In Cohen's 1975 Greatest Hits album, the liner notes say: "I wrote this in 1966, Suzanne had a room on a waterfront sheet in the port of Montreal. Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate. Some months later, I sang it to Judy Collins over the telephone. The publishing rights pilfered in New York City but it is probably appropriate that I don't own this song. Just the other day I heard some people singing it on a ship in the Caspian Sea."
In a 1994 BBC Radio Interview Cohen said: "The song was begun, and the chord pattern was developed, before a woman's name entered the song. And I knew it was a song about Montreal, it seemed to come out of that landscape that I loved very much in Montreal, which was the harbour, and the waterfront, and the sailors' church there, called Notre Dame de Bon Secour, which stood out over the river, and I knew that there're ships going by, I knew that there was a harbour, I knew that there was Our Lady of the Harbour, which was the virgin on the church which stretched out her arms towards the seamen, and you can climb up to the tower and look out over the river, so the song came from that vision, from that view of the river. At a certain point, I bumped into Suzanne Vaillancourt, who was the wife of a friend of mine, they were a stunning couple around Montreal at the time, physically stunning, both of them, a handsome man and woman, everyone was in love with Suzanne Vaillancourt, and every woman was in love with Armand Vaillancourt. But there was no... well, there was thought, but there was no possibility, one would not allow oneself to think of toiling at the seduction of Armand Vaillancourt's wife. First of all he was a friend, and second of all as a couple they were inviolate, you just didn't intrude into that kind of shared glory that they manifested. I bumped into her one evening, and she invited me down to her place near the river. She had a loft, at a time when lofts were... the word wasn't used. She had a space in a warehouse down there, and she invited me down, and I went with her, and she served me Constant Comment tea, which has little bits of oranges in it. And the boats were going by, and I touched her perfect body with my mind, because there was no other opportunity. There was no other way that you could touch her perfect body under those circumstances. So she provided the name in the song." (thanks, Shannon - Kathleen, GA, for above 2)
Judy Collins was the first to record this, releasing it on her 1966 album In My Life. Cohen released it on Songs Of Leonard Cohen, which was his first album, and many other artists have since recorded it, including Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Anni-Frid 'Frida' Lyngstad (in Swedish) and Pauline Julien (in French).
In 2006, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) found Suzanne Verdal, who inspired the song. She was a dancer and traveled around the world, but in the '90s, she hurt her back and was living in a homemade camper in Venice Beach when they found her. She revealed that Cohen lost touch with her by the time he recorded it, although she did meet him briefly after one of his concerts in the '70s, where he commented that she gave him a beautiful song. Responding to Cohen's quote, "It's not just the copulation. It is the whole understanding that we are irresistibly attracted to one another, and we have to deal with this. We are irresistibly lonely for each other, and we have to deal with this, and we have to deal with our bodies and with our hearts and souls and minds, and it's an urgent appetite," Verdal said, "I was the one that put the boundaries on that because Leonard is actually a very sexual man and very attractive and very charismatic. And I was very attracted to him, but somehow I didn't want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him, for our relationship, and I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow. That precious relationship produced a great piece of art." (thanks, Rory - Davis, CA)
Suzanne Verdal said in The Guardian, December 13, 2008: "Leonard was a friend of my husband, Armand. We were all hanging at the same places in Montreal - Le Bistro, Le Vieux Moulin, which was the place to dance to jazz. Black turtle-neck sweaters, smoke, beatniks and poets - it was that bohemian atmosphere in the 60s. Leonard spent hours at the Bistro. He was quite a bit older than me but he saw me emerging as a schoolgirl, working three jobs to subsidize my dance classes.
By 1965 I had separated from Armand and was living with our little girl. Leonard would come over and I would serve him jasmine tea with mandarin oranges, and light a candle. It sounds like a seance, but obviously Leonard retained those images, too. I was living in a crooked house, so old with mahogany and stained glass. I loved the smell of the river and the freight trains and boats. Out of my window was total romance. Leonard was a mentor to me. We would walk together and we didn't even have to talk. The sound of his boots and my heels was weird, like synchronicity in our footsteps. He felt it, I felt it and we got such a rush just grinning at each other.
We were never lovers of the flesh but on a very deep level we were. I had the opportunity more than once but I respected his work and what he stood for so much, I didn't want to spoil it. Also, Leonard is an incredibly sexual man! He's very attractive to women and I didn't want to be just one of the crowd.
I left Montreal for the States in '68 and when I came back people said, 'Have you heard the song Leonard's written about you?' In my wildest dreams I didn't know it would be huge. I felt flattered, but I also felt there was an invasion of privacy. After that, things changed course. I stayed true to the 60s. He became this big pop icon and was not accessible any more. It hurt. The song is bittersweet for me. Sometimes I'll be in a restaurant and hear it and I'll be overcome."
Ever wonder why Suzanne feeds him tea and oranges? It's not as exotic as it sounds. Said Cohen in Song Talk: "She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image."
Judy Collins recalled to Uncut
in 2014 how she came to record this song by a then-unknown Leonard Cohen: "(Cohen's manager) Mary Martin was an old Canadian friend of mine who was always mentioning Leonard and his books. And one day in 1966 she said, 'What if I sent Leonard over to see you? Because he's written some songs.'"
"The first night came to my apartment, he was charming, shy. I don't think he knew what he was doing, and he never sang a note. He said, 'oh, I'm embarrassed too...'"
"He came back the next afternoon and sang me 'Suzanne,' 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' and 'The Stranger Song
.' and the next day he came back and sang 'Suzanne' again and I recorded it shortly thereafter. There was no question immediately that it was a classic. There's a spiritual center to it that's authentic. The authenticity is what really grabbed me."