Leonard Cohen was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Montreal, Canada. His religion weighed heavily on his childhood: one grandfather was a rabbi who authored a 700-page volume on the Talmud while the other was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His father, a successful garment purveyor, died when Leonard was only nine years old.
By age 20 Leonard Cohen was a published poet; while still an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal he won the Chester MacNaughton Prize for Creative Writing for a series of four poems titled "Thoughts of a Landsman." In 1956 his first complete book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published by his former teacher and mentor at McGill, Louis Dudek.
Cohen tried his hand at law school and spent a year in the School of General Studies at Columbia University in New York City, but he soon returned to Montreal to pursue his writing. Throughout the 1960s Cohen published various works, including the poetry collections Flowers for Hitler and The Spice-Box of Earth. His 1966 novel Beautiful Losers stirred up controversy over some sexually explicit passages, but the book has remained a perennial favorite of Canadian hipsters and bohemians.
In 1969 Leonard Cohen's collection Selected Poems 1956-1968 was chosen for the Governor General's Award for Literary Merit. Given annually to mark Canadian achievement in various academic, artistic and social fields, the award is usually seen as an honor among Canadians. But Cohen refused to accept the award; according to the newspaper The Globe and Mail, he asserted that "the world is a callous place and he would take no gift from it."
Seeking a bit of escape, Leonard Cohen disappeared to the Greek Island of Hydra in the early 1960s. Drawn in by the warm climate, beautiful surroundings and international community of writers and artists, he relocated to the island for most of the next eight years. Buying a house for a measly $1,500 - albeit with no running water or electricity - he moved in his lovely Swedish model girlfriend Marianne Ihlen and her young son and spent most of his days swimming, sailing and writing. He only returned to Canada once a year to apply for government grants or sell off a few poems to make the $1,000 he needed to cover his expenses in Hydra for the year.
Although he first picked up the guitar as a teenager and was only 17 when he started his first band, The Buckskin Boys, Leonard Cohen was 32 years old and already an established poet before he decided to plunge headlong into the music business. He proceeded undeterred, even when touting his new songs around NYC agents wondered: "Aren't you a little old for this game?" Thankfully his life as a struggling NYC artist was short lived—he was soon introduced to singer Judy Collins who became the first of many artists to cover Cohen's now-famous song "Suzanne
His work soon came to the attention of John Hammond at Columbia Records. Hammond, the man responsible for signing Bob Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen, lunched with Cohen and listened to him work through six or seven songs in a room at the Chelsea Hotel. Within a week Cohen was in a recording studio with Hammond working on his first record. As he began to sing, Hammond shouted "Watch out Dylan!" over the studio intercom.
In the mid-'90s Leonard Cohen recoiled from his careers in writing and music, retreating to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. He spent the next five years practicing Rinzai Zen meditation, often for weeks at a time, and became personal assistant to the center's founder and leader Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. In a 1998 interview at the Zen Center, he said of his experience there: "Leonard Cohen wouldn't exist without the Roshi. The Roshi accepts everything I bring him - my selfishness, my anger, my ambition, my sins."
Leonard Cohen has never been married - "too frightened" he has concluded in several interviews - but he fathered two children in the 1970s with Los Angeles artist Suzanna Elrod. His son Adam is a musician and frontman of the band Low Millions, while his daughter Lorca (named after one of Cohen's favorite writers Federico Garcia Lorca) has done work as a photographer and videographer for her father. In 2010 she gave birth to a daughter, Viva Katherine, with singer Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright announced that "proud parents Lorca Cohen, Rufus Wainwright, and [his partner] Deputy Dad Jorn Weisbrodt" would all be caring for the child (Rufus is gay).
In 1986, Leonard Cohen appeared in the "French Twist" episode of Miami Vice. He played laid back French Secret Service agent Francois Zolan.
Leonard Cohen writes very slowly due to his painful perfectionism, a trait that led him to originally write 80 verses for "Hallelujah
"My trouble is that before I can discard a verse I have to polish it first. It takes a long time," he said during a listening session for Old Ideas
. "I never feel like I've stopped working. It might look to the marketplace that nothing is happening but the workshop has never shut down."
Rufus Wainwright told Spinner about his famous father in law. "He's a family man and a fantastic grandfather," he said. "He plays keyboard with Viva, my daughter, all the time. He lives upstairs so he visits daily. I'm very fortunate to have him around, 'cause a lot of the time, I'm off working and making records and touring. He's been there for his daughter, Lorca, and me."
Leonard Cohen started smoking again at the age of 80 after a 30-year break. He stated: "I'm looking forward to that first smoke. I've been thinking about that for 30 years. It's one of the few consistent strings of thoughts I've been able to locate."
Cohen described his sexual appetite as "overpowering." After his 1993 tour, he took various antidepressants, including Prozac, which tamed this appetite. Cohen thought he had reigned in his desires through force of will, but later learned that loss of libido is a side effect of the drug.
Leonard Cohen's first novel The Favourite Game was published in 1963 when he was 29. The Favourite Game sold a couple of thousand copies but was hard to find in his native Canada.
His second novel Beautiful Losers was written three years later while Cohen living on a Greek island of Hydra. He had high hopes for Beautiful Losers, but the book sold so poorly that he decided a drastic change of career was called for. He decided to try his hand at songwriting.
"A lot had to do with poverty," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I was writing books - two novels and four volumes of poetry - and they were being very well received and that sort of thing, but I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill. I said, 'Like, it's really happening that I'm starving.'"
Jennifer Warnes came into his life in 1972, when she became one of his backing singers. By 1986, she was far more popular in America, and she used that notoriety to draw attention to his songs with Famous Blue Raincoat
, and album of Cohen covers that he worked on with her. The album led to a surge of interest in his songs, which many others began covering. He and Warnes remained close, but she didn't do a follow-up.
"There was a point at which we could have done Volume II and we could have formed an alliance that would have lasted a decade or two, artistically speaking, as well as personally, because I knew him since I was 20," she said in a Songfacts interview
. "The reason we made Famous Blue Raincoat
was to bring attention to his work, which had been ignored. So mission accomplished. He put out I'm Your Man
[in 1988], and then came I'm Your Fan
[1991 tribute album], and it started to roll of its own accord. So we felt year by year that we had accomplished what we meant to do, which was to shine a little flashlight on a corner that had been overlooked. And it worked.
He thanked me in the year before he passed. He said that was really important for him that we did that."