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How Young Love Fuelled Leonard Cohen for a Lifetime

We spoke to Nick Broomfield about his new documentary, 'Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love'.

by Joseph Walsh
19 July 2019, 1:40pm

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen. Photo copyright Aviva Layton.

Nick Broomfield is speaking on the phone as he's shuttled between interviews to promote his new film, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love. It's his most personal documentary to date. An emotional and frank tribute to the life-long, on-off romance between Leonard Cohen and one of his greatest loves, Marianne Ihlen – who, incidentally, was also briefly Broomfield's lover.

As we speak, the background sound of siren wails and black cabs zipping past are in direct contrast to Broomfield's subject matter. In his cut-glass accent, the director is recounting his short-lived time on the Greek island of Hydra in the late-60s. The nostalgia is infectious. An island paradise with poets, song writers and artists scribbling and painting under the scorching midday sun, tripping acid in the afternoon, then spending their evenings in free-love trysts, while drinking too much.

"It was an alternative way of life, where people could pursue their arts and their passions unimpeded," recalls Broomfield.

Nick-Broomfield young
A young Nick Broomfield. Photo copyright Nick Broomfield.

Back in 1968, when he arrived on the island, things were less wild. He was on a break from studying law as an undergrad and was on a stuffy trip touring Greece with a gaggle of Oxford dons. When "life of the party" Rosalind Runcie turned up, she suggested his time on Hydra would be better spent among people closer to his own tribe. It was here that he met Ihlen – the woman who played a huge role transforming Cohen from a struggling novelist and poet into the influential singer and songwriter he became.

Cohen had been back and forth to the Hydra commune since 1960, and in a relationship with Ihlen for seven years. By the time Broomfield got there, Cohen was living in New York, having released his first album, the un-inspiringly titled Songs of Leonard Cohen. Despite the title, it was a soulful quest for grace that launched a 50-year career, and included two of his earliest hits, "Suzanne", written for fellow-Canadian, Suzanne Verdal, and the B-side "So Long Marianne" – a love-letter written for Ihlen.

"I think she was looking for some amusement," says Broomfield of his first encounter with Ihlen, who was nine years older than him and missing Cohen. The director is almost reticent to speak of her, diverting to Cohen when possible. He's not being difficult. Instead, it betrays the affection of an ex-lover recalling happier times. "She was a very unusual person," he says, but little else.

Ihlen has been described as Cohen's muse, a term that doesn't sit well today. She never received a penny in royalties, although throughout his career Cohen sent money to her and her son Axil, who she had with her ex-husband, the novelist Axel Jensen.

"We live in a very judgmental time," says Broomfield. "Values are all very black and white. It is a mistake to judge one decade or era with the values of another one."

He's drawn back into talking about Ihlen. Despite her Nordic good-looks, she wasn't some ethereal beauty of Greek myth. Broomfield says she was more like the record producer Rick Rubin – able to bring the best out of artists but, in Ihlen's case, unconcerned about any monetary gain: "She was someone who was intellectually and emotionally involved in an artist's work, and helped in a way that pushed the work forward."

It wasn't just Cohen. Ihlen helped many others, too. Broomfield recounts that, after moving to London, she became friends with those involved in the satirical comedy That Was the Week That Was, with David Frost.

marianne ihlen
Marianne Ihlen. Photo copyright Nick Broomfield.

"She never said to Leonard, or any artist she helped, that she wanted 10 percent. She was very tough on herself and never saw the talent that she had," says Broomfield. "She thought that if it wasn't her doing the painting or the writing, then it wasn't a gift, even though she was a tremendous spotter of talent."

In a world in which producers are now seen as equal to the artists, some might still argue that Cohen exploited Ihlen's nurturing impulses – but, as Broomfield says: it was a different time.

Broomfield shows no interest in judging Cohen, rather he admires him for his strength to live life raw to the bone, with utter honesty. "His strength as an artist – be it as a poet, novelist or songwriter – was that there was never an attempt to cover anything up," he says. "[I] think being a great writer, artist or musician, you are dealing with your true self, and you aren't pretending that you are something a lot better or different than you are. I think that is very difficult to do now."

Most of Broomfield’s connection to Cohen came through the women they both knew. "We seem to have shared – well, maybe I shouldn't say 'shared' – lovers. Let's say women that we knew in common," he says. "I learned more about him from the women that knew him."

This explains why the film is such a personal work for Broomfield. But it's not about the sex. It's about the impact of Cohen – who he met outside of Hydra to talk about the struggles of Ihlen's son, Axel – and Ihlen on his own journey. "These two people were so formative in my life. As with the passing of a parent, or someone I was really close to, you think about all the conversations you wished you had," he says.

Broomfield isn't in doubt about Cohen and Marianne's love. Cohen might not have been able to give himself fully to Marianne in the way she wanted him to, but neither of them regretted their relationship. The documentary opens with a sucker punch that captures that love. At 81, Marianne is dying of leukaemia. At her bedside, her closest friend, Jan Christian Mollestad, reads to her a letter sent from Cohen:

"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."

Cohen died four months later.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love is out now.

@JosephDAWalsh