to Norway in this car. That was when I understood this was something more than friendship. But at that point I was knocked out. I was very ... that's when reactions set in. One after the other. But when he went back to Montreal it didn't take long before I received a telegram: ‘Have house, all I need is my woman and her son. Love Leonard.’ That's how it was.”

She also spoke beautifully of it in retrospect.

“This relationship was a gift to me. And a gift for Leonard, I might also add, not to underestimate myself completely. And that's what it was. However, I think it has been sort of an opener for the rest of life for us both, for better or worse.”

Nico

Cohen called her the “perfect Aryan ice queen,” and quickly became besotted with Nico, singer and Velvet Underground guest vocalist, following her all over New York. Cohen said, “Nico eventually told me, ‘Look, I like young boys. You’re just too old for me.’”

"I loved Nico,” he told Ram in 1990. “I was only peripherally involved with the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground scene, it was really Nico I was in love with. Through her I met Lou Reed who, when he admitted he had always liked my writing, I was surprised to find he had read me. And I met John Cale."

Suzanne Verdal (or, Suzanne #1)

"The song 'Suzanne' is journalism," Cohen says in the book Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. "It's completely accurate." Asked whether there were tea and oranges involved, Cohen laughed. "Well, the tea actually had little pieces of orange peel in it. But 'tea and oranges' sounds better, doesn't it? She lived near the water in Montreal. And she did used to 'take you down to her place near the river'. You could 'hear the boats go by' and you could 'spend the night beside her.' All those things … and I touched her perfect body with my mind. Mostly because she was married to a friend of mine and I couldn't touch her with anything else!"

Suzanne Elrod (or, Suzanne #2)

In 1969, a 35-year-old Cohen met 24-year-old Suzanne Elrod. They had two children together, Adam and Lorca, before separating in the mid-’70s.

According to Sylvie Simmons’s Cohen biography, I’m Your Man, Elrod met Cohen at a Scientology class, the same year he met Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who would become his Zen master.

But an excerpt from a People magazine profile in 1980 offers a different version of their origin story, and follows it all the way through to their breakup.

In 1968 in Manhattan, Cohen met 19-year-old Suzanne Elrod in an elevator. “He was going in, I was going out,” Suzanne remembers. He about-faced, and soon Elrod moved into his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. For both, it was a time of change. They left the world of coffee houses behind and Cohen kicked his amphetamine habit, living for a time in Montreal with his mother. “She was his most dreamy spiritual influence,” says Suzanne. “The only thing that bothered me was that she always called me Marianne.” Then the couple moved to a cabin in the Tennessee backwoods. Says Suzanne, “We admired the wild peacocks, listened to the stream in the morning, watched the sunset in the evening. I was devoted to him. As long as someone like him was in the universe, it was OK for me to be here. I was walking on tiptoe — anything for the poet. Our relationship was like a spider web. Very complicated.”

It was an on-again/off-again arrangement as the couple moved back and forth between Montreal and Hydra. Leonard described it in a 1973 lyric, a year after their first child, Adam, now seven, was born: “I tried to leave you, I don’t deny. / I closed the book on us at least a hundred times.”

When Leonard wrote and composed, which was most of the time he was home, Suzanne was writing, too, in her journal (“describing what a bad chap I am,” says Leonard). She also started a pornographic novel. “I wrote it to make us laugh,” she remembers. In 1974 they had a daughter, Lorca, now five (named for Federico García Lorca, the martyred Spanish poet-playwright). Though Cohen had given Suzanne a filigreed Jewish wedding ring, the union had never been formalized. The relationship became strained and about the time his mother died, in 1978, they separated. Suzanne took the children to live near Avignon, France. “I believed in him,” she says. “He had moved people in the right direction, toward gentleness. But then I became very alone — the proof of the poetry just wasn’t there.” Suzanne claims he is not living up to a child-support agreement he signed when they broke up. For his part, Cohen complains about Florida-bred Suzanne’s “Miami consumer habits. My only luxuries are airplane tickets to go anywhere at any time. All I need is a table, chair and bed.”

Sharon Robinson

Robinson was a back-up dancer for actress/singer Ann-Margaret and was recruited by Jennifer Warnes as a back-up singer for Cohen in 1979. They were never romantic partners, but musical collaborators and great friends. Robinson co-wrote and produced Cohen’s hit “Everybody Knows,” among many other songs and albums. In fact, they were so close that Cohen was godfather to her son.

This is from a profile on Robinson from the Financial Times in 2013, in which she talks about working with Cohen, who told the interviewer that their collaboration prospered because of “the rare privilege of a deep friendship with a musician, singer and composer of the highest rank.”

“I go to his house, we sit in the kitchen and chat, and have something to drink or eat.” Work begins with a verse or two that Cohen presents her with, on paper. Robinson reads it, they talk about melodic possibilities. Rarely, if ever, do they talk about the meaning of the words. “We both feel that the song should be self-explanatory,” Robinson says, before correcting herself. “I can’t speak for him of course.” This desire not to cross a line, to respect Cohen as an artist, is an endearing constant during our conversation. It feels protective.

Robinson takes a poem home and studies it. “I try not to ask Leonard, ‘What does this mean? What’s this about?’ We don’t really go there.” Does she try to work out meanings for him, or for her? “Probably both, and hopefully those are the same, or somewhat the same.” It’s the multitude of meanings, we agree, that gives the songs their broad resonance.

There were other women, too, of course, though few occupied the rarified space that Robinson held: that of peer. Cohen was a man of so many appetites — erotic, romantic, spiritual — but he was also, always, steering into an escape. In 2005, he told a Norwegian radio interviewer, “I never thought that I was very good at it [love], you know. I had a great appetite for the company of women, and for the sexual expression of friendship, of communication. That seemed to be the obvious and simple and complicated version of the attraction between men and women that I came up with. I wasn’t very good at the things that a woman wanted, which I don’t know if many men are [laughter].”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

Explore more:

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The many sides of Leonard Cohen: in his own words

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