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The inspiration for Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” was a beautiful woman he met on a Greek island

E.L. Hamilton
Getty Images
Getty Images

If opposites attract, it’s no wonder that the brooding poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was enchanted by the blond beauty Marianne Ihlen. A radiant young mother with long slender legs and hipbones jutting over her bikini bottom, she was light to his darkness, a bright sunny presence in his memorably gloomy days.

In March 1960, Cohen, a law school dropout and budding poet, left dismal London for the sunny paradise of Hydra, Greece. The Greek isle was at the time a haven for the era’s nascent hippie culture, with wanderers fashioning themselves as bohemian artists alongside such moneyed elite as Aristotle Onassis and Princess Margaret. The Canadian poet, lonely and despondent, found himself admiring a handsome couple strolling along, their arms linked in seemingly loving companionship. As Cohen himself would later say: “I had no idea I’d spend the next decade with this man’s wife.”

Cohen didn’t know that the man was the Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, about to abandon the beautiful Marianne Ihlen, then 25, and their toddler son, for another woman.

Later Cohen ran into the blonde at a market, where she was shopping. He invited her to join his friends outside. Cohen, then 26, was immediately entranced, but their courtship was slow and luxurious. “Though I loved him from the moment we met, it was a beautiful, slow movie,” Ihlen recalled.

“We met when we were almost young,” Cohen would write in his famous love song inspired by his blonde muse, “So Long, Marianne,” in 1967. “Deep in the green lilac park/You held on to me like I was a crucifix/As we went kneeling through the dark.”

The two had little money, but led a romantic life of reading poetry, playing with Ihlen’s son on the beach, and singing in tavernas at night. After Cohen drove with Ihlen to Oslo so she could file for divorce from Jensen, he returned to his hometown of Montreal for the publication of a critically acclaimed book of poetry, The Spice-Box of the Earth. But he was lonely, and wanted his muse by his side. He sent Ihlen a telegraph: “Have a flat. All I need is my woman and her child.” She heeded his call, and flew to Montreal with her young son.

Sadly Cohen died on November 7, 2016

Cohen and Ihlen remained entangled for the next seven years, but their relationship was tempestuous. Neither was faithful, both were jealous. Ihlen would become enraged with the attention Cohen received. He spent time at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, strumming his guitar, hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, and setting the stage for his future as a singer-songwriter. She preferred the sun and gleaming white sands of Hydra.

During this time Cohen, sensing their was more money in music than literature, began a natural transition from poet to singer-songwriter. He compiled the songs for his for his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in 1967, which includes “So Long, Marianne.” It was not meant as a good-bye letter, but it certainly foreshadowed their ultimate breakup. “Oh, so long, Marianne,” Cohen sang. “It’s time that we began to laugh/And cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

The couple finally cracked apart in 1972, when Cohen’s girlfriend, Suzanne Eldrod, gave birth to his son. He tried to talk Ihlen into accepting the unconventional situation, but she refused and walked away from him for good. Ihlen remarried in 1979.

Though their romantic relationship ended then, Cohen and Ihlen eventually managed to arrive at a place of affection for each other. When he heard she was dying of leukemia in 2016, he wrote a sweet letter to her, according to the CBC, which read: “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 for your wisdom … but now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

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Marianne Ilhen died two days later, on July 29, 2016. Leonard Cohen died three months later, on November 7, 2016, in his sleep, following a fall. He was 82. His song lyrics seem like an appropriate requiem: “Oh, so long, Marianne/It’s time that we began to laugh/And cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

E.L. Hamilton

E.L. Hamilton is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News