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Leonard Cohen’s ‘Book of Longing’ Prompts Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Leonard Cohen / Photo by Getty Images

Leonard Cohen is a songwriting great. A true living legend. He also, like some of the Important Male Writers of his generation — Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike — writes about sexuality with a male-oriented frankness that must’ve felt radical and bohemian in a more puritanical era, but in hindsight doesn’t necessarily look so different from the womanizing of the gray flannel suits on Mad Men. On the classic 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” he sings about remembering a woman “giving me head on the unmade bed,” and then concludes that “I don’t even think of you that often” — a reflection that rings true, which is partly why it’s powerful art, but not exactly something you should put on a mixtape for a female subordinate. Or is it?

The allegations in a recent sexual harassment lawsuit involving a Silicon Valley venture capital firm aren’t quite so clear-cut, but they do shed intriguing light on how Cohen’s lustier work could potentially come across as creepy in the wrong context. According to the New York Times (via the Daily Swarm), Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao claims it was inappropriate of senior partner Randy Komisar to give her a copy of Cohen’s 2006 Book of Longing, an anthology of poetry and sketches. Given that it’s by Cohen, it’s only logical that a Times reviewer would call the book both “profound” and “steamy,” two words that could apply to some of Cohen’s best work ever since 1967’s “Suzanne.”

Now, Komisar reportedly contends that he gave the book to Pao as a gift in return for a statue of Buddha she had given him (they had been talking about Komisar’s Buddhism, and Cohen was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996). As the Times points out, the book includes lines like “You came to me this morning / And you handled me like meat / You’d have to be a man to know / How good that feels how sweet.” We’re not exactly talking James Joyce’s awesomely filthy letters to his wife here, but even if both sides are telling the truth, it does raise an interesting question: Is Cohen’s erotically charged poetry, as art, an innocuous gift? Or, given by a senior partner to a partner at a firm, is it the equivalent of an unwanted sexual advance?

At the same time, the case isn’t only about Cohen. As the Times reported earlier, Pao argues she was sexually harassed into a brief affair with another investment partner at the firm, Ajit Nazre, and that Kleiner Perkins’ human resources staff and senior partners failed to follow up on her complaints about Nazre’s alleged behavior. She claims she faced retribution from the firm for coming forward, losing her role on the board of a start-up, getting a smaller share of the firm’s profit, and being asked to transfer to the firm’s China offices. According to her lawsuit, sexual harassment was a trend at the firm, with at least one other partner and three administrative assistants, all female, speaking out about Nazre. After an independent investigation, Nazre left Kleiner Perkins, though the firm declined to tell the Times if those events were connected.

The firm’s spokeswoman, Christina Lee, issued a statement to the Times. “The firm regrets that the situation is being litigated publicly and had hoped the two parties could have reached resolution, particularly given Pao’s seven-year history with the firm,” she’s quoted as saying. “Following a thorough independent investigation of the facts, the firm believes the lawsuit is without merit and intends to vigorously defend the matter.”

So this lawsuit really doesn’t come down to whether or not you think female co-workers should be totally cool with all things Cohen-related. And thank goodness for that. But the next time some dudebro wants to share the “Hallelujah” composer’s work, might we suggest — well, not “Hallelujah,” what with all the talk about “what’s really going on below” and “when I moved in you,” but maybe, like, “Bird on a Wire”? “The Stranger Song”? This much is certain: (1) “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” is brilliant, and (2) it’s no way to say, “nice work, colleague.”