So Long Marianne – A Love Story
“When I read the lines ‘stretch out your hand,’ she stretched out her hand”
Leonard Cohen died yesterday, something he has been ready to do for a while.
Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, were close in life and in death — in fact, they died just months apart from each other, and the “So Long, Marianne” singer-songwriter said goodbye through a letter that predicted his own death would come “very soon.”
After Cohen was informed of Ihlen’s looming death from leukemia, the legendary singer-songwriter-poet responded two hours later with a “beautiful” letter, which Ihlen’s friend Jan Christian Mollestad then read to Ihlen.
“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 have to say anything more about that because you know all about that,” the letter continued. “But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
“My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records,” Cohen’s son Adam wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.”
Before his death, the songwriter requested that he be laid to rest “in a traditional Jewish rite beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” his rabbi Adam Scheier wrote in a statement.
“Unmatched in his creativity, insight and crippling candor, Leonard Cohen was a true visionary whose voice will be sorely missed,” his manager Robert Kory wrote in a statement. “I was blessed to call him a friend, and for me to serve that bold artistic spirit firsthand, was a privilege and great gift. He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration and healing for generations to come.”
Cohen was the dark eminence among a small pantheon of extremely influential singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties and early Seventies. Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet.
Cohen’s haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns and Greek-chorus backing vocals shaped evocative songs that dealt with love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression. He was also the rare artist of his generation to enjoy artistic success into his Eighties, releasing his final album, You Want It Darker, earlier this year.
“I never had the sense that there was an end,” he said in 1992. “That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”
“For many of us, Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all,” Nick Cave, who covered Cohen classics like “Avalanche,” “I’m Your Man” and“Suzanne,” said in a statement. “Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried. He will be deeply missed by so many.”
Leonard Cohen – So Long, Marianne
The death 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.”
Leonard Cohen penned an emotional final letter to Marianne Ihlen, the woman who inspired his “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire,” just days before her July 29th, 2016, death, Ihlen’s friend Jan Christian Mollestad revealed.
Leonard Cohen; he described her as “perfect” and “the most beautiful woman” he ever saw.
“Our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon,” Leonard Cohen wrote in a note to Marianne Ihlen, composed and sent within two hours of being told that his former lover and muse, suffering from leukaemia, was in a hospital in Norway and not much longer for the world. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again
Ihlen was 81. The math made perfect sense when you stopped and thought about it, but it was jarring nonetheless. For decades we had been carrying an image of her that crystallized the very idea of youth, from the back cover of an album released in 1969 but taken several years earlier, when Cohen was an acclaimed but still-obscure poet and had not yet realized that music might be the best way to take his words to the world. A grainy black-and-white photo showed a blond woman at a desk in the corner of a sparsely furnished bedroom; wrapped demurely (but not quite completely) in a towel, she is turning her attention from the typewriter in front of her and smiling bashfully for the camera.
She and Cohen were lovers in the 1960s after they met in Greece. When Cohen learned Ihlen’s health was deteriorating, he immediately penned her a letter. Her close friend Jan Christian Mollestad, a documentary filmmaker, read Cohen’s letter to her before she died.
Marianne slept slowly out of this life yesterday evening. Totally at ease, surrounded by close friends.
Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her.
It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength. Jan and her friends who saw what this message meant for her, will all thank you in deep gratitude for replying so fast and with such love and compassion.
In her last hour I held her hand and hummed Bird on a Wire, while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left he room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words
So long, Marianne”
Jan Christian Mollestad
JCM: August 2016: Marianne and I were very close. Fourteen days ago, I got a text from her saying ‘Hello, it’s Marianne, I’m in the hospital in Oslo. I’m dying. Please take care of my husband Jan and my son.” And I phoned her immediately and said “what, what?!”
She said doctors found that she was in the last period of leukemia. She said I’m going to die; I only have a few days left. And we rushed to the hospital, and she said please could you tell Leonard what is happening. So I went home and I sent him a letter telling him that, unfortunately, it seems like Marianne only has a few days to live. 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.
