Firearms In The Work & Life Of Leonard Cohen: His Father’s World War I Pistol

Nathan Cohen’s World War I Pistol

As a child, Leonard Cohen was impressed by his father’s (Nathan’s) gun, a .38 caliber pistol Nadel (Various Positions) characterizes as “a military souvenir” from Nathan’s service as a lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I.1 This excerpt from I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons describes the impact of the gun on the youngster:

Through Leonard’s early childhood, Nathan had often been ill. But the boy had proof that his father had been a warrior once. Nathan still had his gun from World War I, which he kept in his bedside cabinet. One day, when no one was around, Leonard slipped into his parents’ bedroom. He opened the cabinet and took out the gun. It was a big gun, a .38, its barrel engraved with his father’s name, rank and and regiment. Cradling it in his small hand, Leonard shivered, awed by its heft and the feel of its cold metal on his skin.

In “The Favourite Game” Cohen describes a weapon the protagonist’s2 father had received while serving in the military and kept in a bedroom drawer as “a huge .38.”

Nathan’s gun remained in the family home until vandals stole it in 1978.3

Nathan Cohen’s gun is embedded in the lyrics of “Rainy Night House,” which Joni Mitchell wrote about an outing she and Leonard Cohen took:

It was a rainy night
We took a taxi to your mother’s home
She went to Florida and left you
With your father’s gun alone
Upon her small white bed
I fell into a dream
You sat up all the night and watched me
To see who in the world I might be

Firearms In The Work & Life Of Leonard Cohen

Guns have been a recurrent motif in Leonard Cohen’s work and life. He was deeply affected by his father’s pistol, a marker of his service in World War I, Phil Spector threatened him with a handgun, he has owned a number of guns, and he has alluded to firearms in his poetry, novels, and songs. As is true with most subjects that arise in Cohen’s interviews, he has been forthcoming about his experience with and thoughts about guns, discussing the matter without braggadocio (no one is likely to confuse his views with those of, say, Ted Nugent) or apology. This post is part of a collection of entries comprising a noncomprehensive sampler of connections between Leonard Cohen and pistols, rifles, bullets, small arms, handguns, … . All such posts can be accessed at Firearms In The Work & Life Of Leonard Cohen. (Note: This material was originally presented at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric, in a series of posts beginning Nov 12, 2011.)

Note: The gun images that populate these posts, unless otherwise designated, are illustrative only and do not portray any guns actually owned by Leonard Cohen and may not accurately depict the specific gun described in the text. Firearms of the same caliber may be produced by more than one manufacturer and in various formats.The .38 pistol in the image atop this post is the Smith & Wesson Military & Police Model initially developed in 1899 and subsequently used by the military and police forces in many countries.

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  1. Re the .38 caliber pistol said to be Nathan Cohen’s  “military souvenir” from his World War I service as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Army, All of the sources I reviewed agree that .455 and .45 ACP caliber cartridges were the Canadian military’s standard service pistol ammunition during World War I and that all sidearms privately purchased by officers (during WWI, Canadian officers were required to supply their own personal equipment, including sidearms) were mandated to be chambered for that ammo. The authoritative source is Canadian Military Handguns, 1855-1985 by by Clive M. Law (Museum Restoration Service, 1994). CanadianSoldiers offers a condensed online exposition. An on point discussion of this issue can be found at this forum thread. Of course, “a military souvenir” could include any handgun Nathan Cohen came to own as a result of the war. []
  2. The character F at one point declares “I love the magic of guns.” []
  3. Nadel, Various Positions []