How a Hampstead landlady ensured Leonard Cohen became a novelist

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen - Credit: submitted

Leonard Cohen’s 60-year career has brought him countless accolades for prose, poetry, music and film, but had it not been for a Hampstead landlady, his first book might never have been written.

When Cohen, aged 25, arrived in London from Montreal in late 1959, all he had to his name was a modest writing grant from the Canada Council, a suitcase and the address of a boarding house run by Stella Pullman.

Cohen remembers her as a salt-of-the-earth type who, on hearing he had come to London to write, offered him a cot in the living room and a hot water bottle to fight the winter chill. He could stay in the only available space on the condition that he brought in the coal, lit the fire and delivered three pages of his novel every day. He did all three, dutifully.

In I’m Your Man – the Life of Leonard Cohen, Nancy Bacal, a fellow Canadian who also stayed at the Gayton Road boarding house, recalls: ‘She was very supportive. Leonard still credits her with being responsible for him finishing the book because she gave him a deadline, which made it happen, ‘Everybody has a book in them’, she’d say, ‘so get on with it. I don’t want you just hanging around.’’

I’m Your Man author Sylvie Simmons believes Cohen was very comfortable there because of the absence of artifice, and because he and Stella got along famously.

The young Canadian kept to his part of the agreement and wrote the required three pages each day, completing his first draft by March 1960, three months after his arrival, tapping away at night on a green Olivetti typewriter after closing time at the King William IV. The typewriter he purchased on his first day in rainy London…alongside a famous blue Burberry raincoat which was later celebrated in song.

There was one other condition attached to Cohen’s Hampstead tenure. Mrs Pullman worked at an Irish dentist in the East End, taking the tube there every day, and once a year everyone who lived in the house had to ‘schlep down there to have their fillings done’.

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Back when London was shrouded in toxic smog, Hampstead’s lofty perch and its 800 acres of heathland drew consumptive poets and sensitive artists with its cleaner air.

Cohen, according to his biographer, also liked it because it ‘crawled with writers and thinkers’. He enjoyed living in a country with a rich literary tradition, and in a house just 10 minutes’ walk from where Keats wrote Ode To A Nightingale and penned love letters to Fanny Brawne.

Cohen never forgot his Hampstead days, nor Stella Pullman, who moved to Hydra in Greece on the singer’s recommendation after he himself had bought a house there. As recently as 2012 he name-checked her in an interview remembering that it was ‘under her fierce and compassionate surveillance that I wrote my first novel, The Favourite Game.’

Leonard Cohen performs at the 02 Arena on Sunday night.

I’m Your Man, the Life of Leonard Cohn, by Sylvie Simmons, is published by Vintage and is available in paperback at £9.99.