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So Long, Marianne: A Love Story -- includes rare material by Leonard Cohen


At 22, Marianne Ihlen travelled to the Greek island of Hydra with writer Axel Jensen. Axel wrote and Marianne kept house, until the day Axel abandoned her and their newborn son for another woman. One day while Marianne is shopping in a little grocery store, in walks a man who asks her to join him and some friends outside at their table. He introduces himself as Leonard Cohen, then a little-known writer.

Thus starts a love story that lasts through most of the 1960s and which ...

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So Long, Marianne: A Love Story --includes rare material by Leonard Cohen

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At 22, Marianne Ihlen travelled to the Greek island of Hydra with writer Axel Jensen. Axel wrote and Marianne kept house, until the day Axel abandoned her and their newborn son for another woman. One day while Marianne is shopping in a little grocery store, in walks a man who asks her to join him and some friends outside at their table. He introduces himself as Leonard Cohen, then a little-known writer.

Thus starts a love story that lasts through most of the 1960s and which takes them to Oslo, Montreal and New York and back to Hydra. Meanwhile, Cohen writes “So Long, Marianne,” one of the most beautiful love songs of all time. Peppered with previously unpublished poems, letters, and photographs, So Long, Marianne is an intimate, honest account of Marianne’s journey and a portrait of the international artists’ colony on Hydra in the 1960s.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Leonard Cohen's fans know the song that carries her name, but this book offers a tender and intimate telling of the young love that inspired it from both the muse and poet. Based on interviews with Marianne Ihlen and Cohen, Hestamar offers a biography of woman who inspired two famous writers. The first half of the book recounts Marianne's turbulent relationship with the Norwegian author Axel Jensen. Cohen enters the story only after Jensen abandoned her and her infant son, with a gentle and generous love that lasted for years and, as he wrote in a poem, "still lives in spine." A vivid glimpse of life on the Greek island of Hydra where artists traveled to live, love and escape convention in the heady ‘60s, with excursions to Norway, Montreal and New York, this thoughtful story of a young woman finding her own way in and out of love is a good read in its own right. The glimpse into Cohen's memories and heart is a particular treat for his fans, and they will be pleased to find several previously unpublished poems. (June)
From the Publisher

So Long, Marianne will appeal primarily to [Cohen’s] legion of die-hard fans wanting to fill in biographical gaps and read some of his previously unpublished poems. Yet the book’s great delight is Hesthamar’s sun-drenched evocation of life in Hydra during the years of its transformation into a Bohemian idyll for poets, painters, and musicians from around the world.” — Quill & Quire

“A vivid glimpse of life on the Greek island of Hydra where artists traveled to live, love and escape convention in the heady ’60s, with excursions to Norway, Montreal and New York, this thoughtful story of a young woman finding her own way in and out of love is a good read in its own right. The glimpse into Cohen's memories and heart is a particular treat for his fans, and they will be pleased to find several previously unpublished poems.” — Publishers Weekly

“A quirky and unusual addition to the Cohen files, with previously unpublished poems, letters, and photographs.” — Booklist

“While many muses’ identities are confined to their role in the art they sparked, Hesthamar’s thoughtful and empathetic biography centers on the woman herself, elevating her from an inspiration to a full-fledged human, interesting for her own life, on her own merits . . . Marianne is ultimately a likable and beautifully imperfect protagonist. It’s the mark of a wonderful biography that we, too, fall in love.” — Shelf Awareness for Readers

“Richly textured and revealing . . . Readers will be drawn to Ihlen as representative of a young woman’s struggles in the changing society and artistic milieu of her time. Her story will provide an additional perspective for those familiar with Cohen’s work. Rare letters, poems, and photographs enhance the text.” — Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781770411289
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Publication date: 6/10/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 591,915
  • Lexile: 1030L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Award-winning journalist Kari Hesthamar wrote this book based on lengthy conversations with Marianne Ihlen and supplemented by interviews with Leonard Cohen. Helle V. Goldman spent her childhood on the Greek island of Hydra and in Providence, Rhode Island. She resides with her husband and daughter on yet another island, this time in Norway—above the Arctic Circle—where she is the chief editor of an international scientific journal. In her free time she is working on a film documentary about Hydra with the Skofteland Film production company.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 4
New Marianne

On their way through the port of Hydra the next day, laden with suitcases, diapers and baby, an old Greek woman they knew headed for them. She crossed herself, peeked into the baby carrier and dry-spat at Axel Joachim. Marianne’s heart beat faster in her chest as she looked with astonishment at the hunchbacked woman. She didn’t know that this symbolic gesture was the customary way of protecting a child from the evil eye.

