In late July of 2016, Marianne Ihlen lay dying in her bed in Oslo. Fifty-six years before, in March 1960, she had first met the little-known poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra, and went on to be immortalised in his poetry, on one of his album covers, and in one of his most beautiful love songs. Now, though, the 81-year-old was in the last throes of her battle against leukaemia.
When he learned that his former lover and muse was so ill, Cohen was moved to write her a 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,’ he wrote. ‘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.’ A little over three months later, Cohen himself died, with leukaemia being cited as a contributory cause.
Cohen’s letter was a deeply heartfelt response to their shared history, which began after he first saw her walking on the island with her husband, the Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen. Cohen had recently left London for the island that provided a sanctuary for artists, international bohemians and travellers. As he later commented, ‘I had no idea that I would spend the next decade with this man’s wife.’
When the part-time model became estranged from her husband, Cohen spotted her while she was shopping on Hydra and invited her to join him and his friends at a table. She accepted, and years later recalled that ‘though I loved him from the moment we met’, their relationship unfolded and developed like ‘a beautiful, slow movie’.
Cohen was transfixed, and in November 1960 he presented Ihlen with a first edition of Let Us Compare Mythologies. In this, his first book of poems, Cohen experimented with styles, and explored Judaeo-Christian imagery, philosophy, sexuality, death, and a world of violent contrasts — themes that would go on to define his literary and musical careers. He inscribed the book: ‘For Marianne / with my love / Leonard’.
Before long Cohen, Ihlen and Axel, her young son by Jensen, moved into a small house together on the island. He worked on his poetry and novels by day and played his guitar or watched Marianne dance by night. When she finally decided to end her marriage to Jensen, Cohen drove her the 2,000 miles to Oslo to sign the divorce papers.
After returning from Oslo, Cohen gave her a small silver Cartier mirror, telling her that he’d never seen a human face that had given him such joy. ‘One never got the sense that she played on her looks,’ he said of her. ‘It was as if she wasn’t aware of how good she looked.’ Cohen also gave her his debating keyring from McGill University, which he attended in the 1950s.
In 1961 Cohen was forced to return to his native Canada ahead of the publication of The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems. While there, he sent his lover a telegram: ‘Have a flat. All I need is my woman and her child.’ He also sent her a copy of the book, inscribed ‘To Marianne / with all my love / Leonard / June 8 1961 / Montreal’. Marianne promptly flew to Canada with Axel.
Cohen dedicated his next book of poetry, Flowers to Hitler (1964), to Ihlen and soon after wrote his second and final novel, Beautiful Losers, amid hallucinatory bouts of fasting and amphetamine-taking. He couldn’t get the book published in Britain, however, because its vivid descriptions of sex, homosexuality and bisexuality were considered too obscene. ‘They didn’t realise that I wasn’t turning people on to sex but putting it down,’ he remarked.
By the mid 1960s, though, Cohen was beginning to despair of ever making it as a writer and decided instead to try his hand at being a singer-songwriter. Marianne remained his muse, and was the inspiration for his elegiac hit record So Long, Marianne, taken from his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Two years later, she appeared on the back cover of its follow-up, Songs from a Room, photographed hunched over a typewriter at their house on Hydra. The album featured the Cohen classic Bird on a Wire, which Ihlen had encouraged him to write after spotting birds on the electricity wires outside the house.
The success of his music saw Cohen spend more and more time in London and New York. By the time Marianne decided to take Axel and try living with him in the States, it was too late. Cohen had become part of the city’s artistic demi-monde, partying with Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell at the Chelsea Hotel and hanging out with Andy Warhol’s crowd at The Factory.
The couple eventually drifted apart, and Ihlen moved back to Hydra. ‘I wanted many women, many kinds of experiences, many countries, many climates, many love affairs,’ Cohen explained years later.
Cohen is reported to have supported Marianne Ihlen and her son for years after their split, and the letter he wrote to her decades later, as she lay on her deathbed, is proof of his deep well of love for her. It was ‘the most beautiful woman’, as he described her, who had given him the space, the encouragement and the stability he needed to write the works that set him on the road to international fame and stardom.