Marianne Ihlen passed away of leukaemia in Norway last week at the age of 81. Best remembered as the subject of Leonard Cohen's famous 1967 folk song "So Long, Marianne," she was also Cohen's muse (and, perhaps in a deeper way, artistic collaborator) during his famed Hydra period in the late '60s.
Cohen and Ihlen met on the small Greek island as it was becoming a haven for international artists and writers, and lived together along with her young son between Montreal, New York, and Hydra while he composed some of his most fondly remembered work. Cohen dedicated his poetry book Flowers For Hitler to Ihlen and a photo of her appears on the back cover of his second album Songs From A Room.
According to Jan Christian Mollestad, Marianne Ihlen's good friend and filmmaker who was making a documentary about her husband at the time of her death, Leonard Cohen sent her a letter in her final days in the hospital. It's clear Cohen, who had written many songs and poems about her nearly half a century earlier, is clearly still inspired by the famous Marianne.
In an interview with CBC, Mollestad recites what he can remember of Cohen's letter, which he read to her just a few days before she died. It's not a direct quotation, but you can hear elements of Cohen's unmistakable voice: wistful and wise, elevating the beauty in mortality and the inescapable passage of time.
It said "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…"
When he read the lines "stretch out your hand," says Mollestad, Marianne did. And in her final moments, he hummed "Bird on the Wire," the song she felt closest to. When she died, he echoed Cohen's immortal words: "So long, Marianne."