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Tracing Leonard Cohen’s Relationship History Through Song

Few artists have written songs as fiercely personal as Leonard Cohen, the legendary folk artist whose discography includes stunning lyrical themes that touch on love, depression, and political tyranny. Considering that Cohen has been releasing music for about 46 years, most of his life has been chronicled by songs that range in clarity from subtle metaphors to obvious references. In the press, Cohen is reputed for being soft-spoken and secretive regarding his personal life. That hasn’t stopped fans from getting at least some grasp on the nature of his relationships throughout the years. Yet rather than the contemporary method of relying on tabloids, some details of Cohen’s relationships can be discovered using song details. His propensity for interweaving various themes into his lyrics leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but the loves of Cohen’s life can generally summed up by four women:

Marianne C. Stang Jensen Ihlen
Marianne Ihlen is one of Cohen’s earliest confirmed serious relationships. Well, it was serious enough that he wrote a song, “So Long, Marianne”, about her. What is known of the relationship is that Cohen met Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. She had been recently left by her husband, and was alone with her six-month-old son on Hydra. Cohen and Ihlen (formerly Jensen, since she was married to Norwegian writer Axel Jensen) hit it off immediately, and they spent the next decade together between New York, Montreal, and Hydra. John Cale, Beck, and Bill Callahan are just a few artists who have covered “So Long, Marianne”, the list of its cover artists even including Cohen’s son Adam. Reflecting positively of her relationship with Cohen, Ihlen remarked in a 2005 interview: “We often stood in front of the mirror before going out and wondered who we were today and stuff like that. Oh god, how strange we human beings are, you know…”

Suzanne Elrod
The mother of Cohen’s two children, Suzanne Elrod was an artist based in Los Angeles. Cohen blames never marrying her on “cowardice” and “fear”, though acknowledges he cares for her deeply. Cohen’s relationship with his two children, Adam and Lorca, appear strong as well. Adam is a songwriter himself, with his daughter Lorca taking a part in Cohen’s 2008-2010 tour as a videographer and photographer. The couple split in 1979, two years after Elrod was one of two women on the cover of Cohen’s Deat of a Ladies’ Man album. Many mistakenly believe that “Suzanne” was written about her, but it was actually about Suzanne Verdal, the ex-wife of Cohen’s sculptor friend Armand Vaillancourt.

Dominique Issermann
Issermann was one of the most integrative relationships for Cohen, as she was also an accomplished photographer who assisted Cohen in the shooting for his music videos, “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “First We Take Manhattan”. Issermann later went on to recognition for her collaboration with Carla Bruni, and work for several fashion publications. The relationship never appeared to go very sour, as Issermann and Cohen remain on good terms, with Issermann serving as the official photographer of his 2010 world tour. Cohen dedicated his 1988 album I’m Your Man to Issermann, with the words “All these songs are for you, D.I.”.

Rebecca De Mornay
Cohen and actress Rebecca De Mornay were engaged briefly, but despite a lasting friendship their romantic pursuits fizzled out quickly. “When I met Rebecca, all kinds of thoughts came into my mind, as how could they not when faced with a woman of such beauty? And they got crisscrossed in my mind. But she didn’t let it go further than that: my mind,” Cohen said. “Except it did. And finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across, in the sense of being a husband and having more children and the rest.” While Cohen may not have been the most conventional partner, his character is shown by the fact that all his exes remain on good and respectable terms with him. There were no high-profile spats, just a difference in life ideology and artistic temperament. Even as Cohen’s lifestyle may encourage isolation, it’s comforting to know that his presence will always be supported by friends.

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