The Boy Leonard Cohen Raised as His Own

When Marianne Ihlen met Leonard Cohen on a Greek island in the early 1960s, she already had a child from a previous relationship, whom the iconic singer helped to raise. Now a new documentary spotlights the fraught story of that son, Axel Jensen, Jr.

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Marianne Ihlen and her son, Axel Jensen, Jr., with Leonard Cohen in 1960.
Marianne Ihlen and her son, Axel Jensen, Jr., with Leonard Cohen in 1960. Credit: James Burke / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
David Stavrou
David Stavrou

STOCKHOLM – In 2009, Bård Kjøge Rønning, a Norwegian director and producer of independent films, was managing an international artists retreat, Can Serrat, in the mountains outside Barcelona. One day, recalls Kjøge Rønning – who in addition to his cinematic work is also a painter – two older Norwegian women arrived and asked if they could work at the residency in return for lodging.

“I gave them a room and food, and in return they cleaned rooms and did various jobs in the hotel,” he says. “At night we drank wine, talked and reminisced, and we became fast friends.”

But the encounter between Kjøge Rønning, who is now 41, and the two women was more than the start of a friendship: It was the genesis of a film project.

One of the two women was Marianne Ihlen. Some of the memories she mentioned during those nights in the artists colony dated back to the early 1960s on the Greek island of Hydra, where she met a then-largely unknown young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen. The two were part of a lively community of artists and bohemians who converged on Hydra from all parts of the world. Besides being a mecca of artistic creativity, the island was, according to testimony from people there at the time, a hub of sexual liberation and pervasive use of drugs and alcohol.

The story of Cohen and Ihlen, both of whom died in 2016, has been recounted numerous times, in books, films and the press. The first time they met, according to a Norwegian biography of Ihlen, “a man she hasn’t noticed before stands in the doorway, the sun behind him”; and he “told her over and over that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen” (from “So Long, Marianne: A Love Story,” by Kari Hesthamar). Ihlen, often called Cohen’s muse, was the inspiration for some of his greatest songs, among them “So Long, Marianne,” “Like a Bird on a Wire” and “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

The affair between Leonard and Marianne, which went on through the decade, was the poet’s first serious relationship. But it also encompassed a third important person, not as well known as the host of colorful characters who filled his young life: Marianne was not alone when she met Cohen on Hydra. With her was her infant son, Axel Joachim Jensen, Jr., the offspring of her marriage to a Norwegian writer, Axel Jensen. A few months after the boy’s birth, Jensen abandoned Ihlen and the child and left the island with a new lover. Ihlen then moved in with Cohen who became, in practice, the infant’s adoptive father. Indeed, during the first two decades of Axel Jr.’s life, Leonard Cohen was the sole paternal figure. The bond between the boy and Cohen, who would go on to become a international superstar, continued even after Cohen and Ihlen went their separate ways at the end of the 1960s.

Fast-forward to Barcelona, about half a century later. In 2009, on his 75th birthday, Leonard Cohen gave a concert in the city. It was a marvelous opportunity for a meeting between Cohen and Ihlen, who were still in occasional email contact. Kjøge Rønning, who was running the artists colony where she was staying, accompanied her to the concert.

“We were supposed to meet with Leonard for dinner, but three days earlier he had fainted on the stage in Valencia, and for the time being he was not allowed to go out after concerts,” he recalls, in a Skype conversation from Oslo. “Even so, we went to the show together. We had front-row seats, and Marianne brought a painting with her that she had done for Leonard. It was a very special night, especially for Marianne – her love for Cohen was still strong and open. For an encore, Cohen sang ‘So Long, Marianne,’ and she simply trembled with emotion.”

Adds Kjøge Rønning: “They had only five minutes together. She gave him the painting. On it was a quote from his song ‘Because Of’: ‘Look at me, Leonard / Look at me one last time.’”

Moral wrangle

Marianne Ihlen and her young friend, Bård Kjøge Rønning, remained in touch after they both returned to Norway, Marianne in 2009 and Kjøge Rønning in 2012.

