Canada’s Leonard Cohen, the Last Tourist in Havana, 1961

By Karen Dubinsky

Leonard Cohen, (centre) Havana, April 1961. photographer unknown
Leonard Cohen, (c) Havana, April 1961.
photographer unknown

HAVANA TIMES — Pierre Trudeau’s Havana visits are legendary, and Justin Trudeau is on his way there. Another famous son of Montreal made a trip in March 1961. Leonard Cohen visited Havana at a most unusual time.

Cohen’s sister Esther had honeymooned there before the 1959 revolution, and he was curious to see the place. He was also following the route of his literary mentor, Garcia Lorca, who preceded him in Havana. Cohen arrived in March 1961. He told biographer Ira Nadel, “I thought maybe this was my Spanish civil war, but it was a shabby kind of support. It was really mostly curiosity and a sense of adventure.” He grew a beard and searched for Havana nightlife, rapidly diminishing as the revolutionary government closed the casinos and fun-loving Americans turned their vacation sights elsewhere. Cohen described himself at that moment as “the last tourist in Havana.”

The next month, in April, the US led Bay of Pigs invasion was underway. As Havana prepared for war, it became apparent that, despite his beard and khaki, a boy from Montreal was a bit of an anomaly here. As international news broke of bombing in Havana, Cohen’s mother dispatched a family member attached to the Canadian embassy to check on Leonard’s safety. He was stopped by military police one night during a walk on a beach. After being detained with a group of “suspicious” foreigners – as paranoia levels went off the charts – he left.

Not surprisingly, after all this, Leonard Cohen was no fan of the Cuban revolution. But later he defended his visit, and explained what he learned from his time in Cuba. “I’m one of the few men of my generation who cared enough about the Cuban reality to go see it.” But, he concluded “power chops up frightened men. I saw that in Cuba.”

Perhaps the best legacy of his visit was this trademark funny poem he wrote while he was there:

“The Last Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward” from Flowers for Hitler.

Come, my brothers,
let us govern Canada,
let us find our serious heads,
let us dump asbestos on the White House,
let us make the French talk English,
not only here but everywhere,
let us torture the Senate individually
until they confess,
let us purge the New Party,
let us encourage the dark races
so they’ll be lenient
when they take over,
let us make the CBC talk English,
let us all lean in one direction
and float down
to the coast of Florida,
let us have tourism,

let us flirt with the enemy,
let us smelt pig-iron in our back yards,
let us sell snow
to under-developed nations,
(It is true one of our national leaders
was a Roman Catholic?)
let us terrorize Alaska,
let us unite
Church and State,
let us not take it lying down,
let us have two Governor Generals
at the same time,
let us have another official language,
let us determine what it will be,
let us give a Canada Council Fellowship
to the most original suggestion,
let us teach sex in the home
to parents,
let us threaten to join the U.S.A.
and pull out at the last moment,
my brothers, come,
our serious heads are waiting for us somewhere
like Gladstone bags abandoned
after a coup d’état,
let us put them on very quickly,
let us maintain a stony silence
on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
April 1961

*Karen Dubinsky is a Canadian historian. She is the author of Cuba Beyond the Beach: Stories of Life in Havana (Between the Lines, 2016)

One thought on “Canada’s Leonard Cohen, the Last Tourist in Havana, 1961

  • Thank you for this vignette of a curious episode from Leonard Cohen’s complex and fascinating life. I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s every since when as a child, my mother read to me his poetry from The Spice Box of Earth. I am heartbroken at his passing.

    Cohen refers to the Cuban revolution in his song, Field Commander Cohen,

    “Field Commander Cohen, he was our most important spy.
    Wounded in the line of duty,
    Parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties,
    Urging Fidel Castro to abandon fields and castles.
    Leave it all and like a man,
    Come back to nothing special,
    Such as waiting rooms and ticket lines,
    Silver bullet suicides,
    And messianic ocean tides,
    And racial roller-coaster rides
    And other forms of boredom advertised as poetry.”

    Another reference can be found in the song, Stories of the Street,

    “The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh.
    The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas,
    and I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose,
    yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.
    I know you’ve heard it’s over now and war must surely come,
    the cities they are broke in half and the middle men are gone.
    But let me ask you one more time, O children of the dusk,
    All these hunters who are shrieking now oh do they speak for us?”

    In September 2000, Leonard Cohen and Fidel Castro (along with Jimmy Carter & the Agha Khan) served as honorary pall-bearers at the funeral of Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. A young Justin Trudeau delivered a moving eulogy during the service. In this photograph, Justin is seen with his head bowed at his father’s casket. Fidel Castro is in the pew just beyond Justin. Leonard Cohen can be seen in the pew at the far right of the photograph.

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