Updated: Jan 20, 2021
On the quest to explain the enduring appeal of a song that has kept fans obsessively listening and debating since its 1971 release, I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU: A Deep Map of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a sleuthing expedition into the mystery of the cryptic ballad about love and betrayal.
(The first section of I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU, entitled "The Writer," offers several thumbnail bio sketches of Leonard Cohen pinned to different lines of "Famous Blue Raincoat," scanning one period of the writer's life for possible clues to the meaning of the song. )
My Brother, My Killer
“I’m still sort of a friend,
I’m still sort of a lover.
But not for long.
The fact is I’m turning to gold, turning to gold.”
-“The Cuckold’s Song,” Leonard Cohen
“She took his much admired oriental frame of mind
And the heart of darkness alibi his money hides behind
She took his blonde madonna and his missionary wine
‘This mental space is occupied, and everything is mine.’”
-“Death of a Ladies’ Man”, L. Cohen
The Elder had clad himself in intimidating armor: steel-blue double-breasted suit, his best, from Gieves and Hawkes, 1 Savile Row. Custom shirt from Alan David, they’d sent the tailor up to his suite at the Plaza, the white silk glowed like moonlight in the box and almost poured from his hands when he lifted it out. And from J. Press – he wasn’t a Yalie, he was a Brandeis man, but he admired the label – an Irish poplin foulard regimental tie, saffron yellow, the color of pollen, male fertilizing dust. The color of gold.
Did a knight ever abandon the field just at the sight of his opponent? Could it happen tonight?
Suzi had wanted to hold the dinner at Trader Vic’s, the tiki bar in the basement, she loved the Mandarin Kau Kau and the Mai Tais, which they claimed to have invented. He remembered the kitschy joint from when it opened at the Savoy Plaza across the street, she would have been, what – eight? Best not to think about that. Well, Suzi: any shiny object. She could probably walk the two blocks to Tiffany’s blindfolded. Whatever made her happy, but not tonight. He wanted to meet her new lover, the young poet, on a ground that favored him.
“It will be much more respectful to invite your friend to join us at our table in the Edwardian Room,” he’d told her, “However this unfolds, let’s do it with class.”
“Absolutely,” she’d said, placing her hand, adorned with the two-carat sapphire ring he’d given her for her nineteenth birthday, on his forearm, “I think you’ll find Leonard to be a very classy man. Like you.”
“Leonard Cohen.” Jewish, like himself. Like Suzanne, which worried him. If this had been just a goy boy toy, he wouldn’t have been concerned, nor would he have wasted time and money arranging a dinner for the three of them. When Suzanne had told him she was seriously considering leaving him for this poet-singer, the Elder had sent Raymond, his chauffeur, over to Rizzoli’s to find his books. Raymond had returned with a couple of novels, one a coming-of-age thing that wasn’t half bad, the other a near-unreadable mess stuffed with kinky sex, mystical mumbo-jumbo, and Quebec separatist politics. He’d also brought back a book of poetry, Viking Press, Selected Poems 1956-1968, which Raymond reported had been stacked high on a front table. All right, he was having his moment, but the guy wasn’t Rod McKuen – his pap was hogwash, but it sold like ice cream in a heat wave. Most poetry didn’t. The Elder had started painting scenarios in his head to lay out for his girl of what life in grinding poverty would be like, especially in New York City: Suzi prized her creature comforts. Then Raymond came back from King Karol with the record albums.
It had taken the Plaza staff a while to scrounge up a portable phonograph, but they’d finally arrived with a Dansette Major that a younger guest had left behind. Raymond had stacked the two LP’s on the spindle and left the Elder alone in the second bedroom with Leonard Cohen and his music. Less than 90 minutes later, he’d emerged, deeply troubled.
This Cohen couldn’t sing, but it didn’t seem to matter. A Billboard magazine from the news kiosk on the corner revealed that his first album was listed at #83 of the top 200 best-selling records in the U.S. A friend in the know had told him that collective U.S. record sales in the past year had topped 1 billion dollars, so it looked like the younger man’s poverty would not be so grinding after all. Not wealth by the Elder’s definition by any means, but not penury.
Still, that was less unsettling than the songs themselves. They were not disposable pop candy, or working class plaints like the dust bowl dirges he’d avoided listening to in his youth. They were mostly mournful or melancholic, but compelling listening, reminiscent to him of klezmer, “the Jewish blues.”
Almost against his own will, two of the songs had gotten deeply under his skin. The first was the man’s own telling of the Abraham and Isaac story from the Torah, the Akedah, which the Elder heard every year on Rosh Hashanah, one of the few holy days he observed. He’d always found the story disturbing, but it had never driven him to outright sobbing: he was grateful that he was alone in the suite when the power of it simply overcame him. On one level, of course, it was an anti-Vietnam War ballad, he got that. But much more, so much more: fathers and sons, enemies and brothers-in-arms, faith and terror. Every detail was filled with import: the ax made of gold, Isaac running up the mountain to his fate with his very old father walking behind, the sight of a bird that might have been an eagle, the symbol of triumph, or a vulture, the agent of death. The two drinking wine together, the son not knowing that his father is giving himself courage for the task ahead. Abraham’s hand over the prostrate Isaac trembling “with the beauty of the word.” He would never say this before a rabbi, but to his mind the poet had actually improved on the Torah. Perhaps he would tell him that over dinner.
The other that gnawed his insides was “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” Ostensibly one of the lightest, a lilting love song, pretty melody, but everything about it was leave taking. When he played it over, he heard Suzi speaking the poet’s voice and he the Elder was the person being left: “Let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie.” But he did love her, and he didn’t want to lose her. “We know that we are not new”? He didn’t have all that much time left for anyone new. But his rival was more substantive than he’d assumed or hoped. In other circumstances, he might have liked to know him.
The Elder and his very young girlfriend walked into the dining room: the large windows let in crepuscular light, the cabs on Central Park South were just turning on their headlamps. Beyond he could see water plashing in the fountain in the Pulitzer Plaza. Normally he liked Suzanne to walk ahead of him as they made their way to their reserved table, so he and every other man in the room could appreciate the movement of her gorgeous chassis beneath her tight knit dress. But tonight he clasped her to him, the language of his hand and arm telling the room this was not his daughter, this was his lover, setting lights ablaze in the eyes of the soigne set. Suzi let him, she understood what was happening. “You know my love goes with you, as your love stays with me”… the damn song wouldn’t leave his head.
He sat facing the dining room entrance. Suzi sat to his right. The slim straw of his hope was that the poet would be overawed by the setting, seem shabby in context, commit some faux-pas over the silver laid damask that would cause his girl to reconsider what she was giving up. But any heart for that scenario had, frankly, been knocked out of him by his acquaintance with the man’s work, and through it his mind and heart. The other song, “Story of Isaac,” now rose up the back of his head: “When it all comes down to dust, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.”
They ordered their drinks. Suzi buried her head in the menu, no doubt to avoid talking.
They awaited the arrival of Leonard Cohen.
We don’t know that this scenario in fact took place. We know it was proposed by the much older, wealthy man Suzanne Elrod was living with at the Plaza Hotel when she met Leonard in the elevator at the New York City “Church of Scientology” in the spring of 1969. Cohen had started attending classes at the center some time the previous year, having heard it was a “good place to meet girls.” Elrod, an interior designer and artist from Miami, began an affair with Cohen shortly thereafter and as things progressed told her rich lover that she was leaving him. According to biographer Sylvie Simmons, the older man insisted that he would not let his mistress go unless the three of them sat down to dine together, where he could take the measure of the “poor poet”: he demanded the right to meet his usurper.
It’s likely that by the end of the meeting he would have been both disappointed and impressed. Because, if Cohen did agree to the triangular dinner, he would not have been at all cowed by the setting. He was a child of privilege, whose grandfather had founded the Canadian Jewish Congress and whose uncles were highly successful businessmen. When he lost his father at the age of 9, Nathan Cohen’s boy internalized the charge from his father’s brothers to accept his role as the man in the family, responsible now for his mother Masha and his sister Esther: Leonard was the eldest son of the eldest son. As David Remnick noted in The New Yorker in a profile published less than a month before the artist’s death, “There is something irresistible about Cohen’s charm.” Even by his thirties, his generosity and courtly gentility were renowned, but they were not merely inherited or instinctive, he had cultivated and mastered them as a means of seducing women and captivating men. We can assume that he ingratiated his older rival.
What’s more relevant to our reading of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is how the poet himself perceived the encounter. Let’s recall that in his previous triangles, Leonard had been either the noble knight, rescuing a wife and mother (Marianne) who had been abandoned by her husband, or the agonized older man who had to watch his passion (Nico) repeatedly taunt and cuckold him with more famous, younger, and more successful swains. In this triangle, Leonard had become what he had envied: a man whose artistic and sexual prowess were as strong an allure to the desired woman as an older man’s means and acumen. The only Jewish woman with whom Cohen would form a significant relationship, Elrod would leave the older man’s suite at the Plaza and move into Cohen’s room at the Chelsea. Over the ensuing eight years she would give him the joy of two children to whom he would remain close until his death, and the pain of a difficult partnership with a headstrong, materialistic twenty-something.
If this dinner did take place, Leonard himself might have been put under the pitiless focus of his poet’s eye. He could have seen and felt his rival’s hurt, and experienced remorse over being the cause of another person’s pain. Even if it only occurred in his imagination, he might have internalized a face-to-face lesson in the prizes and perils of infidelity. The Elder was not his friend, but he and Suzanne were nevertheless collaborating in the betrayal of a third person in the name of passion – not karmically the best start to a relationship.
In a few years, he would discover he had chosen the wrong partner. As Aviva Layton reports, “Boy, did he make sure he did ‘the wrong thing’ with Suzanne. She was absolutely ruthless.” The lyric excerpted at the start of this section says it all; a nameless “she” is quoted, “This mental space is occupied and everything is mine.” Even after Marianne was mugged on her own doorstep on the Lower East Side, she was never invited by Leonard to share his room at the Chelsea; “it’s not your scene”, he told her. Suzanne not only moved in there, she moved into his house in Montreal, his cabin outside Nashville, and in the early 70’s appeared with baby Adam on the doorstep of the house he had shared with Ihlen in Hydra and demanded to know when Marianne and Little Axel would be moving out. Elrod had put it together that Leonard Cohen in fact had been supporting two families for years.
By 1979, though they had never been formally married, Suzanne and Leonard would sign a legal divorce agreement. She should have seen it coming: by his own admission Cohen was “always leaving,” forever pulling the gypsy goodbye. Some part of him would remain perpetually elusive and secretive. In the Chelsea, still early in their relationship, Suzanne found a folded piece of paper in his passport, a sheet of motel stationery on which he had made his own directory for use on the road, listing various names with phone numbers, including Franco Zefferelli, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Warhol star Viva, and Marianne Ihlen.
And a woman listed only as “Jane”, address 41 West Street, New York City. Not near Clinton Street, on the other side of Manhattan.
Who was she? What did she mean to the writing of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” other than an appropriately long-voweled beat in a metrical foot?
We will probably never know.
© Kent Stephens, 2021, I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU (excerpt).
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