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…
When I read the lines “stretch out your hand,” she 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 “A 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.”
Marianne Ihlen was born in Larkollen, Norway, on May 18 1935, to a traditional Norwegian family. At the age of 22, “young, naive and in love,” she shocked her family by eloping with Axel Jensen (1932-2003), a lean, intense Norwegian novelist. They travelled round Europe by car and eventually wound up in Athens and set off to explore the islands. On the advice of a Greek, they settled for Hydra.
She was the beautiful blonde, scantily wrapped in a white towel and seated at a desk on the Greek island of Hydra, who features on the sleeve of his 1969 LP, Songs from a Room. She was also the inspiration for one of his best-known songs, the elegiac So Long, Marianne.
In March 1960, aiming to escape from the rain of London, Cohen booked a passage to Greece and gravitated to Hydra, at that time a golden sanctuary for artists, international bohemians and travellers.
Possessed of a memorably gloomy nature at the best of times, the lonely poet and songwriter was struck by the sight of a good-looking couple walking along the Agora, arm in arm. Soon afterwards the husband sailed away and, as Cohen commented later: “I had no idea that I would spend the next decade with this man’s wife.”
Marianne Ihlen was 23 years old when she arrived on the Greek island of Hydra. The story begins in the 1950s, in Oslo, a town marked by jazz and a budding youth rebellion. Together with her boyfriend Axel Jensen, Marianne runs away to Greece and lands on the island of Hydra, where a few international artists have already congregated, and they are soon joined by Göran Tunstrøm. Axel and Marianne buy a small white washed house where Axel Jensen amongst other stories writes his novel Line. After a couple of years Axel leaves the island, Marianne and their six months little son, for another woman. One day Marianne was in the village shop with her basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk, a dark man is standing in the doorway with the sun behind him. He is saying: “Would you like to join us, we’re sitting outside?” It is Leonard Cohen. He calls her the most beautiful woman he has ever met. Cohen drives her home from Greece to Oslo. Later she receives a telegram from Montreal:
“Have house. All I need is my woman and her son
Shortly afterwards she goes to Canada with her little boy. Cohen, Marianne and “little Axel” live together during the 60s, and commute between Montreal, New York and Hydra.
Cohen met Ihlen in the Sixties while vacationing on the Greek Island in Hydra; he ultimately invited her and her infant son to live with him in Montreal. Ihlen and Cohen remained together for the next seven years, with their relationship serving as Cohen’s inspiration for Songs of Leonard Cohen‘s “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and Songs From a Room‘s “Bird on the Wire.”
Cohen’s verified Facebook page also remembered Ihlen with a series of written tributes from her friends and Cohen biographers as well as a letter Mollestad wrote to Cohen informing the singer of Ihlen’s death.
“Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her. It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength,” Mollestad wrote.
As Cohen’s career took off — effectively he was a rock star from 1967 onward — the new circles in which he moved weren’t so congenial to a woman with a young child, and in most of the Cohen narratives this is where Marianne’s trail goes cold. But that’s unfair. It’s one thing for the rest of us to talk of myths and mystique, but Marianne Ihlen was a real person, with a real life to live —that life was exemplary.
There was an odyssey in search of self, one not untypical of those searching times: Paris, Oslo, Montreal, Mexico, New York, sometimes with Cohen nearby but more and more without, making frequent pit stops in the always restorative Hydra. She finally retreated permanently to Norway in the early 1970s, seeking a stability that she found, remarrying and eventually settling into a long career in the oil industry, her spiritual needs met by a blossoming interest in Tibetan Buddhism. If serving as the subject of a generational song that named her by name was any kind of burden to her, she never complained about it. Nor did she attempt to trade on it.
As for Cohen, his touching final farewell to the woman he had first given a benediction nearly 50 years before makes it clear that their connection is permanent. It’s a lovely bit of poetic coincidence, then, that his house just off the Main, bought in the ’70s and the site of photo opportunities for Cohen pilgrims ever since, is a stone’s throw from Marie-Anne St. Many of those same fans can’t resist posing in front of the street sign. Marianne is still working her magic.
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah