Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen: the poet, his muse and one of music's great love stories

As a documentarian, Nick Broomfield has set his extraordinary investigative skills against some of rock’s most intriguing stories. There has been the intimate portrait of Whitney Houston in Whitney: Can I Be Me, a deep dive into Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur’s ill-fated friendship in Biggie & Tupac, and, perhaps most famously, an investigation into allegations that Courtney Love was somehow involved in the death of her husband Kurt Cobain, in Kurt & Courtney.

All mesmerising stories in their own right, yet for his latest opus, Broomfield has turned his attention to the compelling relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen – an iconic love story that endured for well over half a century. Broomfield is a master of storytelling, but Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, with its bounty of archival footage, family member interviews and intimate photographs, is drenched in atmosphere, melancholy and romance. It brings the audience closer to the enigmatic Ihlen than they’ve likely ever been before.

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Cohen may have written some of his most wonderful songs for her and about her (including, famously, ‘Bird on the Wire’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’), but as Broomfield demonstrates, their union was often complex, and filled with heartache and tensions.

The year 2016 was when their love affair and friendship landed at its definitive full stop. As Marianne, then 81, lay on her deathbed, her friend Jan Christian Mollestad reached out to Cohen to let him know that she was nearing the end of her life. Cohen promptly wrote a final letter to his one-time lover that soon went viral.

“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,” the letter reportedly read. “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has, too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude.”

It became a beautiful swansong, somehow one of the most ‘Cohen’ creations there ever was. It became imbued with even more poignancy when Cohen’s death was announced only a few months later on November 7.

Whatever about its poetic end, Cohen and Marianne’s story even has an extraordinary and exotic origin: the sleepy, sun-drenched Greek island of Hydra. In 1960, as Cohen -then a struggling poet and novelist in his 20s – was travelling around Europe, he decided to ditch the drizzle of London’s East End for the sunnier climes of Greece. At that point, tales of Hydra’s bohemian utopia were legion. Many people were running from something or someone, and trying subtly to reinvent themselves or recalibrate their lives.

Within a few days of his arrival, he had met, and become entranced by, the Norwegian beauty who seemed entirely adept at enrapturing everyone in her path. A single mother, Marianne had essentially decamped from her small town in Norway to elope with a novelist, Axel Jensen, but their relationship wasn’t built to last.

Yet despite this, her connection with Leonard, when they met in a supermarket, was electric and intense from the outset. “I remember my eyes met his eyes,” Marianne recalled in footage sewn into Broomfield’s film. “I felt it throughout my whole body. It was incredible.”

Little wonder that Broomfield found Marianne and Cohen’s story an endlessly rich seam to mine for this latest film project, the result of extensive interviews with friends, colleagues and comrades, as well as previously unseen footage of the pair together.

Yet Broomfield has a curiously enviable vantage point in this one instance, and he has described this as one of the most personal projects he has undertaken. In 1968, as a young law student himself, Broomfield (now 71) had a brief fling with Marianne himself on Hydra. She was 32 to his 20. Like Cohen, he too remained in touch with her until her death from leukaemia three years ago.

Broomfield is no stranger to inserting himself into his projects as a towering truthseeker, but here, Broomfield’s own romance with the Norwegian beauty also gives the documentary an added dimension.

“I was 20 when I went to Hydra and met her,” Broomfield told IndieWire magazine, “in the sun-kissed height of summer. I was bowled over by the beauty of Hydra; she was part of that experience.

“Then I got to know her better. She was encouraging. She encouraged Leonard during the time he was writing books and making that transition to singing his songs, or putting his poems to music.”

Even though Broomfield was studying to become a barrister, Marianne spotted a nascent talent as a film-maker in him. “I (then) made Who Cares with a wind-up camera, with voices of the people speaking over the images,” Broomfield recalled in a recent interview.

As he joins the dots between his and Marianne’s fling, comparing and contrasting it with her decades-long affair with Cohen, he remains very much in thrall to Laughing Lenny.

At one point, Marianne visited Broomfield in Wales, revealing to him that she was pregnant with Leonard’s child. It was reported she terminated the pregnancy.

“If anyone should have had Leonard’s children, she deserved to have them, but she didn’t for Leonard’s sake,” says Aviva Layton, a friend of Cohen’s at the time, in the film.

In the beginning of course, Marianne and Leonard’s union was cosy and domestic. Leonard set about writing his first novel, The Favourite Game, while Marianne and young Axel moved into his home. Cohen would habitually come and go, yet all the while Marianne would encourage him to reach his potential.

It wasn’t long before the cracks set in and Leonard hankered after life in a bigger city. Cohen enjoyed regular writing bouts on LSD and cannabis; Marianne would season her cooking with the latter.

Marianne initially followed Cohen out of Hydra and to the US, but found his nomadic city lifestyle uncomfortable. They enjoyed, or endured, an eight-year, on-off relationship.

In the interim, Cohen, then a denizen of the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York, was enjoying affairs with scenesters like Nico and Janis Joplin. Though fans will know that Cohen lays bare his romance with the latter in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, Broomfield reveals Marianne’s take on it all in a brilliantly intimate interview shown in the documentary. “I wanted to put him in a cage, lock him up and swallow the key.All the girls were panting for him. It hurt me so much. It destroyed me.”

Yet Marianne, too, wasn’t entirely without sin: “He was having his affairs; she was having her affairs; they were both quite active in that regard,” Helle Goldman, a photographer friend of the two, says in the documentary.

“He had a voracious appetite for women. But Marianne left her own trail of broken hearts.”

Cohen admitted his own romantic unrest to Marianne’s biographer, Kari Hesthamar, in 2015.

“I wanted many women, many kinds of experiences, many countries, many climates, many love affairs,” he revealed. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was natural for me then to see life as some kind of buffet where there was a lot of different tastes.”

In time, Cohen began a relationship with an artist named Suzanne Elrod. She gave birth to a son, Adam (producer of Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want it Darker) and a daughter, Lorca.

Marianne, though, hankered after quietude in her home town. She took a job in the personnel department of a company that built offshore oil platforms, and in 1979 married Jan Stang, an engineer, becoming stepmother to his three children.

Broomfield also investigates the later years of young Axel, who eventually spent much of his adulthood living in institutions. Many of the children who grew up with the romance and excess of Hyrdra at close range, interviewees in the documentary intimate, became “irreparably damaged”.

And for Marianne, the shadow of her former love loomed large for much of her life.

“For the last 40 years,” she told Hesthamar, “I’ve still been dreaming about Leonard. Even if he’s together with someone else, and regardless of the setting, the dreams are positive for me.”

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’ will be screened at the IFI, Dublin, and Stella Theatre Ranelagh on Tuesday with a Q&A. It will also be shown in Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Dún Laoghaire and Castlebar in coming weeks

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