Jan Christian Mollestad interviewed by The Times

Sarfraz Manzoor Tuesday July 23 2019, 12.01am BST, The Times, Europe

Words of love: the story of Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen

ARTS

The relationship between the singer and poet and his girlfriend, muse and lifelong friend is the subject of a new documentary

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Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, who was the inspiration for his song So Long, Marianne

It is August 20, 2013 and Leonard Cohen is on stage at Spektrum arena in Norway. The Canadian singer is 78 and enjoying a late-period critical and commercial renaissance that began with his return to touring in 2008 after 15 years away, and the release of his 2012 album Old Ideas. In the show Cohen revisits many of his greatest songs, so it is not surprising when he starts his first encore with So Long, Marianne.

“Now so long, Marianne,” Cohen sings, “it’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.” The lights are up and the audience in Oslo quietly sing along. Among them is a woman in the second row wearing a white blouse and black cardigan. She has a shy smile as she sings. When the song ends she stretches her hand in the air as if waving to Cohen. The woman is Marianne Ihlen and she is the inspiration behind the song and the woman who 50 years earlier had been Cohen’s lover and muse.

The story of Ihlen and Cohen’s relationship is told in a new feature documentary from Nick Broomfield, and the footage of that concert in Oslo is one of the highlights. It was shot by Jan Christian Mollestad, a close friend who had attended the concert with Ihlen. He, like Broomfield, is a documentary-maker and had met her in 2004 while making a film about her first husband, the novelist Axel Jensen. He approached Ihlen. “I wanted to hear about her marriage to Axel,” he tells me from his home in Norway. “I called her and she agreed to meet. I thought we should talk about Axel, but she was much more interested to talk about Leonard.”

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Cohen and Ihlen began their relationship in Greece in the Sixties BABIS MORES

Ihlen had met Cohen in the spring of 1960 on the Greek island of Hydra. He was a 25-year-old aspiring poet and Ihlen was a year younger with a young son and an unfaithful husband. Hydra was a jewel of an island that attracted artists, writers and painters as well as Jacqueline Onassis, Princess Margaret, Maria Callas and the like. Cohen and Ihlen started a relationship. She would later describe those early days as filled with “writing and lovemaking”. Cohen would write at least three pages during the day and the evenings would be devoted to drinking, dining and discussion.

“Marianne knew what an artist needed,” Mollestad says. “She let Leonard work and she knew when to come with a cup of tea. She was not just his lover, she was also someone who encouraged and inspired Leonard.”

One day Cohen, who was prone to depression, was in a dark mood and unable to write. Telephone wires were being installed on Hydra at that time. Ihlen told him to get up and write something because it would make him feel better. Cohen got up, looked out of the window at the telephone cables and noticed a bird on the wire. It was all the inspiration he needed to start a new song.

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Cohen plays guitar with Ihlen, right (JAMES BURKE/GETTY IMAGES)

Cohen decided that for the sake of his creativity he needed to spend part of the year in Montreal, so for the next decade he divided his time between Ihlen in Hydra and relationships with other women in Montreal and New York. Ihlen followed him to New York in 1967, when Cohen was sleeping with Janis Joplin, for whom he had written Chelsea Hotel. In the documentary we hear Ihlen saying that she wanted to put Cohen “in a cage, lock him up and swallow the key. All the girls were panting for him. It hurt me so much.”

Ihlen also had other relationships. “Neither was faithful and there were many lovers,” Broomfield says. “Being faithful was not a highly prized commodity then.” It was around that time, in 1968, that Marianne met the 20-year-old Broomfield. The couple were briefly lovers and remained friends. “She had this talent to listen to people when they talked,” Broomfield says. “She honed into their specialness and then encouraged people to act on that. She encouraged me to make a film. She was an inspirer and I am sure she did that to Leonard too.” Ihlen had encouraged Cohen when he had been a struggling writer, and his book of poems, Flowers for Hitler, published in 1964, was dedicated to Marianne.

Ihlen remained in love with Cohen after the relationship ended towards the end of the 1960s. He continued to send her money, asking after her son and sending tender telegrams. Ihlen, having married two writers, eventually left Hydra and returned to Norway, where she worked as a secretary and married an engineer with children from a previous marriage. But although she was living an existence far from her former life on Hydra, Cohen remained a presence in her life. “She became a painter in her later years and in all the paintings she made they always had a text from Leonard as their title,” Mollestad says. “She was very proud of the songs that were written about her.”

Whenever Cohen performed in Norway, Ihlen was offered tickets — that was how she came to attend the concert in Oslo in 2013. “His chauffeur had come with tickets to her front door and she had invited me,” Mollestad says. They were told that filming was not allowed, but when Cohen started singing So Long, Marianne Mollestad felt that it was too important a moment not to capture on his mobile phone. “I felt there was something special between Leonard and Marianne,” he says. “He knew very well that she was there. It was electric — everyone at the venue knew that Marianne was there and so it was a very special moment when he started to sing the song and it was so nice when Marianne started to sing along.”

After the concert Ihlen was invited backstage, but she had to wait for Cohen to finish talking to the Israeli ambassador. “The ambassador was talking for so long and she left after 30 minutes,” Mollestad says. “So she didn’t meet him that night.”

Three years after that concert Mollestad received a text message. It was July 2016. Ihlen had visited him a fortnight earlier and had been fit and healthy. “It said that she was in hospital and was going to die,” Mollestad says, “and asking me to please take care of her husband and son.” Mollestad went to the hospital and was told that Ihlen had been diagnosed with leukaemia and would be dead within the week.

Ihlen wanted Mollestad to do her a favour. “She said, ‘Could you please tell Leonard,’” he says. “So that night I wrote a letter to say sorry to disturb you, but I think you should know that Marianne will shortly die and it would be so appreciated if you could write something.” He received an automated message saying that Cohen was out of the office for a year on tour. “The next morning I went to the computer very early and there was this beautiful letter with short poetic beautiful prose,” Mollestad says. “I printed it large and put in a plastic cover and I went to the hospital and I read the letter that I had written to him and then I read his letter to her.”

In Broomfield’s documentary we see Ihlen lying on a hospital bed, her eyes barely open, listening as Mollestad reads Cohen’s letter. “Dearest Marianne,” it begins, “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too, and the eviction notice is on its way any day now. I’ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don’t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Love and gratitude, Leonard.”

In the footage that Mollestad filmed at Ihlen’s request she is visibly moved by the letter. “That was very beautiful,” she murmurs, “very beautiful.” On July 28, 2016, two days after receiving the letter, Ihlen fell into a coma and died. She was 81. For her funeral Ihlen had requested that Cohen’s song Anthem be played. “Ring the bells that still can ring,” Cohen sings, “forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Cohen died, aged 82, in Los Angeles three months later.

“It was such a beautiful thing to do to be so affirmative about what she had meant to him,” Mollestad says. “For Marianne it was confirmation that all the love she had felt for him was a love he had felt for her.” That should have been the end of the story — the quiet death of a woman who had spent the previous four decades in obscurity. Instead Cohen’s letter went viral and the world fell in love again with the story of Marianne and Leonard — young lovers who became old friends. “Everyone hopes or wishes that when you have been with someone for that long it should be regarded as an important chapter,” Mollestad says. “Leonard fulfilled something that everyone wants — that the love you shared was not in vain. They gave a lesson to us all by showing that love is everlasting.”

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is in selected cinemas from Friday