“We would meet for coffee occasionally in her small and charming studio apartment in Oslo, where she also kept Leonard Cohen’s books and various objects connected to him,” he says. “In 2015, she began to make it clear to me that she wanted me to be a friend to her son, Axel, and to visit him from time to time.”

Axel Jensen, Jr., in the mid-1960s.
Axel Jensen, Jr., in the mid-1960s. Credit: Marianne Ihlen

Marianne’s son, who was then 55, suffers from mental illness, and had already spent most of his adult life in and out of psychiatric facilities. The first decades of his life had been particularly tempestuous and highly unconventional; his first institutionalization was in 1979.

“Marianne always looked for people to meet with him to preserve his vitality,” Kjøge Rønning recalls. “My filmmaking partner, Fabian Greenberg, and I began meeting with him, and in the course of the meetings the idea came up to do a film about him. In July 2016, when Marianne died, we received permission to go through the materials she had left behind. There were thousands of photographs and letters. That archival material gave us the possibility to make a documentary about Axel, and we are now in the final stages of shooting and editing.”

Kjøge Rønning and Greenberg, a French filmmaker who lives in Norway, hope to screen the film, “Little Axel,” at one of the leading international festivals later this year. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, it is unclear where and when this will happen, but regardless of the technical details, the film is sure to be a source of debate.

There are those in Norway who think that Axel is not a legitimate subject for a documentary. He is too ill, they say, and to make a film about him is unethical, because he doesn't fully comprehend what is happening around him. But Kjøge Rønning and Greenberg are confident that they are doing the right thing.

“His legal guardian supports the project,” Kjøge Rønning says, “and so does the institution where Axel is living. Axel’s biological father, the writer Axel Jensen, who died in 2003, was a very well-known figure in certain circles in Norway. People in these circles have heard of Axel Jr., but don’t know anything about him. Our film will show how poorly the famous author treated his son, and that could cause a culture shock in Norway.”

Axel is a fascinating person, according to Kjøge Rønning: “He is a wonderful individual, very complex,” he relates. “Even though he has been taking antipsychotic medication for 40 years, he is a special person with a good sense of humor and also a sort of strange charisma. He is restrained and sensitive, and he cares about people and the world. He hates wars, hates pollution, and is a vegetarian. He is a pious believer in Hare Krishna, a movement that is his spiritual medicine. Leonard Cohen taught him Hare Krishna songs back in the 1960s.”

Leonard Cohen and Axel Jensen, Jr. in the mid-'60s.
Leonard Cohen and Axel Jensen, Jr. in the mid-'60s.Credit: Marianne Ihlen

LSD at age 15

At present, the filmmaker adds, Axel lives in a one-room apartment in a psychiatric institution outside Oslo. It’s a relatively open facility, which allows him to go out on trips with a chaperone, and to go on shorter walks by himself. He has music and a television, he collects watches and batteries, but overall, his life is quite monotonous.

Axel’s early life, in striking contrast, was anything but monotonous. His parents, Marianne Ihlen and Axel Jensen, met in 1954. She was 19, from Larkollen, a small village in the south of Norway. She grew up in Oslo and dreamed of becoming an actress, over her parents’ objections. He was 22, from the city of Trondheim, in central Norway. The young Ihlen fell in love with Jensen, a promising young intellectual who had been dubbed a “Norwegian Jack Kerouac.”

Jensen subsequently became quite prominent in the country’s literary and cultural circles. He traveled a great deal and was involved in organizing cultural events. His writing spanned a number of genres – from realistic novels to poetry, political essays and science fiction.

In 1958, following publication of Jensen’s second book, he and Ihlen moved to Hydra. They were married, and Axel Jr. was born in January 1960 during a visit by his parents to Norway.

Kjøge Rønning: “Jensen returned to Hydra a little before Marianne did, for financial reasons related to Norway’s tax laws. By the time Marianne and the baby returned to Hydra, in March 1960, Jensen already had a new lover, the American artist Patricia Amlin. A huge fight erupted between the Marianne and Jensen, and he and Patricia left for America. But en route, they were injured in a road accident in Athens and Marianne went there for a week to care for her ex-lover. During that time Leonard looked after baby Axel in Hydra.”

