Marianne Christine Stang Ihlen ([mɑɾiˈɑnə ˈilɛn]; 18 May 1935 – 28 July 2016) was a Norwegian woman who was the first wife of author Axel Jensen and later the muse and girlfriend of Leonard Cohen for several years in the 1960s. She was the subject of Cohen's 1967 track "So Long, Marianne", in which he sang that she "held on to me like I was a crucifix as we went kneeling through the dark".
Ihlen was born on 18 May 1935 in Larkollen, Norway, and was raised in Oslo. She was the creative one of her family and wanted to become an actress. Her parents were opposed to that career choice; she lost courage and did not pursue that path but ran away.
Relationships with Axel Jensen and Leonard Cohen
She fell in love with Norwegian writer Axel Jensen when they were both teenagers. They married, against her parents' wishes. The pair left for the Greek island of Hydra in 1958, where Jensen, already a poet and novelist, was going to write. There, they had a son, Axel Jr., and, she said, she became Jensen's "Greek muse"; she sat at his feet while he wrote and she carried the groceries up from the harbour to their home. Their home was simple with an outside toilet and electricity for only one hour in the evening and one hour in the morning. Otherwise, they used paraffin lamps.
Jensen abandoned Marianne, and their son, to live with another woman. According to Marianne, she met Cohen, for the first time, shortly after she returned from a trip to Norway, only to learn her husband had abandoned her.
After they met in early 1960, Cohen and Ihlen began living together on Hydra; later that year, Cohen drove her to Oslo where she finalized her divorce from Jensen. For the next few years, Ihlen became Cohen's muse, inspiring him to write several songs on his first two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) and Songs from a Room (1969). The back sleeve of Songs from a Room features a famous photograph of her at Cohen's typewriter, draped in a white towel in their simple home in Greece. The song "Moving On" from Cohen's posthumous 2019 album Thanks for the Dance is also a tribute to Marianne.
From a window in that home, Ihlen once saw a bird perched on a newly installed telephone wire and remarked to Cohen that they looked like musical notes; she suggested he write a song about it. Bird on the Wire was the result, one of his most successful songs, with the opening lines:
Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried, in my way, to be free.
Ihlen married Jan Stang in 1979, worked in the oil industry, and lived in Oslo. She developed an interest in Tibetan Buddhism and spent time painting.
Illness and death
She was diagnosed with leukemia in late July 2016. Her close friend Jan Christian Mollestad contacted Cohen to tell him Ihlen was dying. Leonard Cohen penned a poignant final letter to her, which is often misquoted by the media and others as:
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.— Leonard Cohen,
However, this widely circulated version of the letter was based on an inaccurate verbal recollection by Mollestad which was then transcribed in a radio interview. The actual letter (actually an email) obtained through the Leonard Cohen estate reads:
I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too. 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. Endless love and gratitude.— your Leonard
She died aged 81 on 28 July 2016, in Oslo. Cohen died later that year on 7 November 2016.
Kari Hesthamar, an award-winning Norwegian journalist, won the 2006 Prix Europa for her 2005 radio documentary about Ihlen. In 2008, Hesthamar published her biography of Ihlen, So Long, Marianne. Ei Kjærleikshistorie; ECW Press published the English translation So Long, Marianne: A Love Story in 2014.
In 2014, in a review of Lana Del Rey's sophomore album, Ultraviolence, Alexandra Molotkow compared Del Rey's persona of surrender to Ihlen's account of her search for independence. Molotkow described Del Rey as an artist, fully in control of her career, who, paradoxically, had chosen a performing persona as a weak and helpless female, who sought to surrender to powerful men. According to Molotkow, who had just read Hesthamar's recently translated biography of Ihlen, even though Ihlen had the reality of the fantasy Del Rey shows in her videos, of the woman socially and economically reliant on a man, Ihlen has described how she became fully independent. According to Molotkow, Hesthamar's book is: "... the story of a remarkable woman who was a muse – who has, until now, appeared in history as a man’s idea – and how she found herself. Often, the book reads as a caution against giving up your power."
Her life and relationship with Cohen was depicted in the 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.