Book review: Must-read for Leonard Cohen lovers explores his early years

Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, by Michael Posner, Simon & Schuster, 482 pages

Anyone seriously interested in the life of Leonard Cohen, and his emergence as a world renowned, much loved poet-novelist and singer-songwriter should read this book.

As someone who has followed Cohen’s work for more than 60 years, I devoured, in less than three days, Michael Posner’s fascinating look at Cohen’s first 36 years. The reflections of his friends and relatives in those formative years bring the young Cohen, who died in November 2016, back to life.

The format makes it eminently readable, a travelogue told through a series of direct quotes from childhood pals, extended family members, school buddies, friends from summer camps, fellow poets, and lovers. They were with him in Westmount, at McGill University, and in the boho cafés of downtown Montreal.

They are an incredible cast of characters who befriended Cohen, in some cases for much of his life – writers and filmmakers, students, artists, and boulevardiers, academics, and a Supreme Court justice, in Montreal, the Greek island of Hydra, and in New York City. Some quotes are culled from the huge number of interviews Cohen gave to other media that serves to extend the contours of events in his life.

These are interspersed with Posner’s commentary and observations, inserted as bridges, filling out the interviews with historical and socio-cultural background. Posner’s writing reflects the clarity and poignancy of his life’s work as a journalist.

Here are a few observations from some of those who knew Cohen well:

Aviva Cantor Layton, writer and ex-wife of Cohen’s lifelong friend, poet Irving Layton, on Cohen’s mother, Masha: “Masha and Leonard? Love and hate. Not hate, but a very complex relationship. He knew that she was totally toxic and yet she was his mother. Masha had a terrible crush on Irving. She would have jumped into bed with Irving. And in fact, neither Leonard nor I is very sure that she didn’t…Leonard, like Irving, had a thing about his mother. All poets do. It’s a very visceral,
umbilical thing.”

Marilyn Regenstrief Schiff, friend at Camp Sunshine, a Jewish community camp in Sainte Marguerite du-Lac-Masson in the summer of 1950: “My boyfriend that summer was Alfie Magerman … Alfie spent a large part of his free time teaching Leonard how to hold the guitar play chords, fingering, timing…At that time Leonard could barely carry a tune. (Alfie) taught him songs from The People’s Songbook, songs Pete Seeger sang.”

David Solway, poet and friend: “Among the Jewish poets, the original prophet was A.M. Klein, and he passed the mantle, like Elijah to Elisha, to Irving Layton. And Irving in later years gave the mantle as a gift to Leonard.”

Michael Brecher, retired McGill University professor: “…He had no interest in political science and was a very poor student …one of the few students among thousands that I encountered who failed to pass my course. His talents clearly lay elsewhere.

Barrie Wexler, writer, producer, and friend: “Leonard was competitive with himself, but not with others. He had a very clear notion of his singular gift and the personage he had developed that went with it. He was entirely self-contained. He rarely left the place within himself
he operated out of – not when he was manic, not when he was drunk, not even when he was making love.”

Barrie Wexler on Cohen’s romance with Marianne: “Infidelity played a part, but the main cause of their demise was Cohen’s unwillingness to commit. That, and the role Hydra played. The island becomes an integral part of any union it gives birth to. It fools you into thinking you own the attraction you share, but it belongs to that rock in the Aegean. Love seeded on Hydro is, by definition, doomed.”

Posner concludes with a Dramatis Personae – thumbnail references to each of the people quoted and their relationship to Cohen, – and a final word of thanks to all who contributed their reflections and suggestions, especially to Cohen himself, “for the enormous, unmatchable blessing of his life and work.”

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