Obituary: Marianne Ihlen, Leonard Cohen’s muse

Leonard Cohen sent a touching final letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen prior to her death in July. Picture: PA
Leonard Cohen sent a touching final letter to his dying muse Marianne Ihlen prior to her death in July. Picture: PA
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Born: 18 May 1935 in Larkollen, Norway. Died: 29 July, 2016, in Oslo, aged 81.

Marianne Ihlen became immortalized through Leonard Cohen’s classic 1967 track So Long Marianne, in which he sang that she “held on to me like I was a crucifix as we went kneeling through the dark”.

After they met on the Greek island of Hydra, she became his muse, inspiring him to write several songs on his first two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs from a Room (1969). On the latter album’s back sleeve, she helped set the tone through a famous photograph of her at Cohen’s old typewriter, wearing a white towel in their simple whitewashed home in Hydra. The photo suggested a great poet’s innocent idyllic lover, in the same way as Suze Rotolo had done, clasping Bob Dylan’s arm in New York’s snowy West Greenwich Village on the cover of the world-changing 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Looking from that home, Ihlen once saw a bird perched on the island’s first telephone and electricity wires, telling Cohen they looked like musical notation lines and suggested he write a song about it. Thus was born Bird on the Wire, another of his greatest hits with its famous opening lines “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free”.

Marianne Ihlen was born in Larkollen, Norway, on 18 May, 1935 (eight months after Cohen was born to an affluent Canadian Jewish family in Westmount, Quebec). With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one of her family and wanted to become an actress. “But I was opposed by my mother and father, lost my courage and didn’t dare. So I ran away.” She fell in love with Norwegian writer Axel Jensen and they moved to Hydra where, she said, she became his “Greek muse, who sat at his feet while he wrote and carried the groceries uphill from the harbour to our home. We had an outside loo, there was electricity only one hour in the evening and one hour in the morning. Otherwise, we used paraffin lamps.

“Axel and I walked barefoot. We had two clean T-shirts and two pairs of trousers each. But we were clean. And the first prominent man we met was Aristotle Onassis, and Jackie Onassis, and we were invited to all these cocktail parties, six o’clock, drinks before dinner, and we met Princess Margaret of England and famous artists.” Marianne and Axel married in Athens in 1958 and soon had a son, Axel Jensen Jr. However, Jensen Sr was, as Cohen himself would prove to be, something of a ladies’ man. When he was supposed to be back in Oslo “to meet my publishers,” he was seen by a friend of Marianne with a lover. She found herself on Hydra alone with her baby boy.

“I was standing in a shop with my basket waiting to pick up bottled water and milk. And I was crying in front of a Greek lady. Then, there he was (Cohen) standing in the door way with the sun behind him, and you don’t see the face, just the contours, and so I hear his voice saying ‘would you like to join us? Come into the sun. We’re sitting outside’. He was wearing a beautiful little sixpence cap. When my eyes met his, I felt it throughout my body.” While some reports said Cohen had stolen her away from husband, the opposite was true. Axel Jensen abandoned wife and child and Cohen became a beloved surrogate father to the infant Axel Jr, living in Cohen’s rented house in Hydra, where he wrote some of those great songs. Cohen once described her “as the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”.

Suddenly recognised in the US and his native Canada as a serious singer/songwriter, he moved to Montreal and sent Marianne a telegram. “Have house. All I need is my woman and her son. Love Leonard.” She and her son joined him and they lived together for several years while Cohen’s fame grew and his dark songs made even Bob Dylan sound like a cheery soul. But, as with Dylan, Cohen’s art came first and, like Dylan, he would need other muses, including Suzanne Verdal (“and Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river ...”), his compatriot Joni Mitchell, actress Rebecca de Mornay and soul legend Janis Joplin. Cohen perhaps summed up his way of life in the title of his 1977 album Death of a Ladies Man.

As for Ihlen, she recalled that Cohen’s song about her was first titled Come on, Marianne. “When he first wrote it, for me it was like ‘c’mon, if we can just keep this boat afloat’ ,” she recalled. But back in Montreal, the singer changed its significance and cultural resonance completely by altering its title. “I didn’t think I was saying goodbye. But I guess I was,” he later said. With that simple change, it became a song of self-torture and eventually a classic.

Marianne Ihlen was diagnosed with leukemia in late July. After her friend Jan Christian Mollestad called Cohen to say she had only days to live, the singer wrote her a letter, which Mollestad read to her two days before she died. As always, the singer was succinct, poetic and straight to the point. “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 for your wisdom ... but now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

Mr Mollestad said Ihlen had been “so happy and gained extra strength” to have received the letter just before she finally lost consciousness. “When I read the line ‘stretch out your hand,’ she reached her hand out to mine and I hummed Bird on the Wire to her, because that was the Leonard song she felt closest to.” Mollestad wrote back to Cohen: “When we left the room, after her soul had flown out the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words .... So long Marianne.”

Ihlen had married Jan Stang in 1979 and spent most of her time painting in Oslo. She is survived by Stang and her son Axel Jensen Jr.