How an early romance helped shape Leonard Cohen's music
Marianne Ihlen met the songwriter while on the Greek island of Hydra
More than 50 years ago, Leonard Cohen wrote a classic song of romantic parting: “So Long, Marianne.” In fact, the real relationship between Cohen and Marianne extended far beyond their initial divide. “To the very end, Leonard remained the person that Marianne had the most love for,” says Nick Broomfield, director of a highly intimate new documentary titled Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love. “Leonard had a deep love for her to the end as well.”
When Marianne was in the hospital dying of leukemia in 2016 — just as Cohen himself was facing death from cancer — he sent her a note, which afterwards was made public. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand,” he wrote, three months before his own demise. “This old body has given up, just as yours has, and the eviction notice is on its way. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road.”
Though Cohen’s note became a viral sensation upon its release, only Broomfield’s movie reveals the uncommon depth, duration, and drama of a love that lasted decades beyond the time they were together. It helped that the director had a personal connection to the story. Back in 1968, when he was 20, Broomfield met a then 33-year-old Marianne Ihlen while visiting the Greek Island of Hydra. Eight years earlier, she met Cohen on the isle, where they lived together for the next seven. By the time Broomfield arrived, Cohen had moved to New York, though he and Ihlen maintained a fitful romance for a while. She and Cohen always had an open relationship; each took many lovers. For a fleeting time, one of hers was Broomfield. (She also introduced him to acid.) “I was just a lost 20-year-old, starting university, with no idea what I would do with my life,” Broomfield says. “And Marianne was somebody very beautiful and sensitive who really listened to me. She gave me lots of encouragement and became a very influential person in my life.”
Ihlen served a similar purpose for Cohen. He first came to the island to escape the chill and judgement of his native Montreal, drawn by Hydra’s bohemian culture and warm beauty. Likewise, Ihlen had fled a confining life in her native Oslo, taking with her a child she had from a troubled marriage to the celebrated Norwegian writer, Axel Jensen. Along with her son, she and Cohen lived together in a house with sketchy electricity they rented for $14 a month. By then, Cohen had published two books of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies and Spice Box of Earth. While in Hydra, fueled by drugs and wine, he stepped up his output, writing a poetry collection published in 1964, Flowers for Hitler and two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. The latter, published in 1966, earned some good notices, with comparisons to James Joyce for its untamable prose. But his books made no money. At the same time, the hedonistic pleasures of the island, with sex, drugs, and alcohol a constant, took their toll. People would slip each other acid without their knowledge. Some even doused the local donkeys. “There’s so much freedom there, some went too far with it,” says a friend of Marianne’s in the film. “There was a danger hanging over people.”
The film features lots of footage of Ihlen on the island, with, and without, Cohen. Much of it came from cinema verité pioneer D.A. Pennebaker, who spent time on Hydra in between directing seminal rock documentaries like Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, and Monterey Pop, which captured the first rock festival in 1967. “Penny is a poet with a camera,” Broomfield says, of Pennebaker. “I had never seen anything like the magic that Penny wove around her. His footage gave my film the soul of Marianne.”
To Broomfield, and others, her most striking features, besides her beauty, were her humility and her focus on other people. “She was very attentive to whatever was going on around her and she listened very carefully,” says the director. “She would throw the I Ching several times a day, and she really loved to get the symbol for ‘receptive.’”
At the same time, Ihlen became depressed that everyone in their circle was producing some kind of art — painting, poetry or song — and she wasn’t. “There was so much talent there and Marianne didn’t feel like she had her place,” Broomfield says. “She was very hard on herself. She couldn’t accept that her talent was as being an encourager for people. And that’s a real talent. She saw things in people they didn’t see in themselves. She was crucial in Leonard’s move from a poet, and erstwhile novelist, to a songwriter.”
But, in order to pursue that new role, Cohen left Hydra and moved to New York, ending the primary part of their relationship. In the film, Judy Collins talks about her role in getting Cohen’s musical career going by recording his song “Suzanne” — and by, essentially, bullying him into singing his songs himself. That one-two punch led to his signing by Columbia Records. His first two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen, issued in 1967, and Songs from a Room, two years later, bore many influences of his time with Ihlen on the island. “Bird on the Wire,” in particular, brims with imagery of the house they shared. Soon after Cohen moved to New York, he brought Ihlen over to live with him but, observers say, the move was a “total disaster.” Much of the movie details Cohen’s resistance to relationships and his intellectual, and physical, commitment to hedonism. Aviva Layton, the ex-wife of Cohen’s mentor, the poet Irving Layton, says in the film, “Leonard could love women from a distance and make a woman feel good about themselves, but he couldn’t give himself to them because he couldn’t give himself away. Poets do not make great husbands.”
In vintage footage in the film, Cohen admits to being “selfish” and says he always needed to move on from relationships, even good ones. “It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who’s reaching for the sky,” he wrote in “The Stranger Song.” Ironically, Cohen’s elusive nature, in contrast to the sensitivity of his songs, made him the dream lover of “semi-depressed women everywhere,” as one observer in the film put it.
While Cohen’s distance greatly saddened Ihlen, Broomfield says “she never considered herself a victim. He gave her an amazing amount, either in a pragmatic way or an emotional one. And he looked after her for a long time after they split up.”
Later, she reverted to a more structured life in Oslo, where she married again. Still, she and Cohen stayed in periodic touch. The sustained nature of their connection nails its central irony. Their relationship was both fragile and resilient, distant for long stretches yet covertly enduring. To chronicle the many years between them, the film includes footage of Ihlen relishing a concert Cohen gave in Oslo in the last decade. Astonishingly, the film features footage of Ihlen in the hospital, shortly before her death at 81, as she hears Cohen’s final note being read to her. “That was very beautiful,” she beams.
The footage was shot on an iPhone by her friend Jan Christian Mollestad, who was making a documentary about Ihlen’s novelist ex-husband. “It was not a bitter end,” Mollestad says in the film. “It was a lovely end.”
The film concludes with a recording of Cohen reading a poem about their time in Greece, titled “Days of Kindness.” It ends with a line that serves as both an explanation and apology to “the precious ones I overthrew, for an education in the world.”
“All lovers do things they regret,” says Broomfield. “But Leonard’s final lines drive home the meaningfulness of love, despite everything.”
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love hits select theaters on July 5.