Marianne, Hydra And Her Love Affair With Leonard Cohen – Now In English


Marianne, Hydra And The Love Affair With Cohen

By Evangelia Avlonitou (Kathimerini: June 14, 2015)
Translated into English by Demetris Tsimperis

Marianne Ihlen, the woman who inspired the song «So Long Marianne» by Leonard Cohen and had a love affair with him during the years they lived in Hydra, is sitting opposite me in a cafe at the harbor of the island. She is beautiful, charming and humane, awaiting – a bit anxiously- my questions. I did not come with questions, I reassure her,  taking off my glasses. I came only with a bag and a book excerpt in my mind. She laughs, relieved. “How good” she says and sinks into her chair. I explain to her that the passage I am going to share with her is by a 87 year old Australian writer, Elizabeth Harrower.


Harrower writes: “A woman may encounter at any time in her life, a concrete pyramid in the middle of the road. It is usually a man or more. The woman is capable of sitting there convinced that it is impossible to proceed until finally the pyramid becomes her personal Thermopylae. This obstacle may contribute to the perpetuation of the species, but its price is heavy. What makes men superior is that – most of them – don’t stop to function forever because of another human being. They lack this inherent disadvantage and they are lucky”. Marianne laughs loudly. “How true is this” she says taking off her dark glasses. “I climbed this pyramid, I fell down and then moved on”. We stay silent for a while. Me out of respect and she for her own reasons. The midday flying dolphin has just arrived at the port of Hydra and our silence is covered by the sounds of the crowd.

“I  saw the film ‘Boy on a Dolphin’ in a cinema in Oslo in the ’50s and I thought here’s a place that I will never go. And here I am,” she says, and what impresses me more than the coincidences of life, is that her eyes – blue of ice and sky – are so different from the eyes of most people today; warm and vivid, full of patience and gentle curiosity. “If I hadn’t met Dalai Lama in Norway in ’52 I would never have come here” she continues. “It was he who gave me the courage to leave my home and who first taught me the meaning of compassion; to accept, to overcome and to not criticize.”

She glances at the book I put at the table “So Long Marianne, Marianne Ihlen – Leonard Cohen: A Love Story” by Kari Hesthamar which has been published recently in Greek by Potamos editions. “The book actually started from a show produced by Kari for me on Norwegian radio,” she explains. “She knows a lot about those times and Axel Jensen.” Jensen, a famous Norwegian writer, her first husband and father of her son, Axel Joachim Jensen, was the one with whom she came the first time to Hydra in December 1957.

The Old Box

Rhythmically moving her arms as she talks, Marianne goes on:

Kari spent a lot of time with me, making me travel back 55 years, and it was not easy. Thanks to her I unearthed the old box with the letters from the basement and tried to figure out how I felt then. It had been so many years ago that it was very hard … I am no longer the same person. And yet … you know, I like to go to the beach and look at the waves. We humans are like the waves. I will borrow a phrase that Leonard once wrote on the wall in the Hydra house “I change, I am the same, I change, I am the same.” But my love for Hydra has never changed. Hydra dissolves me and reconstitutes me.

She takes some black and white photographs out of her bag. The first of these depicts Marianne and her then twelve-year old son, Axel Joachim, at the port of Hydra. It is winter of ’72 and the carefree years with Cohen are over. Marianne bends over the photo sorrowfully, covering her face with her hands. She stands motionless for a moment above the almost adolescent boy and the smiling woman, like crying silently. She explains that Axel Joachim has lived since age 15 in an asylum, and she asks me to mention his story in the article

because it can help some other boy or his parents. Axel Joachim was an excellent student and a lovely child that changed forever when his father offered him LSD at the age of 15. Can you imagine this? That one and only time destroyed his mind. He was always sensitive and as a parent it is not always easy to see that clearly. We went from place to place for years while all my child needed was stability. If we lived in the same place, maybe things had not come to this. Until today I am tormented by remorse.

“My life … a sunny story”

Her eyes are wet, but she smiles.

I cried and laughed a lot these days. And here I am again today, I cry and laugh … the nicest and worst things in my life happened on this island. Nevertheless, my life in Hydra is a sunny story. And I never forget how nicely the locals treated me when I first came.

“Really, do you still dream of Leonard, as you say in the book?” I ask.

I was dreaming of him for 44 years. Lately, however, I dream of my parents and my brother. Maybe eventually I am getting closer to myself than ever

She looks towards the sea.

If you asked me to describe Leonard in four words, I would say: kindness, creativity, sensitivity and honesty. In 1998 I started painting inspired from my dreams and his poems and song lyrics. So I managed to unite all the pieces of myself and find the true voice, my creativity. I climbed the concrete pyramid, overtook it and then I realized that it was finally my illusion. Then I carved my own path.

The pair of the Italians sitting next to us turns and looks. They don’t recognize her, but something tells me that if it weren’t her and Leonard, their road might never have brought them here.