Leonard Cohen In A "Red River Coat" Is Left Outside By His Mother and Could Never Get In

January 13, 2012

The title of this post came from listening to an interview of Leonard Cohen on a program called "Mixed Bag" with Pete Fornatale on WNEW-FM in New York.(4/28/85 Part 1).

In response to the interviewer asking why LC chose "Stranger Music" for the name of one of his publishing companies, Leonard's comments included:
I have always been on the outside...
My mother used to leave me outside, in the snow, in the winter, in Montreal.
She would dress me very warmly and just leave me outside.
I could never get in.
And those Montreal winters were bitter.
I had this Red River Coat with a red sash and a toque with a pom pom
and I was visible in the snow.
She could see from the kitchen window, but she'd never let me in.
...I don't think she wanted me around

I have heard Leonard Cohen tell this very charming story before.  But I don't recall him describing what he wore. When he mentioned wearing a "Red River Coat", I was curious.  Having lived in Toronto, a large Canadian metropolitan city, for most of my life, I have never heard of that coat style. 

Although the Red River flows through the US and Canada, I always associate it with Winnipeg, Manitoba. So, the mention of a "Red River Coat" interested me.

I learned that the "Red River Coat" for children was very popular in Montreal in the thirties and it was worn by... "rich kids".

Red River coats

One especially popular type of winter coat was the Red River coat which was worn by both boys and girls... a kind of duffel coat with a toque with pom pom. There was also a wool sash which was useful when it was really freezing. The child put this sash over his face like a scarf...  Leggings were the same colour as the toque,  mittens and sash. Stockings were under leggings and kept the child warm...it was one of the most beautiful winter outfits worn by children until 12...The coats were always black (or very dark blue), accessory colours were either tomato red or aqua blue for the toque, sash, mittens and thick stockings.

Photo source: McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal

 Photo by: William Notman (1867), McCord Museum, Montreal

The Red River Coat came from the Métis culture, described as people of mixed native and European origin. Métis often acted as middlemen who communicated between the First Nations peoples and the European settlers and colonists.
The sash was used by the Métis as a practical item of clothing. It was decorative, warm and could be used to replace a rope if none was available.  The Metis consider the sash as a symbol of nationhood and cultural distinction. Today it is still considered to be an important part of traditional dress.

There is also a book written by Mary Peate, Girl in a Red River Coat: Growing Up in Montreal in the 1930's, originally published by Clarke, Irwin & Company in 1970. It was aimed at younger readers, but according to literary articles, it is still enjoyed by many age groups because of its Montreal nostalgia.

Book cover: Google images
This is the fictionalized memoir of Mary Peate, a young girl in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighbourhood near the onset of World War II. It is the best of times and the worst of times. The Depression is still affecting even middle-class communities. There is an innocence to pre-adolescent life (especially convent-educated life) in this era, resulting in some of the book's best comedy. Peate also has to deal with real problems of polio outbreaks, friends losing their parents, and her ongoing battles with the nuns.

"Mixed Bag" with Pete Fornatale on WNEW-FM in New York.
Leonard Cohen Interview (4/28/85 Part 1)
Uploaded by on Feb 12, 2008
WNEW Interview Part 2.  Leonard performs an acoustic version of "Night Comes On"  click here
WNEW Interview Part 3.  More interview and Leonard reads a couple of poems. click here


  1. This is a WONDERFUL entry on your Blog, Arlene! Heartwarming and body warming! Who is that top photo of... is it Leonard?? Or another child also left out in the cold? It certainly was a practical outfit, no matter how you parse it.

    Very informative [what d'ya bet Allan nicks it ;), but credits you as its source :)).]

    ~ Lizzy xox

    1. Thank you Lizzie. Yep,that is LC "left outside in the cold", according to his own words.

  2. Very informative. Arlene. Enjoyed reading it.


  3. What wonderful research, Arlene! It brings so much together in that period of time, and explains totally the photo of Leonard as a little boy! You are quite amazing.

  4. Arlene, the super sleuth and impeccable researcher!

  5. Thanks Arlene.. for the research and the interesting report.

    1. It was so much fun researching this. Glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Thanks Arlene, I enjoyed reading.

    1. It is a great tale he spun. His imagery made for a good read, I agree.