Marianne and Leonard

Marianne and Leonard

Leonard Cohen and Mariamme Ihlen

“Dearest Marianne, I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand…” opened Leonard Cohen’s final letter to Marianne, his former lover of ten years. 

Even the words of this letter have been pulled apart, rearranged and canonised by various people. Some fifty love letters sent by Leonard to Marianne have been auctioned for £700,000 this year and now a documentary by their British friend, Nick Broomfield, has been released. 

This documentary takes us to where it first began, in 1960s Hydra – a Greek island where the cup of hallucinogens overfloweth and even the donkeys were off their tits. 

Barely any running water or electricity, it was a haven of wells, candles and free love; but very few people (and even fewer marriages) left the island intact.


Described as ‘the great feminist’, it is difficult to align this image with the Cohen portrayed in the documentary. A man well accomplished at charming and manipulating women. After years of living with Marianne and her son, Little Axel, in Hydra, Cohen leaves for Montreal to kickstart his music career. Lest we forget it was Marianne who encouraged him to put his poetry to music in the first place. But she hangs back in Hydra, where Cohen initially returns back to for six months of the year. The documentary shows footage of Cohen onstage years later speaking of ‘a girl I used to live with’. He jokes that he would spend six, then four, then two months, then weeks in Hydra with Marianne until his success outgrew them. And of the woman he dismissed in order to stand in front of this crowd, he says ‘I hope that she’s here’. He gives an imploring look into the crowd that I hate myself for believing. 



This is not to say that Marianne sat home and twiddled her thumbs in his absence, especially not during the free love movement. But I do feel that their love at first, her order in his otherwise chaotic, drug-fuelled life, provided them both with great meaning. Her ensuring that he ate during the creative tirades, her patience and will for him to succeed; these cannot be overlooked. If there’s anything I took from this documentary it’s that to refer to Marianne as a ‘muse’ is to do her a great dishonour. She was not simple inspiration for a creative man, she was skilled in her own right. Skilled in the art of people. She saw people, listened to them, listened well enough for that to be what interviewees recalled again and again. And I for one would love my lasting memory to be that people felt I had truly listened to them. Sure, she made a few sandwiches while he was tripping on something or other; because, let’s face it, nobody but nobody can survive on just air, ideas and LSD. Someone needed to see to Leonard’s basic bodily requirements. 

That is more than a muse, that is a life-giver. 


Aviva Layton states in Marianne and Leonard that ‘poets do not make good husbands. You can’t own them. You can’t even own a bit of them.’ And so it was that Marianne eventually moved back to Oslo to settle down in a stable marriage and career. Too late, tragically, for Little Axel who was hit hard by the absolute lack of adult presence in his childhood and remains to this day a voluntary inpatient in a psychiatric facility in Oslo. Towards the end of her life in 2013, Cohen arranged for Marianne to attend his concert in Oslo. The footage of Marianne sitting in the front row, gazing up and singing along to So Long Marianne is a perfect combination of beautiful and unsettling. After all those years she was still tethered to her great source of love and despair. 



The documentary was a painful and fascinating mass of words and images. The footage unearthed by Broomfield is nothing short of miraculous. I could reem off reasons why Cohen was no good for Marianne, why she should have spent more time with Little Axel. But I won’t, because it was also beautiful. He writes in his final letter to her “I’ll never forget your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more.”

Words: Sarah Harrington

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *