When he was "Lenny": My father remembers Leonard Cohen in his youth

On November 6, 2016, the world lost Leonard Cohen, a much-loved Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist. To honour his passing, my father, Herbert Samuels, shared with me his memories of going to summer camp with a young man whose magnetism, strength and storytelling abilities were sharply evident even at a young age.


I remember him as Lenny. We were campers together for a number of years at Wabi-Kon, near Temagami. Lenny was the undisputed leader of the cabin. It was not due to his forcing his way into the role. It was rather by the warmth and magnetism of his personality that made you want to follow him.

Not athletically inclined, he was physically quite strong. A lot of that strength came from force of will. At a relatively young age, he would swim the length of the pool [25 yards] underwater. Someone read that you could not hold your arms straight out perpendicular to your body more than a certain length of time. He took that as a challenge and proceeded to do it.

One summer, we became superheroes with towels tied around our neck as capes. Lenny’s idea was instead of saying “shazam”, like Captain Marvel, we say our names backwards. By his saying “Dranoel Nehoc” or in my case “Trebreh Sleumas”, we were transformed.

I remember he taught me how to comb my hair to achieve the same pompadour he had. Somehow, it didn’t attract the girls to me like the way they gravitated to Lenny.

He was a storyteller. One night, after lights were out, he spun a tale for what seemed like a half hour. He related how he was waiting for a bus during a heavy Montréal snowstorm. He described the scene, the street name, and bus number in full detail. A passing motorist offered him a ride home. But first had to stop at the driver’s first-floor apartment to pick something up. He invited Lenny to come with him out of the cold. His host momentarily left the room and returned holding a knife. He came at Lenny who evaded him, momentarily, and tried to escape through an open window. We were on tenterhooks. As Lenny was partially out, the man “ grabbed me by the leg. He started pulling my leg, pulling my leg, just like I’m pulling yours.”

Years later, I flew to New York with my brother and sister-in-law. While waiting for a cab, my sister-in-law said “Isn't that Leonard Cohen, standing over there alone? Why don’t you say hello.” Shyly, I went over and the four of us shared a pleasant relaxed taxi into Manhattan. On the way, Lenny said offhandedly that he often thought of me. Nonplussed, I asked why. He said one of his favorite past times, particularly when in a new place, was to go into a variety store, and leisurely poke around. He often felt he should buy something, and many times, it was a water pistol. I laughed. One summer, my parents visited and brought water pistols for the cabin. We had a short time playing with them before they were confiscated by our counselors.

That was Lenny. Gracious, friendly, down-to-earth and full of stories. Little would it have occurred to me that my boyhood friend of many summers would become the international superstar. Now that I look back, I’m not at all surprised.