Back on the Greek island, with Jensen otherwise out of the picture, Marianne and Cohen began living together, with Leonard acting as little Axel’s father in every respect.

“Axel says he had a wonderful time during the Hydra years,” the filmmakers note. In that period, which lasted on and off throughout his childhood and adolescence, “he had plenty of fun and could do whatever he wanted. Still, it was clear that he had too much freedom. He had no structure in his life, and no boundaries in his teenage years. He enjoyed life, but he was smoking at the age of 7, had his first glass of wine when he was 9 and at 15 was using hashish and LSD.”

Another crucial factor in young Axel’s coming of age was all the wandering between homes, Greenberg and Kjøge Rønning note.

“Part of Axel’s childhood and adolescence was spent in different places,” Greenberg notes. “There was no way he could strike roots. At times he lived in Oslo with Marianne and his grandmother, Marianne’s mother, who looked after him. There was a period when they lived in Montreal, where Cohen was from. Another time they lived in Cohen’s apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.”

Axel’s early years also included stints at two boarding schools. At the age of 6 he was enrolled at Summerhill, the legendary institution established a century ago in Suffolk, England, based on free, democratic, alternative education. He spent a year or two there. At age 12 he was sent to a Swiss boarding school, where the regimen was much stricter. Betwixt and between, on Hydra, he didn’t attend school at all.

Toward the end of the 1960s, even before Axel went off to the Swiss school, the relationship between his mother and Cohen began to sour. Marianne and her son were living at the time in Cohen’s apartment in New York, while Cohen himself resided, famously, in the city’s Chelsea Hotel, where he had relationships with many women. Finally, mother and son returned to Norway. They spent their summers in Hydra, socializing with friends from their former life. Marianne eventually remarried and created a new life for herself. She and her husband, Jan Stang, an engineer, lived in Oslo, where she worked as a secretary in the petroleum industry.

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen In the mid '60s.
Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen In the mid '60s.

“Despite the fact that they parted ways, Leonard Cohen remained in touch with Axel,” says Kjøge Rønning. “Cohen paid for Axel’s flights and for the boarding schools in Switzerland and England, and Axel and his mother lived in Cohen’s home on Hydra when Cohen wasn’t there.”

Still, the 1970s were a very difficult time for Axel. He doesn’t like to talk about it, Kjøge Rønning says, but he felt as if he’d lost a father, the principal male figure in his life. It was a busy time for Cohen who now had children of his own – Adam and Lorca – with Suzanne Elrod, who was his partner for much of the decade, Greenberg says. At the young age of 15 Axel traveled alone to India.

“Already during the period of the Swiss boarding school, you can see signs of depression in Axel’s letters to his mom,” Kjøge Rønning relates. “Anger and disappointment are apparent. When he returned from India, in 1977, he was seriously depressed. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe there was something genetic, a mental illness that came from the family of his biological father. In January 1979, his family and friends decided that he needed to be placed in an institution. He was admitted to the main psychiatric hospital in Oslo, where he was stayed on and off for 25 years. For the past 15 years he has resided in a more open institution. He has gone on furloughs and made various attempts to be part of society, but he has never held a job or had a family of his own.”

Hydra as hell

The story of Axel Joachim Jensen, Jr., is much more than a titillating tale of gossip involving a boy and a famous musician, and is not just a matter of biographical details: It is the story of a family which, despite the beauty, talent and love that it possessed in quantities, endured a large measure of pain and disappointment – not least Axel’s disenchantment with the adults in his life. Indeed, Kjøge Rønning notes, “Axel hated his biological father.” Jensen, he adds, who was known as a volatile, depressive, violent person, was in touch over the years with Marianne, his former partner, sometimes through lawyers, but had no substantial, ongoing ties with their offspring.

“Axel now feels better toward his father,” Kjøge Rønning says. “He appreciates him for his writing, but is still disappointed in him as a father.”

