Just days before she died, Leonard Cohen sent an especially touching message to his ailing former lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, the inspiration for classic songs such as So Long, Marianne and Bird on the Wire.
In it, he told his Norwegian love: “I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Three months later, his prophesy came true and Cohen also passed away, aged 82.
Their relationship is now explored in Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, the latest documentary from Nick Broomfield, who bookends the film with Marianne’s death, and fills the space in between with archive photos, previously unseen footage of Marianne shot by the great D A Pennebaker, and new interviews.
He chronicles Cohen’s transition into songwriting, following his failure as a novelist, and the impact on Marianne and Axel, her son from a disastrous marriage.
At the centre of it all is Hydra, the Greek island where expats built a bohemian community, and the destination where Cohen and Ihlen first met, in 1960, and lived together.
Broomfield knows this world. He visited Hydra as a callow 20-year-old law student, a year after the release of Cohen’s 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and himself became one of Marianne’s lovers. Encouraged by her, Broomfield turned to filmmaking.
When the young traveller had arrived on Hydra, Cohen was in New York and unknown to him.
“I was pretty naïve,” Broomfield recalls. “His album had come out, but I didn’t hear it until I went to the island. I could sense that he was held in a kind of reverence and people were in awe about him – I felt very out of my depth, and pretty inadequate.”
He found Hydra “spellbinding”, but it was a difficult place, “because there’s no rules, and no structure.”
For expats “looking for an alternative way of living, or experimenting with drugs and relationships, it was ruthless.”
While some people went too far and self-destructed, Cohen thrived. “He was a very disciplined, three-page-a-day kind of guy, and kept to that pretty much throughout his life,” says Broomfield.
When Cohen was growing up, his father had wanted to send him to Kingston Military Academy, “which I think Leonard was entirely in favour of.”
However, after his father died, his mother wanted a different life for him.
“He always had a great admiration for the military though, and was sorely tempted to join the Israeli army, later on. He wasn’t a straightforward 60s poet.”
Another formative influence was his grandfather, a scholar of the Talmud, who encouraged Cohen to read religious texts.
Shared Jewish roots later bonded Cohen and a Romanian-born Canadian poet, Irving Layton, whose widow appears in the documentary, but Marianne wasn’t Jewish, and it was important to Cohen that the mother of his children be so.
During a visit to Broomfield, she asked him to drive her to Bath for an abortion.
“I think Leonard was very traditional. I know from talking to other people who knew them that there were a number of other abortions. When Marianne talks in the film about not having children with him, you can tell it’s a deep regret.”
Broomfield had the “strange privilege” of being someone whom she knew she could trust and wouldn’t judge her.
Nonetheless, it was “a disturbing experience,” and he admits that while he was sad when Marianne left to go to New York, “I did feel a certain relief in that I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed anymore.
“It was quite hard being at university and also dealing with a lot of emotion that was beyond my abilities.”
It would be easy to see Marianne as the muse who got walked over. There are periods of loneliness and longing in the film, but it’s the 60s and she and Cohen had an open relationship.
Cohen seems to have been able to comparmentalise his feelings and life more.
In New York, he resided at the notorious Chelsea Hotel – where he had a fling with Janis Joplin, famously immortalised in the song Chelsea Hotel No 2 – while Marianne stayed in an apartment on Clinton Street.
“He felt that she didn’t belong in New York, that she wouldn’t really understand the whole Andy Warhol scene that was happening at Chelsea Hotel. I guess he was very keen on Nico and all the other women that were around, too. It was a fast and furious time.”
Broomfield interviewed Marianne’s roommate, but decided against including her in the film. “She didn’t like Leonard at all. But I felt this was a story about enduring love, and a complicated relationship, and I didn’t really want to do a blame portrait.”
He claims Marianne never harboured any bitterness towards Cohen, and only felt hurt that he hadn’t bought her a new house on Hydra to replace the one she’d sold when he was struggling.
“They were devoted, one way or another, to each other. Marianne learnt so much from Leonard, and he obviously benefited so much from her pushing him into what he became,” Broomfield insists.
“I think she saw their relationship as something that was hugely enriching and positive in her life.”
Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (12A) is in cinemas now
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