1956 to 1958
Seeking religious ecstasy, he starts taking drugs, mainly hashish, acid and amphetamines. He later tells Zig Zag magazine, "I have used almost everything that I could ever get my hands on. I have taken them in every possible way. I think that drugs without a sacrament, without a ritual, without a really great understanding of their power are dangerous." Cohen is also prone to depression, as was his mother, and becomes increasingly withdrawn. He reads on an album called Six Montreal Poets, released in the U.S. by Folkway Records. He enrols in grad school at Columbia University in New York City, where he writes a term paper on his own collection of poetry; he is extremely critical. He meets beat poets in Greenwich Village such as Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but they find him too bourgeois. Feeling homesick, Cohen moves back to Montreal and starts working in his family's business, a decision mocked by Layton. He writes an unpublished novel, The Ballet of Lepers. In 1958, he starts reciting poetry in front of jazz ensembles, often at Dunn's Progressive Jazz Parlour, above Dunn's Steak House on Ste. Catherine Street.
Canadian publisher Jack McClelland signs Cohen based entirely on his confidence and style; McClelland had not yet read his poems. Cohen wants the book's cover design to appeal to "inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians, etc." Cohen gets a $2,000 Canada Council grant to write a novel. He finally quits the family business, upsetting his mother, and briefly works for the CBC before getting a passport and setting sail to see the world. He arrives in London in December. Friends of friends put him up on the condition that he clean his room and write three pages a day. He buys two key items: a typewriter that lasts him the next 26 years and a blue raincoat that becomes famous.
Cohen is entranced by the Greek island of Hydra, where there are no cars, plenty of donkeys, very little running water and not much electricity. He buys a house there for $1,500. The island is populated largely by an international array of writers and artists, many of them adulterous and drunk. He falls in love with Swedish model Marianne Ihlen, who moves into his home with her young son; they stay together for over six years. Cohen finds all of this to be an ideal creative environment. It's also very cheap; he survives on $1,000 a year. He returns to Montreal in November to apply for another Canada Council grant. To do so, he rents a limousine, gets high on the drive to Ottawa, and sings for the secretaries at the Canada Council office while chasing them in a wheelchair. The first draft of Cohen's first novel, The Favourite Game, is rejected by Jack McClelland; his editors found it "too tedious, not to say disgusting." Cohen himself describes it as "miserable," and "an important mess." It would not be published until 1963.
Telling his friends he is "wild for all kinds of violence," Cohen heads to Cuba just before the Bay of Pigs invasion, and spends most of his time drinking in Havana's underworld. One night a Canadian official rouses him at his hotel and demand that he come to the embassy; Cohen is disappointed that he's been summoned only because his mother is worried about him and pulled some strings to find out if he was still alive. He is later arrested by Cuban soldiers who suspect him of being American; after 90 minutes of interrogation, the non-Spanish-speaking Cohen convinces them of his good intentions and they all drink rum and sing songs together. Cohen writes to Jack McClelland to say that if he is killed in an air raid, it will be great publicity. When he tries to leave Cuba, he's mistaken for a Cuban trying to escape and is detained; during a distraction at the airport, he manages to sneak on to the plane. The poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is published, sells out its first printing in three months, and is nominated for a Governor General's Award.
1962 to 1964
Living on Hydra gets difficult as his mother and various friends come to visit and distract him while he struggles to sculpt The Favourite Game into shape for publication. He tells Irving Layton, "I've torn apart orchestras to arrive at my straight, melodic line." In early '64, Cohen tours Western Canada, performing with the Lenny Breau Trio in Winnipeg, and upsetting members of the audience in Vancouver for using salty language and, while on stage, inviting women back to his hotel room. The NFB makes a film called Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. His next novel, Beautiful Losers, is written on Hydra between 1964 and 1965 while hopped up on amphetamines and Ray Charles records; "more of a sunstroke than a book," he jokes.
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