Film & TV

Leonard Cohen, the Male Feminist Who Mistreated Women

Leonard Cohen performs at the Glastonbury Festival in 2008. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)
Nick Broomfield’s new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love exposes the singer-songwriter’s dark private life.

In the 1960s, an unknown poet-novelist named Leonard Cohen developed his craft on the Greek island of Hydra. He met Marianne Ihlen in a shop there. She did the shopping, brought his meals, paid the rent, warmed his bed. Cohen was a father figure to her young son Axel, the product of a previous, failed marriage. He wrote and wrote, got depressed when his drug-addled novel Beautiful Losers failed, then turned to songwriting. On a trip to New York he sold “Suzanne” to Judy Collins. Soon he bought a house and invited Marianne and her son to be with him. Then he broke some news to her: “I just wanted to tell you that you ruined my life.”

Directed by Nick Broomfield, the new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is intended as a tribute to the relationship that inspired one of Cohen’s best-known songs. It is actually more of an indictment. In nauseating detail, it documents the damage wrought by open relationships and other errors of the counterculture. Cohen, once he achieved success as a performer, discovered he was the Elvis of bookish depressives and indulged himself with the women who stampeded to his shows. He was living with Marianne while writing songs about hooking up with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel. A friend of Cohen from those years, Julie Felix, recalls, “Leonard was a great, uh, feminist. He said to me once, ‘I can’t wait till women take over.’” Ladies, when a man says this, listen carefully. What is he really saying? Cohen was giving himself a license to treat women badly.

He tortured Marianne for eight years, spending less and less time with her as the relationship went on. “All the girls were panting for him,” she recalls in an interview captured in the documentary. “It hurt me so much. It destroyed me. I was on the verge of killing myself for it. I wanted to die.” She was his disposable muse. “Whatever he did while he was in New York, whether I was there or on Hydra, he never shared that with me. It was a very hard time,” she says in the film. (She lived until 2016, dying three months before Cohen.)

In interviews, Cohen marvels at a life lived without guardrails or standards or even the expectation of common decency. He kept girlfriends in cities all over. For a moment, women had been successfully convinced that sex could be a fun pastime, unencumbered by any feelings. Cohen says of this dark period:

I had a great appetite for the company of women and for the sexual expression of friendship. And I was very fortunate because it was the Sixties and that possibility was very very present. And for a tiny moment in social history there was a tremendous cooperation between men and women about that particular item and so I was very lucky that my appetite coincided with this very rare — what, religious, social, I don’t know what you’d call it — some kind of phenomenon that allowed men and women, boys and girls we were, to come together in that kind of union that satisfied both the appetites.

Marianne wasn’t so satisfied. “I wanted to put him in a cage, lock him up and swallow the key,” she recalls. She aborted her child with Cohen because he wanted nothing to do with the baby. As for a later girlfriend, Suzanne Elrod, “the word ruthless is the word that comes to mind. . . . She did what she wanted to do to bind Leonard to her by . . . any means necessary,” says Aviva Layton, a friend of Cohen’s at the time. “She knew exactly what to do and when to do it. It was like falling into a spider’s web.”

It’s a bit facile to say, “Some feelings may have been hurt, but everyone involved was a consenting adult.” The children involved were crushed. Layton, Cohen’s friend, recalls that all the children in a family Cohen knew on Hydra died off one by one, via suicide or alcohol or drugs. She looks back:

It was the days of open marriage, whatever the hell that was. I don’t think it ever was successful with anybody. One of the partners was always jealous and angry and hurt and confused. I don’t know any child who came out of it not damaged by that period. We just wanted to do it all, take drugs and f*** around. . . . The children were just — they came along on the ride. They didn’t want to come along on that ride.

Marianne’s son, Axel, was an infant when his mother and Cohen were living together on Hydra. As a boy, he found himself dumped in a boarding school in Canada when his mother went back to the island. Broomfield’s film shows us the plaintive, sad postcards he used to send his mother daily, begging for her love. As an adult, he dabbled in drugs, went silent for long periods of time, and wound up being institutionalized for most of his life.

Cohen later steered away from hedonism, spending years in a Buddhist monastery, and expressed distaste for abortion in one of his songs. In his youth, though, he would use his artistry to avoid all commitment, and we should keep in mind his awful treatment of Ihlen every time we hear “So Long, Marianne.” His habit was to mope piteously, sulk in anguish, and sorrowfully float away into the next woman’s arms. “Poets do not great make husbands, do they?” Layton asks. “You can’t own them. You can’t even own a bit of them. The irony is a man like that is a man whom every woman wants to have.”

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