Leonard Cohen and his wife, Florence, collect teddy bears and give them to children at the Connor Moran Children’s Cancer Foundation and St. Mary’s Medical Center and other cancer patients. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Leonard Cohen grew up fast in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey, in the 1930s and ’40s. He was 4-foot-8 and 85 pounds at age 13 when he had to navigate those mean streets, walking to and from Weequahic High School in south Newark.
“You want to talk about growing up tough?” Cohen asked. “And my father was a master sergeant in the U.S. Army who’d say, ‘Don’t come crying to me, because you’ll have more to worry about than them.’ And I never did.”
Now closing in on his 91st birthday, Cohen proved his pugilistic talents in becoming a Golden Gloves champion in high school.
Since he and his wife, Florence, left the Garden State in 1976, he’s become such a fixture in South Palm Beach that Mayor Bonnie Fischer calls him for advice.
“Bonnie calls me all the time,” he said. “Sometimes I’d call her, too. When the pandemic started I’d call 15 or 20 people every day to check in on them, and I still do it.
“I’m a father figure,” added Cohen, who has two children — Linda and Jeffrey — three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He attended Town Council meetings for years but stopped when the pandemic hit.
Cohen, who can see the skyline of New York City from his summer home in the mountains of New Jersey, has worked to help families of the first responders to the 9/11 tragedy. He said the money originally set aside for their aid ran out years ago.
“When people need help, we want to help. We’re lucky,” Cohen said.
— Brian Biggane
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: Before going to Weequahic, I went to Hebrew School and had to go through an Irish, German and Italian neighborhood. I had no choice but learn how to take care of myself.
I was 11 when World War II broke out and my mother went to work as a riveter, putting together dashboards for airplanes. I became the head of the household at that point. So I guess I was forced to grow up young.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: My wife and I eloped as teenagers and my first job was at an icehouse in Neptune, New Jersey, moving 300-pound bricks of ice. Then a family friend saw me there and invited me to work as a milkman for Sheffield Farms.
Soon, I was working in the produce business for the potato king of New Jersey, lifting 100-pound bags of potatoes. I wound up with a broken back and a ruptured disk. They put a full-body cast on me.
Next, I was peddling greeting cards on Ferry Street in Newark. I walked into an appliance store, Rothhauser Radio and Appliance, and Jack Rothhauser hired me. My first day at work, he went to lunch and a customer walked in. Jack was out, I was alone and he wanted to buy a refrigerator, so I sold him one. Within a year I was managing the store.
Not long after, I borrowed $5,000 from my two brothers-in-law and we bought a 5 & 10 store. I was the victim of a hit-and-run accident and I was in the hospital once again with a broken back and ruptured disk.
I was lying in the hospital and got the idea of putting what we were selling in the 5 & 10 store in supermarkets, because in the ’50s the only thing you could buy in the supermarkets was food. I started with the Food Town and Shop Rite markets and it grew until we had about 4,000 stores. I had Maybelline, Foster Grant, everything, and it grew until 1984, when we got bought out. Our company was L and C Sales Corp.
I was going to retire, but started a potpourri business, which went big and I gave to my son-in-law after a while.
About 25 years ago, I got into real estate. I decided to go to school and the only one available was real estate school. I sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth, mostly in town here because everybody in town knew me.
I hosted the ice cream socials in town. For 20 years I was doing that and people still recognize me. Just the other day I went to physical therapy, and as I was walking out a woman said, “Hey, it’s the ice cream man!” Same thing when I was standing in line to be vaccinated.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: If you have an idea, don’t let anybody discourage you. Everybody told me I couldn’t do it, and I did. The worst thing that can happen is you fail. And if you don’t do it, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in South Palm Beach?
A: My sister lived in South Palm and I came to visit. She encouraged me to buy here in 1976. We’ve been happy ever since.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about living in South Palm Beach?
A: It’s a nice community, a very small community. I know everybody in town. Nowadays, the younger people all think we’re their mother and father. And they did so much to pay us back during the pandemic. As they say, what goes around comes around.
I sold an apartment in our building to Mark Harris, who was an EMT from Staten Island during 9/11. Five or six times they went into the buildings that day, taking people out. The last time he went to the left and everybody else in his crew went right; the building collapsed and they lost the whole crew. He didn’t have any parents down here, so we became his parents. He was in his 50s when he died. I miss him.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: I’ve read all the books of the South African author Wilbur Smith. Lately, I’ve been reading the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child.
Q: What music do you listen to when you want to relax? When you want to be inspired?
A: The music of the ’40s. There’s nothing like it. They don’t make it anymore like that. Bands like Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Doris Day.
Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: My parents. But also Jack Rothhauser, who had a huge impact on me. We were desperate when he hired me. He put me on the right path and I gave him everything I had. He was a real gentleman. One thing he told me was always give somebody else a chance. Pass it forward. I always remembered that.
Q: If your life story were to be made into a movie, who would play you?
A: Steve McQueen. Everybody used to say I looked like Steve McQueen.
Q: Who/what makes you laugh?
A: Everything. Seriously. I watch M*A*S*H on TV all the time, because it takes me back to the early ’50s. If you watch it and listen to the background music, when there’s a love scene it’s always the music of Again. That was the first song we danced to back in 1949 or something like that.