Music Biopics

December 3, 2019

Leonard Cohen’s Muses

Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra 
in the mid-1960s. MOVIE POSTER: Leonard & arianne: Words of Love

Nick Broomfield’s new film, Leonard and Marianne: Words of Love, examines the songwriter’s life and the many women who inspired him

By Larry Jaffee

The new documentary Leonard & Marianne: Words of Love, directed by Nick Broomfield, ostensibly is about the romance on the Greek island of Hydra in the early to mid-1960s between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, but ruminates largely about his relationships with many women and singer/songwriter’s inability to commit himself fully to a single lover.

Numerous acquaintances marvel at his ability to deeply touch and empathize with women, praising him for his sensitivity, but acknowledging his tendency to eventually pull away. One woman says Cohen considered himself a feminist and told her that he was “looking forward to when women take over.”

Marianne Ihlen. FROM THE FILM: Leonard & arianne: Words of Love

Marianne Ihlen. From the film: Leonard & arianne: Words of Love

Cohen, a Canadian originally from Montreal, died at 82 on Nov. 7, 2016, three months after his Norwegian muse Marianne passed away. His body of work celebrates life’s mysteries, as well as his love for many women. In Broomfield’s film, Cohen’s wandering eye is on full display, ultimately leading to Marianne’s melancholy, even though she eventually moved from Hydra after stints later living with him in New York, apparently when he was two-timing her. He’d go back and play happy families in Montreal with his first wife Suzanne and their newborn son Adam (they’d later have a daughter Lorca).

On the back cover photograph on his second album, Songs From A Room (1969), it is Marianne wrapped in the towel sitting at the desk. Marianne left her abusive husband, who was having her own affair, to be with Cohen, who became a surrogate father to her later troubled son Axel.

A 1979 photo in a Mojo magazine article shows a dressed but barefoot Cohen, then 45, sitting at that same desk in Hydra, while his then Romanian girlfriend Michelle casually lounged nude on the bed.

On the liner notes of the 1975 compilation, Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits in the back sleeve’s liner notes to “So Long, Marianne” (appeared first on his debut album) he writes Marianne gave him many songs as a muse. “I didn’t think I was saying goodbye but I guess I was,” admits Cohen in a guilty moment of self-reflection, of which he’s clearly not proud.

In 1970 Isle of Wight concert footage, he dedicates the song to Marianne, and wonders if she’s put there among the massive festival audience. At another show, he similarly laments from the stage that they “used to spend six months out of the year together, and then dwindled down to “four months, two months, two weeks, two days.”

So much of his work touches on this complex dance that is a universal truth among all lovers. An indiscretion or miscommunication could trigger a tinge of jealousy that could rapidly forever damage the union.

Still there’s no doubt that Cohen championed women, with whom he frequently collaborated and relied on many different levels. For example, when his poetry and foray as a novelist stalled in the mid-1960s, the popular folk singer Judy Collins encouraged him to sing and perform his own songs. She had already had a hit with his “Suzanne,” which was inspired after meeting the wife of a French-Canadian friend. She never fully succumbed to his charms, despite his claim in the line: “For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.” Cohen eventually met another Suzanne, whom he married and gave birth to his two children.

Cohen As Sex Symbol

In the documentary, his occasional producer John Lissauer noted the audience on one 1970s tour appeared to be composed mostly of what appeared to be depressed women, who would flock to him after the show to say that he saved their lives. His guitarist Ron Cornelius mentions that Cohen often would swim nude at 5:30 a.m. if the tour’s hotel had a pool. Other vintage footage in Leonard & Marianne shows Cohen chatting up a younger female admirer, and self-deprecatingly suggests to her that he is failing because the film camera is hampering his seduction acumen.

Cohen didn’t look like a rock star, more like a well-dressed tailor. Even though his music gained popularity, especially in Europe, during the Woodstock era, he didn’t share the hippie dress code of t-shirts and jeans. He no doubt was a lothario, but stayed out of the tabloids most likely because he never sold much commercially.

In the mid-1980s when MTV ruled the music business, CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff famously told him, “Look, Leonard. We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” It was an obvious euphemism that he was a drain on the bottom line, and the label didn’t need to carry another prestige artist on the roster, which included Bob Dylan.

