He’s been called a schmuck and a schmoozer, a statesman and a mensch. But above all, Morris Cohen was a character. Much about his life has been a myth–thanks to Cohen himself–so ten years ago Daniel Levy set the record straight with his biography of the infamous General Cohen. This week I read Levy’s book, Two-Gun Cohen (St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
Morris Abraham Cohen was born to a Jewish couple in late 19th century Poland. It was a time of turmoil, especially for Jews, so the family was fortunate to leave when they could. Morris’s father set out for the US, but ended up staying in the United Kingdom. Because of this change of events, young Morris learned to speak English with a thick Cockney accent, which would stay with him throughout his life.
Even before he started school, Morris was a troublemaker. He was a pickpocket, a truant, and a carnival hawker. After a stint in a Jewish boarding school for delinquent boys, Morris sailed to Canada at the young age of 16. His parents didn’t know what else to do with him.
In Saskatchewan, Morris learned to shoot, gamble, and sell shady real estate. He also learned about China.
From his family’s history as persecuted Jews back in Poland, Morris understood the sufferings of the Chinese in Canada and soon became a fixture in Chinatown. His friends entertained him with stories about Sun Yat-sen. Morris became determined not only to travel to China, but to work for Sun.
And that’s just what he did. On his inaugural trip to the Middle Kingdom, Cohen left one of his first meetings with Sun employed as his bodyguard. Those three years with Sun were his happiest. During that time, he became close to Soong Ching-ling, Sun’s wife. After Sun died from cancer in 1925, Cohen and Madame Sun remained friends for the next 45 years.
Although Cohen fought for Canada in WWI, it was in the Chinese Nationalist Army where he was named a General. (As Levy noted, back then people could buy ranks in the army.) But Morris’s title was legitimate, although honorary, and a tribute to his work for Sun.
During WWII, Cohen was interred in Hong Kong as a prisoner of war, where he generously gave his much of his rations to women and children. He left the British colony in 1943 (along with writer Emily Hahn and American relief worker extraordinaire Laura Margolis) for New York. Cohen made his way up to Montreal, where he married Judith Clark, a boutique owner a couple decades his junior.
But China beckoned and Morris returned time and again over the years, much to his wife’s dismay. (She would eventually divorce him a dozen or so years after their Montreal wedding.)
General Cohen, as he called himself, was fond of holding court in the lobbies of the greatest hotels in Hong Kong and Shanghai. To anyone who would listen, he’d relay tall tales of his accomplishments in China during his years with Sun. In the tumultuous years between the end of WWII and the Communist Revolution, Morris Cohen traded arms for the Nationalist Party in China. Many of his deals were done in those Hong Kong and Shanghai hotels.
Even when Mao took over in 1949, Cohen couldn’t stay away from China. He split his time between Montreal, the UK (always a devoted son), China, and Taiwan. He even traveled to Rhodesia, where one of his sisters had settled. For all the negative names he’s been called, Morris was always generous and jovial to his family, his friends, children everywhere, and the Jewish communities in China.
At an age when most people retire, Cohen was as active as ever in China, arranging grain and defense contracts between the People’s Republic and Canada and the UK, respectively. He even met with Golda Meir in Hong Kong in 1962, who asked him to patch relations between Israel and China. (That wouldn’t happen until 1992.)
Morris Cohen died of natural causes two days before I was born in 1970. People packed into his funeral service in the UK, including dignitaries from both China and Taiwan. In the last decades of his life, Cohen boasted to others that he would bring the Nationalists and Communists back together. No one would have been more proud to know that at his own funeral he did just that.