The Woman Behind Leonard Cohen’s Greatness
The director of ‘Marianne and Leonard’ reflects on the complicated relationship between Leonard Cohen and the woman he called his ‘muse,’ Marianne Ihlen.
The word “muse” feels very un-2019. And in this era, where we have to decide almost daily if we can separate the art from the artist, Leonard Cohen’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen, in which the remarkable songwriter and itinerant ladies man took so much in order to make himself into a global superstar, looms large.
But a new documentary, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, out this weekend, sheds a sympathetic, if unflinching, light on the complicated but enduring relationship between Cohen and the woman often identified as the person who most supported and inspired him, especially in his early, woebegone days.
“I think Marianne had the ability to discern the strength in people,” Nick Broomfield, the film’s director, who knew both Ihlen and Cohen, told me recently. “She was married to two very remarkable people—Leonard and Axel Jensen—both incredibly original and very disciplined and obsessed people. But I think she had the ability to bring out their strengths and to help hone their art. She was the one who encouraged Leonard to make that massive switch from being a writer and novelist and poet to putting his words to music. And I think she deserves that credit.”
“I wouldn’t say that she reinvented people, but she certainly encouraged them to realize their strengths,” he continued. “And I think that is a real talent, and a very rare talent, because it’s about really tuning into people and honing into their greatness. That was the talent she had. I think the tabloids are the ones who always slap the word ‘muse’ on lots of people, and it’s a cheap description, and usually ill-informed.”
In the early 1960s, Cohen escaped to Hydra, the idyllic Greek island that served as a sort of Euro-Woodstock for the artists and misfits who gravitated there. He met Ihlen, who was living there with her young son from a previous marriage, and the pair began a long, tempestuous relationship.
Many were swallowed up by Hydra’s excesses.
“They went out there as writers or painters, but lacked the discipline to really sustain their art and their belief in themselves, I think, as artists,” Broomfield reflected. “They succumbed to the very cheap red vino and beautiful women and drugs. The only people I know who survived it had an iron discipline.”
Still, Hydra had a siren call, of sorts—especially for someone like Cohen, who was disciplined, and churned out prose, and eventually songs, at a furious rate while there.
“It was as if everyone was young and beautiful and full of talent, covered with a kind of gold dust,” Cohen once fondly recalled of the people he met and the hedonistic lifestyle he embraced on Hydra. “Everybody had special and unique qualities. This is, of course, the feeling of youth, but in the glorious setting of Hydra, all these qualities were magnified.”
“I wasn’t there for very long, but Hydra introduced me to a whole other way of living that had never occurred to me before,” said Broomfield, who had his own year-long relationship with Ihlen, whom he credits with encouraging him to pursue a career in film. “Although it was such a small island, the people living there were all international artists. They were very connected. It was like a big family that branched out all over the place. And they were similar in their ways of thinking and approaching the world. There was a real bond between them. That was very influential. And there was also the feeling of infinite possibilities. I was studying to be a barrister at the time. I had just finished my first year at university, which I had big misgivings about. Being there and meeting Marianne and meeting her friends persuaded me that there were a lot of other possibilities.”
Meanwhile, Ihlen struggled to maintain her own identity, most especially after the singer Judy Collins included Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her 1966 album In My Life, plucking him from relative obscurity and introducing him as the latest “new Dylan” to the cognoscenti. Two astonishing solo albums followed, and Cohen would find himself returning to Hydra less and less as the years progressed.
“I was always escaping, I was always trying to get away,” Cohen, always a seeker, says in an archival interview in the film.
There’s footage of Cohen in concert in the film, talking about his relationship with Ihlen, saying bluntly that, at first, he lived with her for most of the year, then two months, then two weeks, until, he says in his distinct deadpan, that he would only see her “two days a year.” It’s delivered affectionately, and with humor, but the bite is all too obvious.
Still, Ihlen loomed large in Cohen’s psyche, as Marianne and Leonard makes clear.
“I think this was his old partner, who was so much a part of his own formative period and that transition,” Broomfield said. “His poem, ‘Days of Kindness,’ was such a powerful acknowledgement of his relationship with Marianne, and with [her son] Axel. There was a lot of self-criticism and guilt in it, which was obviously very profound. That was a very incredibly thoughtful poem, I think, and so much about his enduring love and his responsibility. Because I think he always felt a responsibility to Axel and Marianne, right to the very end.”
The pair became estranged, and finally split for good after Ihlen followed Cohen to New York City, where he was ensconced in the infamous Chelsea Hotel—a down-and-dirty Hydra of late-'70s rock and roll excess, to be sure—and in a relationship with Suzanne Elrod, with whom he’d have two sons.
“Still, Marianne would always say Leonard was the best thing that happened to her, despite the fact that a lot of it was very painful,” Broomfield reflected.
Ihlen moved back to Norway with her son—who struggled with alcohol and mental health issues for the rest of his life—and became a secretary at an engineering firm, where she met the man she’d spend the rest of her life with. By all accounts, Ihlen led a happy and fulfilled life.
A Jew, Cohen, meanwhile, had dabbled in the spiritual fads of the moment (including EST and Scientology), but eventually settled on Buddhism, which he later credited for saving his life. He lived in a monastery in California for years in the ‘90s—during which time his then-manager embezzled his considerable fortune, forcing him back on the road, which ironically led to a late-career renaissance—but, as the film makes clear, he never forgot Ihlen. (Correspondence between the two recently fetched nearly a million dollars, the proceeds from which will help care for Ihlen’s son.)
There’s footage of Ihlen at a concert, clearly moved by Cohen’s still–effervescent rendition of the song he wrote for her and about her, but it’s the reading of the infamous message from her old flame on her deathbed, and the grace and humor she has when she hears Cohen’s warm words read aloud, that firmly establishes Ihlen as a force without peer in Cohen’s life, and sums up the film.
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road.
Love and gratitude,
Cohen did indeed follow Ihlen soon after, dying four months later.
“Their passings reminded me of how that whole part of my life had been very, very important and very formative,” Broomfield reflected. “I very much regretted not staying in touch more, particularly with Marianne. That these people who were so important had passed on, and that there was so much more I would’ve liked to have talked to him about, or to just have spent more time with her, was really the inspiration behind this film. It just reminded me of how one gets swept away with the details of one’s own life, many of which are not that significant. And how you can lose touch with very important people from different stages of your life. It made me want to reach back into my address book and reconnect with a lot of people that were very important to me. Most of all, though, this film was very much a recognition of what [Marianne] had done for me.”