Hence, Columbia Records in its infinite stupidity rejected for U.S. release Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, which contained the now classic “Hallelujah,” of which more than 300 versions have been recorded or performed by other artists. One wonders whether he meant sexual positions, but I digress.

The cover photo of his comeback 1988 album I’m Your Man displays a dapper Cohen wearing a stylish suit, designer t-shirt and shades while munching on a banana, captured a swagger that no doubt made him attractive to many women, neither in a movie-star handsome George Clooney nor nebbish Woody Allen manner.

My favorite story about Cohen comes from Ian Terry, a recording engineer, who wrote a column for a trade magazine I edited. They were working in Montreal on Cohen’s 1988 comeback album, I’m Your Man. After several long days and nights in the studio, the two of them took a break to get a meal at a fine restaurant.

Leonard looked like a bum. He hadn’t shaved, nor probably showered or changed into clean clothes in days. He smelled bad. As the duo sat at their table, women gravitated towards the local celebrity, as if he was a human magnet. Ian was envious.

In 2004 on Dear Heather’s “Because of” a bewildered Cohen wondered why women would still find him attractive: “Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery/Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age/They make a secret place in their busy lives/And they take me there/They become naked in their different ways/and they say, ‘Look at me, Leonard, Look at me one last time’.”

“Leonard Cohen was one of the greatest poets, but for me, he was also one of the most important people in my life, and losing him is like losing a limb,” actress Rebecca De Mornay told People magazine.

Despite being 25 years his junior, De Mornay and Cohen formed a couple from 1987 through 1993. They reportedly were even engaged, but nuptials called off for reasons never explained. Cohen joined a California monastery soon after, adhering to the demands of a Buddhist monk’s lifestyle for several years.

“He was my ground, he was my aerial,” De Mornay said. “I really cannot fathom what life will be like without him in it. At least I was able to spend time with him in his last year. He faced death as he faced life: straight on, with honesty, grace, and breathtaking depth of perception. He enjoyed the quiet, simple moments with friends, and being immersed in working on songs. There was no one like him, and there never will be.”

As with the first Suzanne, Cohen didn’t always succeed in charming the object of his affection. According to a 1993 interview with the British magazine Mojo, he admitted to chasing for years Nico, the then-blonde, leggy German model-turned-chanteuse who briefly was in the Velvet Underground.

Back in 1967, Nico rejected outright his advances she thought he because he was too old. It was not surprising since Nico had recently seduced a 16-year-old Jackson Browne.

According to Lou Reed folklore, Nico, who died in 1987, was an anti-Semite who didn’t want to have sex with Jewish men.

Cohen described to a journalist a lasting platonic friendship with Nico. In the early 1970s, as the Chelsea Hotel bar closed, Nico suggested they go back to his room upstairs. Apparently misreading her signals, Cohen put a hand on her wrist. Nico hit him so hard that he fell off the bed and 20 policemen rushed in, responding to her screams.


A Chelsea Hotel tryst that did happen figures prominently in “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” He once admitted to a journalist that the song was about a rendezvous with Janis Joplin. Usually not the type to kiss and tell, Cohen often chastised himself for not being more discreet even though Joplin was no longer around:

“Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street … You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception.”

That song appeared on his 1974 album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, whose cover is adorned by a 1550 illustration of a couple intertwined, depicting “the spiritual union of the male and female principle.”

The record also contained “Lover, Lover, Lover,” whom he urges “come back to me.” He also draws battle lines in “There Is A War” between “the rich and poor” and “between the man and the woman.”

At the time, he was living with the aforementioned Marianne and her son: “Well I live here with a woman and a child/The situation makes me kind of nervous/Yes, I rise up from her arms, she says, “I guess you call this love”/I call it service.”

That doesn’t sound like a blissful lover.

By the album’s last song, “Leaving Greensleeves,” he appears conflicted about the relationship: “For I have loved you so long/ Delighting in your very company/Now if you intend to show me disdain/Don’t you know it all the more enraptures me/For even so I still remain Your lover in captivity.”

There’s no doubt he often was caught up in matters of the flesh and communication in bed, such as these lines from “Hallelujah”: There was a time you let me know/What’s really going on below/Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?/Yeah but I remember Yeah when I moved in you/And the holy dove she was moving too.” Sounds like they might have both climaxed simultaneously because “Yes and every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah!”

The macho protagonist in “I’m Your Man” seems to brag of his lovemaking prowess, but he admits his fallibility: “I’ve been running through these promises to you/That I made and I could not keep/Ah but a man never got a woman back/Not by begging on his knees/Or I’d crawl to you baby/And I’d fall at your feet/And I’d howl at your beauty/Like a dog in heat/And I’d claw at your heart/I’d tear at your sheet/I’d say please, please/I’m your man.”

On the inside liner notes of The Best of Leonard Cohen, an illustration shows a naked man bending down to kiss the feet of a nude goddess, who’s gazing into a hand-held mirror.

Cohen comes off egotistical and judgmental in I’m Your Man’s “Everybody Knows”:

“Everybody knows that you love me, baby/Everybody knows that you really do/Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/Ah give or take a night or two/Everybody knows you’ve been discreet/But there were so many people you just had to meet/Without your clothes And everybody knows.”

His song “Diamonds in the Minefield” from the aptly titled Songs of Love and Hate 1971 album must have been the result of a drunken night following a break-up: “Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch/Some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch/And the only man of energy, yes the revolution’s pride/He trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child.”

Similarly, producer Phil Spector brought out the worst in him with Death of A Ladies’ Man, especially “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On,” which could be a Donald Trump “locker-room” chant.

Angel Muses

During his 1988 and 1993 tours his female backup singers, Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, would line up on each side of Cohen, as it was some sort of erotic siren call that suggested a potential ménage à trois. This onstage mise-èn-scene brought out Cohen at his most romantic, one who made women swoon.

An earlier backup singer, Jennifer Warnes (seen in the Broomfield film), in 1986 recorded an entire album of Cohen’s songs, Famous Blue Raincoat. In his latter-year tours, the backup singers were the “sublime Webb sisters,” as he would introduce them.

Through the years, he counted on various women to help him in concert, in the recording studio, serve as lyrical muses, and handle his financial affairs. Leanne Ungar was his longtime recording engineer. Among his go-to studio collaborators were singer Anjani Thomas and Sharon Robinson (with whom he co-wrote many songs). In 2007, Sony released a Cohen-produced album called Blue Alert, sung entirely by Thomas, who had found his handwritten lyrics in his desk.

Robinson produced Ten New Songs (2001), which contained his ultimate love song “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and a painting of both Robinson and Cohen adorn the album’s cover. Dear Heather (2004) was produced by Ungar, Robinson, and Thomas. (A fourth producer was male.)

In 2004 Cohen learned that Kelley Lynch, his business manager for 17 years, stole from him $5 million, most of his nest egg, forcing him out of retirement at 72. In Broomfield’s film, a stoic Cohen said he still could never fully hate Lynch, despite leaving him broke.

Perhaps the discipline he practiced at the monastery allowed him to summon the energy needed for the last decade of his life. Cohen produced at a torrid creative pace, resulting in several world tours, concerts that would exceed three hours, twice as long the shows he did when he was decades younger. At one of those shows in Oslo captured by Broomfield, a tearful, aged Marianne is highlighted in the front row.

Cohen’s output included several live albums from those tours and three studio albums, including his swansong released the month before he died, Some Like It Darker. In that last year of life, Cohen learned that his former lover was fighting for her life in Norway. He wrote her a letter via email that in Leonard & Marianne is read to a conscious Marianne while in her hospital bed and receiving oxygen:

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.

Mortality is the great equalizer, and no doubt Cohen was spiritually well prepared for what came next from his monastery years of self-reflection and regret.

After absorbing the lasting impression of Leonard & Marianne, it begs the question: Was Cohen just a sensitive cad who had a way with words, perhaps more evolved than most of his generation, but still a philanderer all the same?


  1. Pauline Mulligan

    His songs comforted me… made me feel better and I lived singing along…long live Leonard Cohen’s songs..class act

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *