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
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
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
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
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."