Axel’s feelings for his quasi-adoptive father are warmer, the filmmaker adds: “He has good memories of Leonard. He feels that Leonard always cared about him, and he was definitely a father figure for him. He always says that Marianne was his mother and Leonard was his father, but he’s also disappointed that Cohen wasn’t in touch with him after he [Axel] was hospitalized, from 1979 onwards.”

In 2005, Marianne told the Norwegian radio station NRK about Cohen and little Axel: “I was afraid that Axel would disturb him [Cohen] when he was writing. But what happened is that Axel would lie on the floor and draw. He didn’t say a word. With me he was totally wild. Leonard would open the door of the room and say, ‘Axel, I need your help.’ And then there would be absolute quiet for two hours. Little Axel drew and Leonard wrote. That is how I experienced it.”

Leonard Cohen in Hydra in 1960.
Leonard Cohen in Hydra in 1960.Credit: James Burke / The LIFE Picture C

In her biography of Marianne, Kari Hesthamar writes that Leonard was able to calm Axel and put him to bed when Marianne didn’t succeed. She also describes Cohen playing with Axel. In his 1985 poem “Days of Kindness,” Cohen recalls his life with Marianne and Axel on Hydra:

What I loved in my old life

I haven’t forgotten

It lives in my spine

Marianne and the child

The days of kindness

It rises in my spine

and it manifests as tears

I pray that a loving memory

exists for them too

the precious ones I overthrew

for an education in the world

Naturally, Marianne was the most significant adult figure in Axel’s life.

“They were very close,” Kjøge Rønning says. “She visited him all the time, alone or with her new husband, Jan Stang, who also supported Axel over the years. In his room she would behave like a mother, start to clean up and tell him to shower and to stop smoking.”

But the picture isn’t so simple: The 2019 documentary by British filmmaker Nick Broomfield, “Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love,” reveals some of Axel’s experiences being raised by a young, somewhat troubled couple.

The boy certainly enjoyed an idyllic existence on Hydra – there are images in the film of him as a beautiful, carefree child, barefoot and shirtless, walking on the seashore, sailing in a boat, sitting on his mother’s knees or lying in a stroller. But Axel’s letters and Marianne’s accounts later in life suggest that as Axel grew older, a wounded psyche emerged. Time after time he is abandoned in boarding schools or left with friends while Marianne and Leonard travel the world. And as time passes the “parents” grow apart, are unable to communicate with each other and fail when it comes to giving Axel the emotional support he needs. During the period in which Marianne is still in love with Cohen, her life and the life of her son in his shadow become impossible.

The people interviewed in the Broomfield film – friends and associates of Cohen – testify that although he was sensitive and able to show his love to others, he was also quite self-centered. Even if his writing was profound and gentle, his lifestyle was frenetic and sometimes irresponsible. He is portrayed as a person who does not give of himself and is in constant flight. Certainly it seems as if he does not possess the stability and security that a child or an adolescent needs.

“It’s well known that Hydra was hell for marriages,” says Helle Goldman, a Norwegian anthropologist who lived on Hydra as a child and edited an anthology of reflections on life on the island. (She also translated the Hesthamar biography of Marianne into English).

“It was not just the place. It was the period,” she continues, speaking with Haaretz via Skype. “The marriages of most couples, including that of my parents, couldn’t handle it. It was the time of free love and there was a lot of infidelity and swinging. These things happen when you live in such a beautiful place, with young and beautiful people and when everyone’s a bit high. For adults, it was an experimental and wonderful time, they lived completely different lives from the life in the places they left. But for children it wasn’t always that great.”

Goldman, who says that she and her younger sister were fortunate to live in a stable home, with a mother who cared for them and treated them well, remembers that there were families on Hydra whose children weren’t that lucky. “Some parents would go to sleep very late and wouldn’t wake up in the morning,” she says. “Young children had to take care of themselves and get their own food. Some children didn’t go to school, there were those who never had their hair washed and didn’t have clean clothes. And then there were those who were exposed to situations that no child should be exposed to — fighting, sometimes involving screaming and violence, ugly scenes that exposed their parents’ dark sides. These children didn’t have boundaries, and many of them were exposed to drugs very early on in life.”

