Montreal today


By T.F. Rigelhof

"And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look"

Songs of Leonard Cohen

Leonard's Boyhood Home

Leonard's boyhood home at
599 Belmont Avenue,
and a view from his window
The photographs were taken
by Rob Robillard.

The following excerpt is from
T.F. Rigelhof's book
This Is Our Writing.
Mr. Rigelhof is currently an instructor
at Dawson College in Montreal.
Read more articles by Mr. Rigelhof:
The Favourite Game and Rigelhof on Cohen.
Also visit T.F.Rigelhof's website
to read more of his work.

In the autumn of 1998, I was invited to speak about the writers of Montreal to a group of teachers of English visiting from Denmark. I started my talk by reciting this:

Suzanne takes you down
to her place near the river
you can hear the boats go by
you can spend the night beside her

For the generation that included most of those teachers and myself, Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" is likely the best-known of all Montrealers in Canadian literature. Since some people wrongly assume that the Suzanne of this song is Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen's children, I told the visiting Danes that the Suzanne of the song is actually Suzanne Verdal, a dancer who was married to the Montreal sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. She was never Cohen's lover, he insists. And she confirms that it was her choice -- not his -- that they were never lovers in an interview she gave the BBC. I also told them that the tea Suzanne Verdal served him along with the oranges was Bigelow's Constant Comment but I couldn't tell them in which building in Old Montreal they'd be able to find her original place by the river: There are several people in diverse buildings who all claim to be living there now, variously gripped by private mythologies I wouldn't want to visit. But knowing that these touring teachers did want to go to Old Montreal, I gave them some general indicators of possible addresses and precise directions to the seventeenth century La Chapelle de Bonsecours, the sailor's church just a little east of the Bonsecours market, where they'd see the source for Cohen's images of Jesus as a sailor. After I told them how to get to Place d'Armes by Metro, I read them this passage from Ray Smith's Century:

In a Metro station on a warm Friday evening in springtime. The girls, the young women, are going dancing. Some are with boyfriends, some with other girls. They wear clothes in many different styles: neat, dressy, sloppy, weird, colorful, drab, tight, baggy, modest, revealing. (This is the season of punk and preppy, very eclectic; I think the kids are ahead of the designers for once.) The miniskirt is back, along with lots of bright colors like turquoise, red, pink and mauve; hair styles are wild and dramatic; jewelry is big and bright.

The girls are chattering and laughing, their voices singing out in the echoing halls, whispering, while their eyes revolve and wheel, squint and grow large. What are they talking about?

Boys? Boys as suave as Leonard Cohen? They wish! It still surprises me each year that so many of the dancing girls of Montreal who attend Dawson College on the cusp of womanhood still find the shaven-headed, monkish Leonard Cohen, the oldest folk singer in captivity, so inordinately attractive. Not many of them know that Leonard Cohen is not only a singer whose bootleg concert tapes are much prized but also is a fabulous novelist and ferociously funny about the sort of boy he was, the very sort of boy most of these girls in their springtime clothes look at askance when his distant cousins come near them -- Jewish boys who are too short and too sexually aggressive. Leonard Cohen's novel The Favourite Game has wonderful descriptions of adolescence in Montreal that still resonate through later seasons of punk and preppy, seasons of post-punk and post-preppy, and the current season of neo-punk and homeboy Hilfiger neo- prep, eclectic techno and Goth. I told the Danish teachers that Leonard Cohen grew up in the neighbourhood of Dawson College and that if they walked west of Dawson along Sherbrooke Street to Clarke Avenue, they'd see a road leading up the mountainside, Cote Saint Antoine, that follows a settler's trail that follows a more ancient native footpath. Following it, they'd soon come to Shaar Hashomyin synagogue in which Leonard Cohen had his bar mitzvah. Five minutes further along, they'd come to the rolling slopes of King George VI Park, which most locals still call "Murray Hill". It's fourteen acres and somewhere buried beneath it are fresh water wells sacred to the original inhabitants of the island and some of their graves, untouched by archeologists . The only excavations that take place in this park are in the sandboxes of the children's playground. If they walked into the park and climbed up to the tennis courts, I told them that they'd notice some houses backing on to the west side of the park. The first in the row (599 Belmont Avenue if they went around front to make certain they'd got the right one) is the house in which Leonard Cohen grew up and in which his sister lived until recently. It's also the house occupied by Lawrence Breavman, the protagonist of The Favourite Game. Breavman (like Cohen) is fascinated by hypnotism. Whenever I'm near those tennis courts, watching amateurs will their wrists to straightness while fighting fantasies of Wimbledon glory, I remember this scene from the novel: Breavman, in early adolescence, is nearly a head shorter than most of his friends. There's a party. He increases his height with the same technique Muffin, the girl of his dreams, is said to increase her bust: He stuffs his shoes with Kleenex. He dances well for half an hour then the wadded paper in his shoes throws him off-balance and obliges him to hold Muffin tighter and tighter. It gets a bit passionate. As they walk home, he tells her about his Kleenexes and asks her about hers. She runs away:

