The period of Leonard Cohen’s time in the summer of 1960 in Hydra, the Greek island, has gained the status of Greek mythology in his creative career. After taking the five hour boat journey from Pireus, the Athens port. Leonard hung out in Hydra with a handful of other young artists and spiritual seekers, including Dr. Sheldon Cholst, a New York psychiatrist and poet, who experimented with marijuana, hash and LSD. It had cost Cholst his freedom in the UK where he spent 21 months in jail for being in possession. Back in the USA, his friend, Timothy Leary, got a 30 year sentence for possession.
The young Cohen started his interest in Buddhism at that time and even an even stronger interest in the Marianne Jensen (formerly Ihlen), a beautiful Norwegian goddess, whose photograph later appeared on the back cover of Songs from a Room, his second album. Decades later, Marianne spoke lovingly about her time with Leonard without a word of resentment or jealousy
Leonard Cohen once described Marianne as the “most beautiful woman he ever met.” In 1958, Marianne had left Oslo with her partner, Axel Jensen, to drive down to Athens, and then onto Hydra, where Axel worked on his third novel. They got married and she took his surname. While in Hydra, she got pregnant and returned to Oslo to have the baby. Upon returning with her baby son to Hydra, she found Axel packing his bags to leave with another woman.
It was at this time that Marianne met Leonard Cohen. She said she knew she ‘had met someone very special.’ Leonard found her “perfect.” Leonard and Marianne drove from Athens to Oslo to sign the papers for her divorce from Jensen. Leonard then flew to Montreal and telegrammed Marianne and baby Axel to fly to be with him. They were completely in love. But other women pursued Cohen and got his attention as the so-called sexually liberated 60’s got underway.
In April, 1967, I boarded the ship to Crete from Piraeus where I spent much of the summer with about 20 other hippies in Matala where we slept in the caves in the cliffs that had been used as burial tombs a 1000 years before.
I then travelled on through the Arab countries to India, Thailand and arrived in early 1968 in Vientiane, the tiny capital of Laos, where I met up with Sheldon Cholst who now lived in a palm shaded bungalow, not far from the US embassy. Sheldon set up the Free US Government opposed to the foreign policy of the US government. In the garden, he hung the US flag of the Stars and stripes in black and white for race quality. Around 50 hippies lived in bamboo huts in the city with its endless supplies of marijuana and opium.
The Free US Government consisted of a government of one. I stayed with Sheldon at his home. He was keen for me to become the British Ambassador in his new government. I politely declined. Sheldon had made an official seal on his gate to show his new government to replace the official US Embassy. In 1968, the US engaged in a secret bombing war in Laos. I had travelled up through to central Laos in the back of an army truck with the troops of Prince Souvanna Phouma. Three armies, the army of the Prince, the neutrals and the communist inspired Pathet Lao controlled much of Laos.
I recall writing a story for an Australian newspaper on the secret bombing by B52 war planes of the US Air Force of Laotian villages only for the US ambassador to issue a denial in the subsequent issue of the newspaper. Meanwhile in Vientiane, Sheldon wanted to put an end to the militaristic US foreign policy, abolish weapons, set up a mutual fund to support all USA citizens to lead “a happy life rather than a suffering one”, abolition drug laws, encourage free love and enable all US citizens to convert to a simple, back to nature (i.e. hippy) lifestyle.
CIA were everywhere in Laos – clean shaven guys, crew cuts, dressed in their neatly ironed trousers with short sleeved white shirts and heavy duty black shoes. The word ‘human robots’ would come to mind. Within a year or two, Fred Branfman, a campaigning journalist, exposed in his book about “Life under an Air War” detailing the impact of US policy of the secret bombing in Laos. Fred and I have kept in touch for the last 20 years. He joined me once on my annual trip to India in the 1990’s rather than attend a leading Democrat committee to elect Bill Clinton as President of the USA.
All the above artists/hippies shared one thing in common – a willingness to step of out the culture of the first couple of decades of their life. Their lives moved in similar directions and moved away from each other. Some of the hopes and fears of youth materialised in the passage of years in fulfilling and painful ways.
Axel Jensen continued to write books. He died in 2003 from sclerosis. In the remaining years of his life, he became paralysed and could not speak. He struggled for years with alcohol and depression. Dr. R D. Laing, the famous London psychiatrist, gave him much support. Dr. Sheldon Cholst returned to New York as a consultant. Poet and playwright, he wrote a book The Psychology of the Artist. He died at the age of 71 in October 2004 in New York. Axel Jensen, junior, now 52, lives a quiet life. Marianne Jensen is 75. She has given an extensive and kindly interview in recent years about her relationship with Leonard Cohen. She features in several of his early songs including So Long Marianne while Bird on a Wire tells about their years in Hydra and the pain of deeds in relationsip. Kari Hesthamar wrote a biography in Norwegian on Marianne Jensen. It has not been translated into English. Fred Branfman lives with his partner in Budapest. He is still a campaigning journalist. Leonard Cohen struggled for years with depression, drug abuse and problematic relationships. He tells audiences today “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” He continues to give wonderful concerts to the joy of his legions of fans. A biography of Cohen “I’m Your Man. The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvia Simmons, contains details of Leonard Cohen’s time in Hydra. Am currently reading this book. A fine read. A gift from Radha.
For a lengthy and fascinating transcribed interview with Leonard Cohen about his life in Hydra and after, read:
For a further fascinating interview with Marianne Jensen, read