Leonard Cohen, the Godfather of Gloom, grew tired of the cold and the damp of 1960 London, and after asking a bank teller of the origin of his deep suntan, Cohen was simply told Greece. That was all it took for the Quebec-born poet, songwriter and novelist to buy a one-way ticket to Athens, a path that eventually led him to the tiny island of Hydra. It was during this stay, that Cohen found his voice and creative expansion. In an early letter to his publisher, Cohen had already chosen his audience too; “the inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”
It was on Hydra, a small, almost too-idyllic island off the coast of Greece, that Cohen rented a small white-washed house overlooking the harbour for a mere $14 a month. It was in this retreat that Cohen found a life that far better suited him than the one he left in a dingy, grey London; cold wine, cafes, his typewriter and a collection of artists, painters, and women. Intermittent electricity and a ban on motor cars completed the remote and simple life. It was in this stay that Cohen penned his first novel; The Favourite Game, along with a collection of poems in Flowers for Hitler. Experiments with fasting and drugs as attempts to focus the mind and push his creativity; “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.” A mostly futile endeavour, until he met Marianne.
Marianne Ilhen, a Norwegian resident on Hydra, immediately caught his eye, and an encounter in a grocery store brought them together, and kept them together, for eight years. Standing in the doorway with the Greek sun high in the sky behind him, Leonard asked Marianne to join him and his friends outside, and from that moment they were inseparable. He had an "enormous compassion for me and my child.” Marianne was immediately taken with him. “I felt it throughout my body,” she said. “A lightness had come over me.” Inspiring his songwriting for decades to come, Marianne inspired such songs such as Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye, Bird on the Wire and of course So Long, Marianne.
Even after Cohen left Hydra, and Marianne, to pursue his burgeoning music career, the pair stayed in touch through letters and emails, until the very end. Despite the starkly different paths the two took, neither could quite forget the other. Their last correspondence would also be their most poignant. Upon receiving a letter about Marianne's faltering health in 2016, Cohen immediately replied:
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 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.
When the letter reached Marianne at her home in Oslo, her friend Jan Christian Mollestad read it aloud to her as she lay on her bed, she could feel Cohen was close.
Marianne slept slowly out of this life yesterday evening. Totally at ease, surrounded by close friends.
Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her.
It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength. . . . In her last hour I held her hand and hummed “Bird on the Wire,” while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left the room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words.
So long, Marianne . . .
Four months after Marianne passed, Leonard kept his word and followed closely behind her, passing away in his Los Angeles home at the age of 82. Fourteen studio albums and one posthumous album released in 2019, Cohen left behind a catalog of work that explored sexuality, depression, loss, death, politics, religion and isolation, all woven into his songs, poems and stories that continues to influence and inspire, and will continue to do so. "And it's not some idle claim."
The Essential Tracks
Lover, Lover, Lover
So Long, Marianne
Famous Blue Raincoat
Chelsea Hotel #2
You Want it Darker