Leonard Cohen

Jack McClelland

I first met Leonard Cohen through the goodness of our mutual
friend Irving Layton. I think in many ways Layton was more than
a friend to Leonard, he was a spiritual mentor.
Leonard came to Toronto to my office with the manuscript of
what was to become The Spice Box of Earth. Although this was
many years ago now Leonard was certainly a very impressive
young man. At that time I would say that he had a certain aura of
shyness about him, as most great actors have; he was certainly
confident and self-possessed. There was something about him
that gave the impression that he had a promising future, and
that was without the support of such a well established poet as
Irving Layton. Although I never considered myself an expert or
authority on poetry I did break precedence in the case of Leonard
Cohen by accepting his first manuscript for publication on the
strength of a fast read of a few poems even though our usual
procedure involved turning over the manuscript to specialists for
review before any publishing decision was reached. That is some
indication of how impressive Leonard was as a relatively young
I published Spice Box in the next twelve months and it received
some very promising reviews and it sold well although in
relatively small quantities in relation to the Cohen market that
ultimately developed.
Leonard and I became acquainted and remained very good
friends throughout the years. We met regularly in Montreal,
Toronto and in New York and indeed I more than once visited
him at his retreat in the Greek islands.
As his career developed he became one of the great entertainers.
My daughters became increasingly interested in meeting
him and this was easily arranged. Leonard, for many years, has
made a practice of sending me tickets when he was performing
or going to perform in Toronto and we would meet him after
the performance. Quite normally Leonard and I would arrange
to have lunch during his visit to Toronto.
Nothing about the foregoing is unique or all that extraordinary
given the fact that I was a book publisher and Leonard was
to become one of the great singers and entertainers of all time. I
retained that relationship despite the fact that I was always honest
enough to tell him that although I thought he was a great
performer I thought he had a lousy voice. This was not an opinion
that my daughters shared.
There’s one unique thing about our author-publisher relationship.
Leonard did not like the formality of contracts. As a
consequence, although we would always send him a contract as a
matter of form, inevitably he would not sign and return them. I
chose to ignore this. I think over the many years that we published
his poetry and his fiction he signed only one contract.
With proper foresight on my part I would have realized that this
might have dire consequences with the publishing firm in the
future because without signed contracts Leonard, in fact, controlled
the rights to all his works completely. I’m delighted by
the fact that he still publishes with McClelland & Stewart, the
company that I sold a few years back and with whom I no longer
have any association.
I have been asked many times because of that Layton-Cohen-
McClelland connection, how I would compare the two of them
as poets. It’s not really a problem for me. Layton was THE poet,
probably the greatest Canada has ever known. Poetry was his life
and his full time dedication. He was, and is Canada’s great poet.
Having said that I would add I think Leonard Cohen could have
written a handful of poems that were better than any achieved by
the Master.

Text is taken from the book, “Take This Walz, A Celebration of Leonard Cohen.” Edited by Michael Fournier and Ken Norris, published by The Muses Company, Ste. Anne de Belleview, Quebec, 1994.