At twenty-five years of age, Marianne came back to the little whitewashed house in Kala Pigadia with a baby in her arms. The house had neither electricity nor running water; it was a marked transition from Oslo. Marianne dragged the baby’s carriage, an old one handed down to her by an American woman, between the house and the port. The Norwegian family attracted attention and the little blond Buddha was passed from lap to lap.

Axel said nothing about his new lover. Marianne didn’t ask any questions. Foreseeing what was about to happen, she shut her eyes and hoped it would fade away, hoped that Axel would find contentment with her and their child. But the American painter with the long dark hair had rented a room on the island and spent more and more time with Axel. Marianne picked one of the yellow flowers on the un-cemented terrace and plucked off the petals one by one. In her mind she pictured the blue-painted wooden bench where they changed Axel Joachim’s diapers, the white rooms, the books and typewriter. She was afraid of losing everything they had created together in this place. The fairy tale suddenly lay beyond her reach. It was as if there were a glass wall between her and everything else. In a dreamlike state, she saw herself climbing up on the wall around the house while she stared down the steep hillside, wanting out.

The Man in the Sixpence

One warm late morning in May, Marianne enlists a neighbour woman to watch Axel Joachim while she goes shopping. Bougainvillea vines are blossoming in pinks and reds; the whole of Hydra is about to burst into bloom. She descends the steep steps from the house and follows the old river course toward the harbour, greeting acquaintances along the way.

Yassou, pedi mou.” Hello, my child.


Down at the port she goes into Katsikas’ with her basket to buy bottled water and milk for the baby. She is wearing a pair of wooden-soled sandals and a home-sewn skirt with big pleats and colourful stripes against a pale blue background. A man she hasn’t noticed before stands in the doorway, the sun behind him, in chinos and a shirt with rolled up sleeves. Tennis shoes and a sixpence cap. Marianne can’t see his face, just his silhouette, and she hears him say, “Would you like to join us? We’re sitting outside.”

Marianne accepts demurely and finishes her shopping. She takes her basket and goes out and sits at his table, where three or four other foreigners are gathered. They sit on the small straight-backed chairs with woven seats. Some are drinking retsina. Marianne drinks juice, shying away from alcohol so early in the day. She is alert, aware that she must soon go home to relieve the babysitter. Bashful and not knowing quite what to say, she looks away. It’s quiet and relaxed around the table. The man doesn’t say anything remarkable, but he looks at Marianne. And when their eyes meet, her entire body trembles.

Marianne rises from the table and takes her leave. Walks with light steps up Kala Pigadia to the little house. The basket is heavy, but she is not aware of the weight. She feels almost tipsy when she comes home. She hustles the sitter out the door and puts on some music. Dances around the room, thinking that it’s wonderful to be there together with Axel Joachim. Doesn’t care that he doesn’t want to go to sleep right away. Feeling light, easy.

Marianne rests during the afternoon with her child while the sun is at its highest. When she awakens she is full of anticipation. She wants to go down to the port again, where everyone she knows is gathered and where she may again encounter the Canadian whom she met earlier in the day. Leonard. The dark-haired poet with the sixpence and the intense gaze.

She pulls a sunhat on her baby boy’s head and rolls the carriage down Kala Pigadia, Axel forgotten for a little while.

• *

Leonard Cohen remembers that he’d seen Marianne many times together with Axel and the baby before she took any notice of him. He had watched them sailing down the port — blonde, beautiful and tanned — and he thought, What a beautiful Holy Trinity they are.

It was more or less accidental that Leonard came to Hydra. He was staying in London to work on his first novel, but felt that it never stopped raining there. He was from Montreal, where it was snowy and cold, but people knew how to keep their houses warm. In London it seemed to rain ceaselessly and there was little warmth indoors. A hot water bottle took the chill out of the bed, but didn’t banish the dampness that pervaded the sheets and his clothing.

One day Leonard walked into the Bank of Greece, to cash a traveller’s cheque or on some other errand. One of the tellers was a young, tanned man who was smiling. Leonard asked, “How did you get that expression? Everybody else is white and sad.” The man answered that he’d just come back from Greece, where spring was in full swing. Leonard got on a plane to Athens the next day, the 13th of April, 1960. He visited the Acropolis, spent the night in Piraeus and took the boat to Hydra. He wrote his mother a postcard saying that he wasn’t suffering from culture shock; on the contrary, he felt that Hydra was home.

