Leonard Cohen's Bohemian College Years, Lit Major and First Concert Above a Montreal Deli in 1953 (Guest Column)
Arlene Abramovitch, mother of THR senior writer Seth Abramovitch, was a freshman at McGill University when she met a charismatic young poet on campus: "Before beatniks, hippies and hipsters, we fancied ourselves bohemians."
I shared a lot with Leonard Cohen.
We were born a few days apart in 1934. Our fathers were part of the thriving men's clothing manufacturing scene in Montreal. (His signature look harkens back to our fathers’ usual garb, a well-tailored suit.)
My close friend was his girlfriend — although that distinction went to many women thereafter. We were both raised in a community of English-speaking Jews, confident in our place long before the rise of nationalism amongst the French majority.
We crossed paths at McGill University, starting as freshmen at the same time, and both majoring in literature. Leonard streamed into poetry, making a name for himself on campus. His hero was the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca.
Before beatniks, hippies and hipsters, we fancied ourselves bohemians and hung out in coffee houses on Stanley Street like PamPams — which was actually a Hungarian restaurant. I went there a lot and so did he.
One night, around 1953, our mutual friend invited me to hear Leonard perform upstairs from Dunn’s Delicatessen (a smoked meat joint). I expected him to recite his poems, but, seated on a stool, he soulfully sang them while strumming a guitar. It was magical.
Leonard came to perform at Place des Arts, Montreal’s symphonic hall, a few years ago. I was lucky to get one of the last tickets. He gave of himself completely for three hours, and the diverse audience was rapturous.
His first well-known song was "Suzanne," written about a friend of his who lived on the St. Lawrence River waterfront with her daughter. He'd visit her at home, this little place with crooked floors and a poetic view of the river, and bring her tea and mandarin oranges.
I have so many favorite songs. "Dance Me to the End of Love." "Closing Time." "Famous Blue Raincoat."
Montreal is waiting for his final return home where he will be buried alongside his family.
Arlene Abramovitch is an 82-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four. She worked as a psychiatric social worker for 45 years. She lives in Montreal.