He detoured to the park and raced over the damp ground until the view stopped him. He set down his shoes like neat lieutenants beside his feet.

He looked in awe at the expanse of night-green foliage, the austere lights of the city, the dull gleam of the St. Lawrence.

A city was a great achievement, bridges were fine things to build. But the street, harbours, spikes of stone were ultimately lost in the wider cradle of mountain and sky.

It ran a chill through his spine to be involved in the mysterious mechanism of city and black hills.

Father, I'm ignorant.

He would master the rules and techniques of the city, why the one-way streets were chosen, how the stock -market worked, what notaries did.

It wasn't a hellish Bunny Hop if you knew the true name of things. He would study leaves and bark, and visit stone quarries as his father had done.

Good-bye world of Kleenex.

He gathered his shoes, walked into the bushes, climbed the fence which separated his house from the park.

Black lines, like an ink drawing of a storm, plunged out of the sky to help him over, he could have sworn. The house he entered was important as a museum.

That expanse of foliage, those lights of the city, the gleam of the St. Lawrence that one sees from the spot where Lawrence Breavman stood are special to me, night and day, every season of the year and I was pleased to hear later from the Danish teachers that a trio of them had taken the walk to where Leonard Cohen once lived. They asked me if I'd ever seen Leonard Cohen on the streets of Westmount. I said I had. Once and only once. He was standing outside a fruit and vegetable store looking for all the world like a man who can't quite decide if he wants to continue looking super cool or really needs to eat a banana.

From the downtown core of Montreal, you can get to Westmount's Cote St. Antoine by following Sherbrooke Street West to just a little past Greene Avenue. The 24 Autobus Ouest will drop you right where you want to begin your walk. Or take the Metro to Atwater and walk up to Sherbrooke and west six or seven blocks. Bigelow's Constant Comment tea is available at most food stores in the Montreal region.

© 2000 by T.F. Rigelhof. Reprinted with permission.

Many thanks to T.F. Rigelhof for the story,
and Marie Mazur, the host of the beautiful Cohen site
Speaking Cohen for her help in editing it.
The photos of Leonard's home were taken by our
late friend Rob Robillard, who died in 1999.

Read what the current owners of the house say: connect to McGill Reporter (January 10, 2002 issue). We quote from the report:

Registrar Robin Geller and her husband bought that very house in 1996 and moved in the next spring. They had been looking for property in the Westmount area for some time, and were delighted when, Geller says, "an acquaintance said he knew of a house that would be up for sale privately." And, oh, by the way, Leonard Cohen owns it.

Cohen co-owned the house with his sister. "Neither had lived in it full-time, for some time." The home was sold with about two-thirds of its contents.

Not only did Geller gain a new dining room set but also the family's bedroom furniture. "My oldest son is sleeping in Leonard Cohen's bed."

Do Cohenheads show up at her door, asking to be in Lenny's room of teenage angst? Do swooning women peer in her windows, hoping to glimpse the table at which their god munched bagels?

"Not a ton, for which we have been grateful," Geller says. But there were a few eager groups in 2000 when McGill hosted a conference on Cohen. People lurked on their front lawn, and Geller's husband invited them in. "They came in and walked around and were very very happy."

The Cohens also left behind memorabilia. Tennis racquet, baseball glove, a guitar, even a platinum album.

"The guitar's pretty cool, I have to say." Geller thinks this was his first. She also likes the sporting stuff. "It's fun to think he was once a kid living in that house, doing kid-like things."