Bård Kjøge Rønning and Fabian Greenberg.
Bård Kjøge Rønning and Fabian Greenberg.Credit: Victor Trofimenko

Some of the foreign-born children who grew up on Hydra are reluctant to talk about their childhood now, as adults, Goldman notes. “Axel is not the only one who suffered from psychiatric illness,” she says. “Many of those who grew up on Hydra suffer from psychiatric problems, inability to function and heavy abuse of drugs and alcohol.”

Goldman, the daughter of an American father and a Danish mother, lived on the Greek island from the age of just several months until she was 6, and she returned many times as a teenager and an adult. Her relationship with Marianne, whom she knew briefly as a child, was renewed some years ago, when the latter asked her to translate a Norwegian biography of her into English.

“Marianne was actually one of the stable moms on the island,” Goldman says. “My mother and Marianne, who were two Scandinavian women, were perhaps a little more old-fashioned and conservative. Marianne definitely took care of the house, prepared meals and nested. It is, however, possible, that later in life she had regrets when it came to her motherhood. In her biography, she dances around that subject. Maybe she regretted sending Axel to boarding school, and there was also the time when she sent him alone, just as a little baby, to Norway to be with her mother, while she and Leonard were traveling around the world.

“We didn’t talk about it much and it’s a very sensitive subject. But she obviously loved Axel very much, she cared about him, and he was an important part of her life. She was a maternal person and had a lot of love to give, but as a young woman she had other ambitions too – she wanted to be with Leonard, she wanted to find herself – and it could be that sending Axel to a more stable environment seemed to be the right solution at the time, even if she regretted it later.”

Marianne, Leonard and little Axel are integrated in Goldman’s childhood memories. She remembers Axel and another boy hiding in the bushes and shooting a spear gun at passers-by (“boys will be boys,” she jokes). She remembers meetings Leonard Cohen on the beach, and other social encounters, in which he spent time with her parents. Once, she remembers, Cohen took her to lunch with her mother and sister. “Leonard thought it was funny that my sister and I spoke Greek, so he let us order. We were just young girls, and we ordered everything on the menu,” she recalls. “Of course there was too much food, and at the end my sister and I sat under the table and fed the cats while Leonard and my mother spoke.”

Goldman’s conclusions from the time on Hydra, she says, have to do with “freedom and what happens when people have too much of it.”

Closing the circle

Marianne Ihlen died of leukemia four years ago, at the age of 81. Conversations with Helle Goldman and Bård Kjøge Rønning, both of whom remained in touch with her until the end of her life, suggest that she was young in spirit, generous and loving to the very end. Leonard Cohen also remembered her fondly. The 2019 documentary “Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love” depicts his final farewell from his old love in a gentle, sad, emotionally charged scene. Marianne is on her deathbed, extremely ill but completely lucid, as a friend reads out the words that Cohen had sent her by email her the evening before, upon learning of her illness:

“Dearest Marianne,

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”

It was a poignant farewell, and also the heart-touching closure of a circle.

In November 2016, three months after Marianne’s death, Leonard Cohen died in his home in Los Angeles. Axel is the only one remaining from the intimate family nucleus created on the island of Hydra 60 years ago.

Despite the fame and success that came with Cohen’s songs, this is, after all just a family story. Like many other families, this one too, had no shortage of depression, jealousy and sad goodbyes. But there was no shortage of love too. In fact, there was an abundance of love, but it was not always synchronized. It may have been real and sincere but not aimed at exactly the right person at the right place and the right time. The final song in the last album Cohen released in his lifetime, “You Want it Darker,” is called “Treaty.” Some believe the lyrics refer to God, others claim they’re about a friend or a lover, but in the context of the small family that broke up when Cohen became a world-famous musician, it can be seen in a different light. “I’m sorry for that ghost I made you be, Only one of us was real and that was me,” Cohen sings, and it’s hard not to think about the woman and the baby who are left behind as Cohen makes his way to stardom. And then, just before he dies, Cohen concludes:

I wish there was a treaty we could sign / It’s over now, the water and the wine /

We were broken then but now we’re borderline / And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.

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