REVIEW: `Leonard, Marianne, and Me; Magical Summers on Hydra,’ by Judy Scott

A beautifully poignant and richly rendered odyssey into the ancient heart of Leonard Cohen’s life on Hydra with his legendary muse, Marianne

Judy Scott met Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, his luminous muse, on the Greek island of Hydra in 1973, and was welcomed into their life. Four decades later she wrote this beautiful book about that timeless time which changed her life forever.

Before allowing it to be published, she sent it to Leonard for his approval. It was 2016, the year of his death. He not only gave it his blessing, his commended her on work well done. More on that to follow.

The title of the book, Leonard, Marianne & Me, is not some false boast; it’s the truth. It’s the story of her relationship with both of them. Their presence, individually and together, impacted her forever, and empowered her to understand and own her own truth.

The story starts in the Spring of 1973. A bright, pretty and adventurousJersey girl of 27, Judy was hitchhiking with a cousin around Europe. It was at a pensione in Athens that she first heard about the singular beauty of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, which had attracted artists and other eccentrics there for ages. An intrepid, adventurous spirit even then, Judy knew a Greek. island was her next destination.

But which one?

Only one island, she learned, was never modernized like the others. Partially because modernity wouldn’t fit there; all the homes on the island are built on a trio of steep hills, accessible only by ascending the ancient stone steps, of which there are thousands. There are no drivable streets, and so no cars. It’s been the secret seaside refuge of painters, musicians, poets and other romantic souls for ages.

It was called Hydra, named centuries earlier for the natural springs that flow there. Although her cousin had other plans in mind, Judy was instantly and undeniably Hydra-bound. A bravely independent and engaged soul who was interested in other people, their lives, dreams, food, history, art and romance, she opened her heart to Hydra even before she knew it would change her life forever.

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“Hydra is like the pause in a musical composition that allows the composer to proceed in a new musical direction.” – Henry Miller

It’s there she first met the beautiful, mysterious Marianne Ihlen, who was Norwegian and had been married to the writer Axel Jensen, with whom she had one son, also named Axel. When she mentioned that she fell in love with a Canadian poet and novelist who had become a great songwriter named Leonard Cohen and lived together there on Hydra, Judy was stunned. Although some of his songs, as performed by Judy Collins and others, were famous, his name had yet to become familiar to most. But to Judy it was. She not only loved his music, she idolized the man.

Marianne said that Leonard wasn’t there then. He’d gone back to Montreal, because, as she admitted, she had driven him crazy. Although she didn’t specify how, exactly.

Yet Judy understood. She was attracted instantly to Marianne, and knew it was mutual. Although in time she would identify herself as lesbian, she had yet to make that leap. Back in 1973, coming out of that proverbial closet was hardly common or encouraged. Yet her feelings for Leonard’s muse, encouraged by Marianne’s boldly shocking but electric provocations, both verbal and physical (such as under-the-table caresses with others present) erased any of Judy’s uncertainty.

Leonard & Marianne

But Marianne was also mercurial, and could veer from hot to cold so totally it hurt and confused Judy, who then began began to fathom the reasons Leonard got crazy, and would leave only to return. Over and over.

When Leonard did come back to his Hydra home, Judy already was in love with his muse. She would come to love him, too, though in a whole other way.

He loved her, too. She had an open heart, a beautiful sweetness that was real, and a lovely singing voice. She would warm his heart by singing his songs with him, something Marianne never did, and he delighted in it. She had never learned to sing harmony before, but she began to find her way into it by singing with Leonard on his miracle songs. He loved that sound of a woman’s voice in harmony with his, and the sweetness with which it colored his voice and cushioned his verses. It’s a sound he clung to for the rest of his life.

She also eased into the harmony of living there with Marianne and Leonard. They welcomed her into their home and their love. It’s not something Leonard would normally do, as Judy related. Although there was a vibrant social scene on the island, Leonard preferred the solitude of his home, and his work. As in his later years when he famously constructed his mythic Tower of Song, and devoted himself to the mission of writing songs with remarkable daily devotion and diligence, he was already that person. His world was focused. There was love, song, beauty, and little else.

There was only one thing Leonard asked for in return from Judy. It was a small request, but crucial to him: he asked her to promise that she would never write about them. She agreed.

She understood. Hydra was his private refuge, and one he didn’t want to destroy by sharing with the world. It was for only a chosen few. As in later years, when his home was sparsely appointed so as not to clutter and distract his songwriting soul, he honored his need for spartan simplicity, and the timeless purity of life on the Aegean Sea.

