Leonard Cohen penned a poignant final letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen, a longtime friend of hers revealed on Canadian radio.
Ihlen, whom Cohen wrote about in So Long, Marianne and Bird on a Wire, died in Norway on 28 July, aged 81. Cohen met her as a 23 year old on the Greek island Hydra in the 1960s and they became lovers. So Long, Marianne appeared on his 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The song was inspired by Marianne Jensen, born Marianne Ihlen, whom Cohen met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. Cohen said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. She had recently been left by her husband, the Norwegian writer Axel Jensen, leaving her and their six-month-old son alone on the island. The two hit it off, and Cohen ultimately took her from Hydra back to her home in Oslo, Norway. He later invited her and her son to live with him in Montreal, an offer which she accepted. The two lived together throughout the 1960s, commuting between New York, Montreal, and Hydra.
Her close friend Jan Christian Mollestad got in touch with Cohen to tell him Ihlen was dying. “It took only two hours and in came this beautiful letter from Leonard to Marianne. We brought it to her the next day and she was fully conscious and she was so happy that he had already written something for her,” Mollestad said. Mollestad, a documentary maker, read Cohen’s letter to her before she died. “It said 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 your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” Mollestad told CBC that when he read the line “stretch out your hand,” Ihlen stretched out her hand. “Only two days later she lost consciousness and slipped into death. I wrote a letter back to Leonard saying in her final moments I hummed Bird on a Wire because that was the song she felt closest to. And then I kissed her on the head and left the room, and said “so long, Marianne.”
Leonard Cohen’s Facebook page also marked Ihlen’s death. “The death last week of Marianne Ihlen, the woman immortalized in So Long, Marianne, has evoked an overwhelming response from those who knew Marianne well, those who knew her only as Leonard Cohen’s muse, and even those who previously didn’t know there was a real Marianne,” a post said.
I first saw the island of Hydra in 1976 on a day cruise of the Saronic Islands of Aegina, Poros and Hydra from Athens. From the sea there is nothing and then you turn a headland and are stunned to amazement by the most amphitheatrically perfect hidden Greek Harbour with Captain’s mansions and white houses tumbling down to the water’s edge. Named by the ancient Greeks after its natural springs the island is virtually dry these days and the great merchant fleet of over 150 ships which made it prosperous went after Greek Independence leaving many mansions in ruins. Like Symi and Kalymnos it earned its living from sponge fishing until 1932 when Egypt banned Greek sponge boats from its waters and its population declined again as Hydriots emigrated. Over 8% of its population starved to death in World War II under Nazi occupation.
When Leonard Cohen came here in the 1960’s when many of the buildings in Hydra Town were empty and he bought a house for $16,000 with a legacy from his grandmother. When he lived there electricity arrived on the island and this inspired “Bird on a Wire.” The influx of foreign artists and writers inspired by the island led to gentrification and today on the car free island property is at a premium, a far cry from the island where Leonard and Marianne lived and loved.
“Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”