Leonard and Marianne as a young couple
She is lying in an Oslo hospital bed, an oxygen machine helping her breathe. She is near to death. Her feet are being gently massaged. Her friend Jan, a thick-set, bald, bearded man with a kind face is reading her a letter: “Dearest Marianne, I am just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body of mine has given up as yours has too. “I have never forgotten your love or your beauty but you know that. I don’t have to say more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Endless love and gratitude. Your Leonard.”
“That was very beautiful, very beautiful,” said Marianne softly. “If only he was as lucky as me, getting his feet massaged.” Marianne Ihlen died on July 28, 2016. Just over three months later Leonard followed her. Each had helped the other to a form of immortality. So Long, Marianne (“…it’s time that we began/ to laugh and cry and cry and laugh/ about it all again”), Leonard Cohen’s hymn of love to her, written and beautifully recorded more than 50 years ago, has been and will always be one of his most treasured songs.
She was his muse who encouraged and helped him to become a poet-singer who inspired special devotion in fans and whose song Hallelujah, featuring the famous first line about a “secret chord”, became one of the most played and recorded of this century.
They met nearly six decades ago on the Greek island of Hydra. She, a beautiful Norwegian blonde, alone with a young son. He, a dark, handsome, soulful Canadian poet struggling to write a novel.
These were hippy days of drugs and free love. Hydra, with its unspoilt beauty, was the perfect place for it but one from which many did not escape unscathed.
Marianne& Leonard: Words of Love, a wonderful feature-length documentary film, captures all of this – the luminous charm of Marianne, the irresistible dangerous magic of Leonard, the joys and pains of their relationship.
It is the story of a strange lifelong love directed by Nick Broomfield, who brings to it more than just the skills formed by decades of outstanding film-making. He knew Marianne and, as a “rather lost 20 year-old” on Hydra, had a brief affair with her.
Musician Leonard Cohen
It was a friendship that continued, and he knows what it is to benefit from her help and inspiration.
“Though our time together wasn’t long she played a very influential part in my life,” says Broomfield. “She gave me a sort of romanticism about the world. She was unusual. She really listened to people when they talked, she was interested in them and how they worked. She came to Cardiff when I was a student and gave me the courage to make my first film.
“She lamented that she was not to be a writer or a painter but her genius was in finding and honing the strength in others.”
The folk singer Julie Felix says Marianne, by nurturing and encouraging, did the same for her.
For Marianne, with Leonard it had been love at first sight: “I remember my eyes met his eyes and I felt it throughout my whole body. I wanted to lock him up and swallow the key.” She didn’t believe him when he said she was the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. She had escaped from a violent marriage and was alone with her son Axel.
“We were very happy living in Hydra,” she said. They were together for several years, on and off. Leonard may have saved her life and made her love living. But he never offered permanence.
He moved between Hydra and his home city Montreal. In a letter from there dated 15 February 1961 he wrote: “Please understand I can promise nothing. I’ve said this to you before. It is not for you but for my own conscience that I repeat it.” But his sign-off was warm: “Write me and tell me your heart. All my love, Leonard.”
As Aviva, widow of Irving Layton, a poet who was Leonard’s friend, says: “Poets do not make great husbands. You can’t own them, not even a bit of them. They’re elusive creatures.”
Leonard was honest about that.
On his second (1969) album Songs From A Room there’s 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.”
He loved women and women lusted after him. As Leonard once said, “I had a great appetite for sexual expression… and I was very fortunate because it was the Sixties and that possibility was ever-present.” That ever-presence was multiplied in 1966 when Judy Collins recorded Suzanne and persuaded him to overcome his stage fright and sing with her. He soon acquired a large cult of worshipful followers.
Leonard invited Marianne to come to Montreal. It was a disaster. He invited her to New York, even though he was mid-liaison with Janis Joplin. They had been happy on Hydra but nowhere else. And even on Hydra there was unhappiness later when Marianne, who had sold her house to support them, found there was no place for her because Leonard was living with Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne of the song), the mother of his children. Marianne had aborted his baby because he made clear having children was no part of their relationship.
Yet a relationship endured.
Norwegian expatriate Marianne Jensen (also known as Ihlen)
They saw each other rarely but for years they kept in contact. Leonard wrote her loving letters and sent money to support her and little Axel, who went to England’s most liberal boarding school and sadly, a victim of too many drugs, spent years in a mental institution. Leonard always had a special place in Marianne’s heart and he wasn’t lying when he said she always had a special place in his – in his heart but not in his life.
Eventually, with Leonard gone, she left Hydra and returned to Oslo. Broomfield saw her then: “She was a secretary in an oil company. She didn’t seem terribly happy but she was a different person from the one I met on Hydra, she wasn’t running around with no shoes.”
When she knew she was dying she asked that Leonard be informed. In 1970, in an unforgettable appearance at the Isle of Wight festival, where things had turned ugly and the stage was set on fire, Leonard was able to calm the vast crowd and create tranquility. He introduced So Long, Marianne with the words: “I hope she’s here…maybe she’s here.”
In 2008, age 73, he returned to touring because all his money had been stolen and made the world love him as never before. He sent Marianne front-row tickets for his Oslo concert. We see her in the film, silver-haired and still rather beautiful, singing along, mouthing the words of her song. Incidentally, “So long, Marianne” was originally written as “Come on, Marianne”.There is truth in both.
The film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is out on July 26.