Judy agreed to keep his world secret, and promised she wouldn’t ever write about it.

It was a promise she kept for forty years. And then she broke it. But with his blessing. She would not betray Leonard or his confidence ever.

In early 2016, she was invited to join other ex-pats in a collective literary project about Hydra, and she wanted to contribute. The beauty and significance of that time on Hydra only expanded as the decades passed. She opened her old journals, and her heart, and it was all there in its vivid, romantic, sad, funny and poignant glory. She let it flow. Suddenly she had a draft and then a better one.

She was still unsure if she wanted to have it published, but knew no matter what, she would never do that without Leonard’s consent.

She wrote several drafts, starting with the essentials about her time with Leonard and Marianne, before expanding it to bring in other characters and details. The result is a beautifully loving and richly rendered memoir of much poignancy. The gift of her sharp recall (she was a Jeopardy contestant; she has one of those minds) and her comprehensive journals kept during all her journeys instilled a vivid immediacy to the book.

But she never considered allowing it to be published in any form without Leonard’s approval.

She was unsure if he would respond, but emailed anyway, in April of 2016, with a draft of her manuscript attached, and asked for his approval. She wrote, “I would never want to violate the promise I made to you long ago, when you were incredibly kind to me, and so was Marianne…”

To her surprise and delight, Leonard emailed back the very next day. He thanked her for sending her book, and called it a “very fine work” and one for which he had “no objections whatsoever.” 

He even commended her on the writing, and the fullness of the work. He found it surprising, he wrote, that she had honored their history with such richly thorough recollections of him and all their old friends from that long ago time.

Even better, he added something extra, something from his good-hearted, loving soul. From one writer to another, he expressed his admiration for work well done:

“I particularly admire,” he wrote, “the detail and honesty of the piece.” 

Detail and honesty. Those twin dynamics were always foremost in his songs. He knew, and taught us by example this fundamental lesson: to be true to the truth as you know it, and be fearless in the use of real details, the ones that mean the most That courageous connection with the truth – to human life as it is truly experienced – is the foundation on which he constructed his Tower.

Leonard Cohen on Pico. Photo by Paul Zollo.

Leonard’s generous acceptance of the book was a testament to his loving soul. She did not candy-coat the story in any way, nor disguise the truth. Instead, she opened a window into his world for us. She showed us the artist engaged in the age-old dilemma of finding sustenance and survival in the modern world without abandoning the sacred mission and truth of making art. He’d written volumes of poetry and two novels already there on Hydra. When the mission became musical, his life changed forever in his lifelong quest to find that place, as he said, where the great songs came from. He found it many times. But there was no map, and no way to easily return.

His loving acceptance and praise for this book is especially moving, because he did not want people to peer into his private Hydra, or learn of his unwritten chapters. It was his retreat from the world, and from modernity itself. Even the sight of a few electrical cords brought him much anguish, as it symbolized the new world encroaching on the ancient purity that sustained him.

It was there he wrote both his novels and poetry before devoting himself to his mission – the work – which had evolved into his single focus and essential employment of all: Like David, the baffled biblical king in “Hallelujah,” he sought that secret chord – and the ones which went with it – and sang his poetry to the world.

It wasn’t an easy challenge to surmount. Especially because he did not really believe he was born with the gift of a golden voice, as he claimed with intended irony in “Tower of Song.” His vision, evidently, was to be a songwriter who could keep his distance from the modern world, and send his songs to beloved and great singers, like Judy Collins, to record, which she did. But becoming an entertainer himself, and the singer of his own songs, terrified him to the core.

He did, transcend that fear, famously. But none of it was easy for him, or without grave worry and fear.

On Hydra, he was subject to the depression which darkened the souls of so many artists through the ages, and would take Ritalin – when he could get it – to lift him up above that anxious sorrow.

Throughout the book are a wealth of passages which reveal so much of Leonard’s essential self, his singular merger of wisdom and whimsy. Always those elemental aspects of his personality were inseparable.

Because of Hydra’s mostly vertical design, Judy wrote, everyone who lived there was in good shape, as they had to daily ascend thousands of old stone steps to get to their homes.

She also wrote that it was so hot, that they never wore much in the way of clothing. She and Marianne wore only bikini bottoms, and no tops, while Leonard wore khaki shorts. Yet, wrote Judy, there was nothing erotic about their attire. (Really? Not even to Leonard? Maybe he just fooled her.)

An abundance of light and insight into this artist, and the dynamics of his life, are preserved here, and help us understand how he became who he became. His love, his wives, children. Though he seemed later in life to have figured out life to an extent most humans never do, in these pages we see that the zen impression we have of an enlightened, brilliant man wasn’t the totality of who he was.

