Marianne Cohen

So Long Marianne, Leonard Cohen #

In the early 1960’s, Leonard Cohen left Canada for London to advance his writing career. Finding the climate dull, grey, cold and dismal, he escaped to the Greek Island of Hydra. Marianne Ihlen, married to writer Axel Jensen of Norway, had also sailed to the Greek island of Hydra, a bohemian colony of writers and hedonistic sailing celebrities. George Johnston and Charmaine Clift lived and wrote novels on Hydra from 1954 to 1963 before moving to London and eventually Sydney. His wrote his most successful novel, My Brother Jack there.

Axel Jensenleft Marianne Ihlen shortly after their son Axel Jr. was born. In 1960, Marianne was shopping in a grocery store when she saw the young innocent writer from Canada. Their eyes met and both became besotted with each other.

Leonard Cohen recalled of the island community:

“It was as if everyone was young and beautiful and full of talent—covered with a kind of gold dust. Everybody had special and unique qualities. This is, of course, the feeling of youth, but in the glorious setting of Hydra, all these qualities were magnified.”

The pair soon fell in love, sharing a house Leonard was able to buy from his uncle’s inheritance. In the morning, Leonard wrote his novels and love songs, and sang lullabies to Marianne’s son at night.

Cohen considered Marianne his ‘muse’, - an inspiration of free love poetry, with no thought for going ahead with a singing career at that stage.

While their relationship was to last less than a decade, Marianne enabled Leonard’s transition from poet to songwriter and inspired his first serious compositions.

Marianne was Cohen’s motivator, allowing him the freedom to move and create what he wanted. Cohen wrote two of his greatest love songs of all time, ‘Bird on a Wire’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ years later.

For Leonard, songs were a private refuge, where he could explore fleeting or transitory relationships. At a young age he felt he needed to go into the darkness and emerge with something to share with the rest of us. Anxiety and anguish are necessary to write. Most of his songs have melancholic or plaintive tones in a search for love. It is not confessional poetry, rather self investigative without becoming self-indulgent.

Cohen claims our miniscule suffering is an unwholesome luxury when compared to the torture and pain of most of the world’s unfortunates. We need to be circumspect about how seriously we take our anxieties. It is not true confessions, but a confession through the filter of hard work and the skills of poetry. He explores things he thought he knew about or what he wanted to know about.

Mutual sexual attraction is the most challenging activity we engage in. Life has no meaning without love, yet love is ferocious with its defeats, humiliations and pain. Many people simply shut down. The heart is always opening and closing; softening and hardening. We experience joy and sadness, ecstasy and agony and have to learn to live with both.

Like many “lady-killers", he made women feel good about themselves, but he couldn’t give of himself. Marianne, his most famous love affair on the Greek island Hydra, claims he was an elusive poet, married to his muse. “You couldn’t really be with Leonard”. * Most poets would have been difficult to live with.*

After about a year, Leonard needed to go back to Canada to earn some money, and Marianne went back to Norway to take care of her son, Axel. This is followed by an on off relationship. Marianne remained in love with Cohen, moving to New York to try to restart the relationship with him. Cohen was living at the Chelsea hotel in Manhattan mixing with people such as Janis Joplin (inspiring Chelsea Hotel). Cohen kept Marianne at a distance, informing her that the Chelsea hotel wasn’t “her scene”.

Those who engaged in a hedonistic, free love lifestyle on Hydra failed to meet with ultimate success. Cheap alcohol and ready affairs led to divorce, suicide and madness. The self, it turned out, could be selfish and destructive. It took its greatest toll on the children, especially Axel, who ended up with a wayward life of drugs.

Cohen wanted to have Jewish children, something that Marianne accepted. Leonard met Suzanne Elrod, in Montreal in 1969. They had two children, Adam and Lorca before splitting up, acrimoniously, in 1978. Later he sent Marianne her tickets for his sell out 2009 London Concert.

In 2016, Cohen would, however, write his muse one final letter:

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon,”.

“Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

There is evidence Marianne received his letter before she died.

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen: the love affair of a lifetime is a poignant documentary by Nick Broomfield released in 2018.

So Long Marianne #

December 27, 1967

Come over to the window, my little darling
I’d like to try to read your palm
I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy
Before I let you take me home

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again

Well you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again

We met when we were almost young
Deep in the green lilac park
You held on to me like I was a crucifix
As we went kneeling through the dark

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again

Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
Is fastening my ankle to a stone

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again

For now I need your hidden love
I’m cold as a new razor blade
You left when I told you I was curious
I never said that I was brave

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again

Oh, you are really such a pretty one
I see you’ve gone and changed your name again
And just when I climbed this whole mountainside
To wash my eyelids in the rain

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.

When talking about his mother, Cohen said:

“she laughed a lot and cried a lot”.

Many have criticised Cohen for leading a “Gypsy life”. Though he owned a house in Montreal, apartments in L.A., and Paris as well as a refuge on the island of Hydra, he never spends more than two weeks in any one place, also staying in many hotels. He led a fairly abstemious existence with “everything he needs, but nothing he doesn’t need”. “I like to live simply; not a virtue; a preference.

Bird on the Wire #


Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee
If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you
For like a baby, stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?"

Oh like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

The 1960’s saw a reaction of anti-authoritarianism against cultural norms. It became exemplified in sexual liberation and open relationships – free love where libertines flourished. Hippies and bohemian life styles became accepted.

The self, it turned out, can be selfish and destructive. Is Cohen merely a Cad, dandy, philanderer, Lothario, flirt, ladies' man, playboy, Romeo, seducer, rake, roué, debauchee, womaniser, Casanovas, pants man, Ladies’ man, Lothario, Casanova, Lad..?

It was the power of sexual attraction between men and women he found the most challenging activity to explore.