The poetic singer who explored love, death, and spiritual longing
Leonard Cohen 1934–2016
Leonard Cohen had many nicknames: the Godfather of Gloom, the High Priest of Pathos, the Poet Laureate of Pessimism. It’s easy to understand why so many critics regarded the poet turned singer-songwriter as a miserabilist. Armed with a mournful, gravelly monotone, he spent five decades singing about deep and often dark subjects—lust and betrayal, faith and philosophy, war and politics. Yet the broodingly handsome Canadian always leavened his lyrics with touches of warmth and optimism. “There is a crack, a crack in everything,” he sang in 1992’s “Anthem.” “That’s how the light gets in.” For a supposedly joyless fatalist, Cohen also possessed a sharp and self-aware sense of humor. “I don’t consider myself a pessimist,” he once said. “I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain—and I feel soaked to the skin.”
Cohen was born in Montreal to a prominent Jewish family who owned several clothing and manufacturing businesses in the city, said The Times (U.K.). Women “loomed large in his adolescent life,” and he learned to play guitar, he said, “to impress girls.” Cohen studied English literature at Montreal’s McGill University and in 1956, a year after graduating, published his first volume of poetry. Following brief spells in New York City and London, Cohen “traveled to Greece in 1960 and ended up buying a house on the island of Hydra,” said The Washington Post. There he met the married Norwegian woman, Marianne Ihlen, who inspired his songs “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” Many more women would play the role of muse; Janis Joplin, with whom he had a brief liaison, was the subject of 1974’s “Chelsea Hotel #2.”
While living on Hydra, Cohen wrote two novels, one of which, 1966’s Beautiful Losers, would later sell 3 million copies. But his “initial lack of commercial success was discouraging,” said The New York Times, and he returned to the U.S. to try to make a living as a songwriter. Within months, Cohen had placed two songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” on folksinger Judy Collins’ 1966 album In My Life. Collins encouraged him to perform, which he did despite extreme stage fright, and he secured a contract with Columbia Records. Cohen’s 1967 debut album “wasn’t a big seller, but it had a strong impact on a cult of fans and other musicians,” said the Los Angeles Times. Backed by simple, folk-rock arrangements, his verses were “economical, even austere, with a grace and resonance reminiscent of Scripture.” But his second LP failed to reach a wider audience, and by the mid-1970s Cohen was struggling with depression and drug abuse.
His fortunes began to shift with the release of 1984’s Various Positions, said Reuters.com. The album included his masterpiece, the haunting, celebratory “Hallelujah,” in which he invoked the biblical King David, “drew parallels between physical love and a desire for spiritual connection,” and even analyzed the song’s musical structure, singing of “the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall and the major lift.” The track, which took Cohen five frustrating years to write, has since been covered by at least 300 artists, including Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan, and K.D. Lang.
Cohen’s career revival continued with 1988’s I’m Your Man, in which he retooled his sound and employed synthesizers and drum machines, said The Wall Street Journal. Then in 1993 he withdrew from public life and joined a Zen Buddhist monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk in 1996. Cohen returned to the world three years later, only to discover that his business manager and former lover, Kelley Lynch, “had taken off with most of his savings.” Unable to recover the missing $5 million, in 2007 Cohen began touring again at age 73. “A remarkable period of fecundity ensued,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). After recording 11 studio albums in 45 years, Cohen released three between 2012 and 2016. His last album, You Want It Darker, felt like a swan song. “I’m leaving the table,” he sang on one track. “I’m out of the game.” In an interview with The New Yorker last month, Cohen, 82, said he was “ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
The actor who found fame with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Robert Vaughn 1932–2016
As the star of the smash 1960s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn attracted the kind of hysteria normally reserved for rock stars. “I made the mistake of strolling by the lingerie department of an L.A. store,” he recalled. “In a second I was running for my life, pursued by a posse of middle-aged matrons waving their newly bought underthings for me to autograph.” Suave and with chiseled good looks, Vaughn starred as U.S. agent Napoleon Solo in the NBC spy spoof alongside David McCallum, who played Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin. Each week, the pair from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement battled T.H.R.U.S.H., a villainous group intent on taking over the world through dastardly schemes like mind-control gas. At the height of the show’s popularity, Vaughn and McCallum were receiving 70,000 fan letters a month.
Born in New York City, Vaughn was raised by his grandparents in Minneapolis after his actor parents separated, said The Times (U.K.). He became involved in student theater while studying journalism at the University of Minnesota, and moved to Hollywood after graduating. Vaughn “supported himself by working in a grocery store and began getting bit parts.” He played Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James, in 1957’s Hell’s Crossroads, and a prehistoric hunk in 1958’s Teenage Caveman, “which Vaughn maintained was one of the worst films ever made.” He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a murder suspect in 1959’s The Young Philadelphians and played a reluctant gunfighter in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
Then in 1964 came The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which “catapulted Vaughn into overnight fame,” said The New York Times. Yet the actor appeared “more focused on politics than show business.” He often spoke publicly against the war in Vietnam and became national chairman of an organization called Dissenting Democrats in 1967. After U.N.C.L.E. was canceled in 1968, “Vaughn carved out a niche playing villains,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). He was a conniving senator in Bullitt (1968) and a devilish multimillionaire who tries to kill the Man of Steel in Superman III (1983). Vaughn readily admitted that not all of his 27 films and numerous TV series were classics. “If 90 percent have been bad, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “There are still half a dozen to write home about.”