When, for example, he confessed feeling no longer sure where he belonged. He felt torn by the division in his life and his heart; his relationship with Marianne in Hydra overlapped with his life in Montreal with Suzanne Elrod and their son Adam. Somehow he kept both relationships alive, splitting his time between Canada and Greece. But he confessed to Judy that he no longer knew where he belonged.

Judy responded with “youthful hubris” by saying that is what makes Hydra special, that all identities fall away, and they all become one. On Hydra, she said, she was no longer American and he was no longer Jewish.

This was a leap of faith he wouldn’t let go. Gently, he said, “Oh no, Judy. I’m really a Jew; always a Jew!”

There are many other revelations throughout, some funny, some sweet, some disturbing. Among the most surprising and painful has to do with lyrics from his great opus, “Hallelujah,” (a song he said he spent more than ten years writing). Although its beauty and sense off holiness has elevated to a song sung at weddings and other sacred occasions, it marries the human and divine, as do all of his songs. Yet it contains provocative lyrics, such as these:

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah…

From Marianne, Judy learned that when Leonard was a child, his mother would cut his hair.

“[Marianne] told me Leonard just couldn’t refuse any request made by a female,”. She said she thought it all originated in his rather complicated relationship with his mother, wrote Judy.

Leonard Cohen with Suzanne Elrod holding their son, Adam Cohen, and with Leonard’s mother, Masha Cohen, in Montreal, 1972. 

“When he got a little older,” Judy wrote, “and tried to refuse, she would use one of his father’s neckties to tie him to a chair in their kitchen and snip away. Then she’d tell him that, like Samson in the bible, Leonard was completely in her power and would have to do anything she asked of him.”

“Marianne was pretty sure that was why he succumbed so easily to female imprecations,” Judy wrote. “He just couldn’t say no. And also why he sought to escape from relationships as often as he did. He just couldn’t stay put. It was an example of the dilemma we all experience in love: constantly seeking a balance between acquiescence and resistance.” 

It’s but one of the multitude of revelations, little and big, that illuminate this book.

There are also two extremely poignant passages, replete with the sorrowful reality of the brutality of time, and our limits within it. She met again with both Leonard and Marianne many years later. Leonard as an old man wasn’t hard to accept. He always carried that song of an old soul always, and it fit him. He was still Leonard, absolutely.

It was in 2009 that she saw him the last time in person. On her way to a party with a friend when she stopped at Leonard’s home to deliver a camera left on Hydra by a friend, who asked her to deliver it to Leonard. She was told that he might not answer, so to leave the camera on his upper porch.

But he did answer. “He came out onto the small porch,” she wrote, “and gave me a loving embrace. He invited her in, and poured a glass of retsina for her. She mentioned she had a friend waiting, and Leonard, being Leonard, said, “Bring her up.”

They stayed for about a half hour, as Leonard brought snacks and was “his usual gracious self.” He smiled when she brought up “Danny Boy.”

“It was a magic time,” she said, “wasn’t it?”

Softly, he said, “Yes, it was.”

She told him that all through the years she’d dreamed of seeing him again.

He put his arms around her and embraced her closely.

“Now you have,” he said.

She hugged him back and said, “Now I have.”

Both Marianne and Leonard died the same year, 2016.

There’s so much more poetry, humor, and poignant beauty in Judy’s book. Already I’ve given away too much, and yet it seems to be not enough. But for all fellow Leonard devotees always hungry for more knowledge, more closeness, more love from Leonard, this book will make you happy. There’s a lot of love here, and it is genuine.

Judy’s book is a substantial and beautiful addition to the Leonard archives, which expand as our knowledge of the man, his life, his music, muses and more expands. It’s also a great read. Like most of his devotees (‘fan’ is the wrong word, it seems), I had some knowledge of his time on Hydra, but only a little, never knowing any of the details.

Until now that is. Judy’s book brings us close to the man again. After reading any sections of it, inevitably I’d feel not like I’d been reading, but that I’d been in Leonard’s company. His warmth, humor and brilliance came through so directly, that it was a sweet and welcome sensation, though bittersweet, laced with the fact of his undeniable absence from our realm.

But in these pages, as in his songs, he is alive.

Judy gave us the this gift of being able to bask in his genius, diligence, humor, desire and mad passion for the art of life, and his life of art. And for that we are grateful. To the author I extend thanks: for breaking your promise so that you could create this beautiful, unbroken hallelujah.

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