The Leonard Cohen You Don’t Know

A new exhibition, filled with notebooks, photos and intimate archival materials, unveils a yet-unseen side of the Canadian icon’s creative life.
Nichole Jankowski
Unknown photographer. Cohen on Hydra [at typewriter], 1960s. Gelatin silver print, 11.5 x 11.6 cm. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust

An artist’s true identity can be a slippery thing to pin down. Often, their mythology continues to evolve well past their death. Some even plan it that way. Such is the case for Leonard Cohen—iconic poet, singer-songwriter, and collector of muses and trilby hats—whose work continues to proliferate six years after his passing. “Hallelujah” is, of course, the song that launched a thousand covers. In October, there was the fiction collection A Ballet of Lepers, which features juvenilia written between 1956 and 1961 and covers many of Cohen’s known preoccupations: religion, death, depression, ecstasy and the beauty of women. 

This month, the Art Gallery of Ontario, or AGO, will launch Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, a sprawling exhibition displaying more than 200 artifacts: books from Cohen’s personal library, letters, home movies, musical instruments and drawings, a minute fraction of which has ever been seen publicly. Much of the material was retrieved from Los Angeles, where Cohen spent some of his final years, and is now in the care of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust. For a life already deeply excavated, the exhibition contains some surprises.

"These are things that, on the surface, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Cohen to be interested in. He was a poet and a romantic.”

One of Cohen’s most diligent biographers was himself, a fact that becomes clear when plumbing the detritus of his six-decade career. In life, Cohen bristled at the labels he was saddled with: the grocer of despair, the poet laureate of pessimism. “You get tired, over the years, hearing that you’re the champion of gloom,” he once told BBC Radio 2. The AGO’s show exposes a similar claustrophobia. Cohen wasn’t a cynical keeper of answers, but a seeker of them—many of his journeys were spiritual, and some literal. One of the exhibited photos captures Cohen’s 1973 pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Another shows him gazing inwardly, meditating in California’s San Gabriel Mountains.

Perhaps the exhibition’s most intriguing throughline is Cohen’s interest in humanity’s impulse toward violence. Notebook scrawlings reveal his fascination with guns. Correspondence with Cohen’s sister fleshes out his tour of the Sinai desert during the Yom Kippur War—also chronicled in Matti Friedman’s book, Who by Fire, released last April. “Cohen strangely took himself into these places because he was fascinated by this aspect of human nature: the conflict and the military machine,” explains Julian Cox, the AGO’s deputy director and the exhibition’s chief curator. “These are things that, on the surface, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Cohen to be interested in. He was a poet and a romantic.”

Michael Putland. Cohen smoking in chair, June 1, 1974. Gelatin silver print, 20.3 × 25.4 cm. Courtesy of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust. © Estate of Michael Putland

Military rigour spilled over into Cohen’s creative pursuits. For all his romanticism, he approached his art as work that needed to be done. Money was a factor, until it wasn’t. Cohen wrote every day, or close to it, and suffered from the rather modern affliction of compulsive documentation. Polaroids, sketches and self-portraits served as tools for self-examination. “He had an incredible knack for constructing and controlling the way that he was perceived,” Cox says. In fact, according to Robert Kory, trustee of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, Cohen considered his life’s true masterwork, of all things, to be his personal archive.

Aviva Layton, a long-time friend of Cohen’s who met him through the poet Irving Layton, her former partner, recalls Cohen’s myth management, in one case for financial reasons. “I remember a time when the University of Texas at Austin got a whole cache of letters between Irving and Leonard. They were all manufactured at our kitchen table on Somerled Avenue in Montreal,” she says. “I would age the letters by soaking them in tea.”

These pages feature a selection from Cohen’s treasure trove. With its release, his legacy is given over, once more, to analysis from a new generation of fans, scholars and journalists. Like Cohen, they’re living in a time of political polarization, chafing against labels and expertly crafting personal narratives for mass consumption. In 1988, Cohen sang, “I’m Your Man.” Decades on, we’re still curious about who, exactly, that was.