Leonard, whose mother was of Russian origin and whose father had been a military officer, had an old-fashioned background, like Marianne. They shared some of the same courtesies — values that belonged to an older era. Leonard’s calling had been known to him from a young age. He knew that he wanted to be a writer, not for a popular audience, but for dead poets like William Butler Yeats. He wanted to be one of them. And if he could become a writer with that kind of integrity — if the gift had been bestowed upon him — there would be money, and women. Not in great quantities, but enough. He would have a roof over his head and a beautiful view.

• *

The island’s foreigners often gathered at the port in the evening, the day’s work behind them. One of these starry spring nights, the smell of flowers in the air, the usual gang is assembled at the back room of Katsikas’. Leonard Cohen is there. Marianne, Axel and his lover Patricia. In the light of oil lamps, they drink retsina from an oak cask. In the middle of the floor is an oval pan full of charcoal. Sophia hooks down a dried octopus from the ceiling and readies it for the hot grill. Marianne doesn’t like to have Axel Joachim out with her in the evenings: the neighbour girl with the long dark braids is keeping an eye on the little boy, who is in his pyjamas, in bed.

Marianne is having trouble concentrating. Leonard, in his cap and tennis shoes, is sitting on one of the straight-backed chairs. At the same table, Axel and Patricia are drinking wine. The mood rises as long discussions unfold about art and life. Patricia is beautiful, as slight as a tiny bird. Marianne feels a stab in her chest but doesn’t make a scene. She has almost become her own mother, who maintained that if a glass had to be smashed in anger, choose a mustard glass.

Axel becomes steadily drunker, and late at night the four of them go outside for some fresh air. Leonard, Marianne, Axel, Patricia. They lie down on the flat, smooth paving stones, resting their heads on a low curb. Look up at the starry sky. They are all in their mid-twenties. It’s 1960, two and a half years since Marianne first came to Hydra. The harbour is quiet. There are no tourists, no restaurants blasting thumping music. Just them.

A little while later the group breaks up and they go their separate ways. Marianne and Axel start in on the ascent up to their house. There is tension between them, the run-up to a quarrel. Just before they reach home Marianne stops by a ledge and puts down her basket of food and milk. She asks Axel to leave, to take Patricia away from Hydra. “Go to her, go to Patricia, because that’s where you’d rather be!” she says loudly and clearly, even though she doesn’t really mean it. She has to get it out and can’t remain passively quiet, ignoring the betrayal any more.

Axel is livid.

They argue loudly. There’s some shoving and scuffling. Marianne tears herself loose and storms up the steps to the house. Axel rushes after her. Axel Joachim is asleep in a wooden cradle on the first floor; the babysitter hurries out when they come. Axel disappears into his workroom where his writing table is. Marianne listens as he discharges his fury. The chairs fly from wall to wall. He overturns everything he comes across, and begins to hurl things out of the window. Suitcases and clothes, hangers and books, hurtling out into the Greek night.

Marianne takes her child out of the cradle and positions herself behind the door in the hope that Axel will calm down. She is scared. When he doesn’t show signs of settling down, she takes off, running as fast as her legs can carry her to the home of George and Charmian and bangs on the door, begging them to please help her. Marianne hands them the baby and asks if they will look after him while she hurries back home to check on Axel. She’s afraid that he’s going to do something. George and Charmian stop her and she lets herself be persuaded to stay with the baby, who is wide awake.

A short while later Axel comes running to the house, barefoot, in the ankle-length djellaba he wore in the Sahara. Standing there, sliced up and bloody from stepping on broken glass, he announces that he’s there to fetch his wife and child. George calms Axel and leads him into his study. Charmian makes up a place for Marianne and the baby to sleep and bundles them to bed.

The next day it’s blown over. Marianne and Axel bring the window frames with broken glass to Francisco the carpenter to repair. The matter isn’t spoken of again.

• *

It hadn’t been more than a few days after Marianne had met Leonard for the very first time when she realized that her relationship with Axel was disintegrating. She stopped pretending not to see Axel’s lover. Axel had been with his little son for barely a week when he decided to take a trip to figure things out. He intended to discover whether he wanted to spend his life with Marianne or the other woman. He was leaving in his own sailboat, a BB11 that had been transported from Norway on a freighter and set on land in Piraeus.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: “Leonard Cohen is no thief!”
Chapter 1: Nineteen and in love
Chapter 2: Away from Norway
Chapter 3: Hydra
Chapter 4: New Marianne
Chapter 5: Slow waltz
Chapter 6: Autumn of love
Chapter 7: Back to Oslo
Chapter 8: Unexpected visit
Chapter 9: Montreal
Chapter 10: Family life on Hydra
Chapter 11: Longing and jealousy
Chapter 12: A station on the way
Chapter 13: New York
Author’s epilogue
Marianne’s epilogue
Translator’s note
Index of persons
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