Leonard Cohen. Self Portrait [Photobooth], c.1980. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 20.5 × 5 cm. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.
In his personal archive, Cohen preserved a predictably huge number of notebooks, but also plenty of self-portraits—like this brooding photobooth strip from 1980. “Who knew that Leonard was going to be Leonard Cohen? He may have, because he kept everything!” says Aviva Layton, who regrets not safeguarding more keepsakes from their six-decade friendship. “There was a little something inside of Leonard that knew about his gift.”

Unknown Photographer. Cohen performing, 1972. Gelatin silver print. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.

Cohen, shown here in 1972, was already an established poet with a reputation for charisma when he transitioned into singing live in 1967 at an anti–Vietnam War benefit in New York. The move should have been seamless, but Cohen was so paralyzed by stage fright that he walked off stage just four lines into his hit song “Suzanne.” American folk singer Judy Collins consoled Cohen backstage and promised she’d join him for the remainder of the set. “By the time we finished, he was a convert,” Collins said in the 2019 documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. “A total convert to his own magical impression.”

Leonard Cohen. Max’s Kansas City, 1967. Note on menu, Overall: 16 × 11 cm. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.

Max’s Kansas City—located, counterintuitively, in Manhattan—was a restaurant and nightclub once frequented by the city’s creative elite: Cohen, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Nico, among others. Still a mystery is the true identity of “Joan,” the subject of a dalliance detailed in Cohen’s lovelorn scribbles on Max’s 1967 wine list. It’s rumoured that Cohen later wrote the songs “Take This Longing” and, tellingly, “Joan of Arc” about Nico. All that’s known of the menu muse is her diet of veal parmigiana and a singing gig at NYC club the Bitter End.

Unknown Photographer. Cohen at Mt. Baldy, California , November 5, 1995. instant print (Fuji FP-100C). Overall: 8.3 × 10.8 cm (3 1/4 × 4 1/4 in.) Courtesy of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust

After wrapping his “The Future” tour in 1993, Cohen, in need of some structure, moved to California’s Mount Baldy community to study Zen Buddhism under the Japanese Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Cohen spent six years in a tiny cabin 1,300 metres above sea level, equipped with little more than a coffee maker, a keyboard and his menorah. He became an ordained monk in the summer of 1996, less than a year after this photo was snapped. Cohen saw no conflict between his native Judaism and Buddhism, which he regarded as a discipline. He cooked, he meditated and he happily washed “his little dishes” (his words).

Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah Notebook, 1983-1984. Notebook, Overall: 23.5 × 19 cm. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust

Even pop’s poet laureate wasn’t above comparing notes with his contemporaries. After one of Cohen’s Paris concerts in the 1980s, Bob Dylan reportedly asked him how long it took to write “Hallelujah.” Cohen said two years. In reality, it took him five. A page from this 1983 notebook reveals his process—and one unsung verse. “He was a poet,” says Layton. “Of course he agonized.”

Leonard Cohen. One of those days (WaterColour Notebook), 1980-1985. Watercolour notebook, Overall: 21.1 × 32.5 cm. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust

Cohen was famous for his dapper attire, which stood out among his blue-jean-sporting beat-poet peers. But even he had days of insecurity. This ’80s-era portrait chronicles, as he writes, “one of those days where the hat doesn’t help.” Long-time friend Aviva Layton can still recall Cohen’s oddly formal outfit from their first encounter in Montreal. “I opened the front door,” she says, “and there was a plump Jewish boy, dressed in a tweed suit.”

Leonard Cohen. Still Life, 1976-1980. Ink/crayon, Overall: 22.1 × 30 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario. © Leonard Cohen Family Trust.

Cohen didn’t just write every single day. He also churned out endless sketches, like this late-’70s still life. Layton remembers dispatches flooding in haphazardly via an unlikely channel. “He’d call and say, ‘Field Commander Cohen here! Are you standing by your post to receive this fax?’ ” says Layton. Much of this correspondence, which arrived in black and white, ended up in the trash, she admits. And the rest? Mostly faded beyond recognition.

This article appears in print in the December 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.