Canadian novelist, poet, and songwriter Leonard Cohen died in 2016, but his work still influences the public imagination. New details of the troubadour’s biography still make headlines, and predictably, his relationships with women are front and center. The stories of his life, lived in the heyday of the sexual revolution, include a string of abortions. They cast a dark retroactive light on some of Cohen’s most famous songs. Every revolution has its victims, and the unnamed children of Leonard Cohen are among their number.
The young Cohen arrived on the Montreal literary scene in the fifties after meeting poet Irving Layton at McGill University. Cohen, Layton, and their friends loathed the puritanism of postwar Canada and burned for something new. The war finally over, it was up to those who remained to create a better world, throbbing with music, poetry, and passion. They believed everything could be changed through art and that they could be the ones to do it. As the biographies detail, Cohen’s pursuit of the pleasure that drove his art was relentless. Late nights, streetlights, glowing orange cigarette tips, cool dawn on tired eyes—this was life. Or was it?
Cohen was driven in particular by his hunger for young women. He was skilled at framing his lust not as a desire to consume, but as an homage to beauty. “When a woman becomes your content, and you become her content—that’s love,” he once said. It isn’t, of course—content is consumed, not cherished. It is interesting how many are willing to make excuses for the unforgivably selfish behavior of great artists—all of Cohen’s biographers do. But anyone who has read Cohen knows he was an extraordinarily keen observer of the human condition. So what excuse can be made for the way he treated women, time and again?
The most romanticized period of Cohen’s career was his time on the Greek island of Hydra, where he wrote novels, poems, and songs; mingled with other artists; and shacked up with the blond Scandinavian beauty Marianne Ihlen. As one of Cohen’s close friends, Steve Sanfield, put it: “There were revolutions going on in literature, and there was a sexual revolution, which we’d thought we won and we probably lost.” But it didn’t seem that way for a time on Hydra, with the yellow beaches and bronzed bodies and endless booze and conversation. As Cohen noted giddily in one interview, the fact that the sexual revolution exploded just as his desires did was “magic.”
The adults used that magic to live in Neverland as long as they could. But as Irving Layton’s wife, Aviva, noted, few marriages survived that island paradise (her husband insisted on an open marriage, which gave her great pain). Few children did, either. The histories of those raised on the island are rife with substance abuse, suicide, and institutionalization. Marianne’s son Axel never recovered and spent much of the rest of his life in mental hospitals.
For all the high-flown poetry, Cohen’s copulations were fundamentally cannibalistic. His biographer Sylvie Simmons writes that he tried to make women love him, withdrew when he succeeded, and used the subsequent heartbreak to fuel his writing. A line in his 1963 novel, The Favourite Game, sums it up: “Supposing he went along with her toward living intimacy, toward comforting, incessant married talk. Wasn’t he abandoning something more austere and ideal...something which could apply her beauty to streets, traffic, mountains, ignite the landscape—which he could master if he were alone?” Like so many artists, he deluded himself into believing that passionate promiscuity could be the pursuit of art.
It was the women and children who paid the price of these delusions. There is a trail of blood through Cohen’s canon. In Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years, musician Julie Felix says of Marianne: “He made her have five abortions. Five sounds about right. She told me. He has that song [“You Know Who I Am”] where he says, ‘I need you to carry my children in/And I need you to kill a child.’” Cohen’s friend Peter Katoundas recalled that one abortion had left Marianne sterile, which gave birth to these gruesome lines in Cohen's song “Diamonds in the Mine”:
Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch,
some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch,
and the only man of energy, yes the revolution’s pride,
he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child.
Aviva Layton told filmmaker Nick Broomfield—who himself drove Marianne to Bath, England for an abortion—in his 2019 documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love that “Marianne was in great pain. I’ll say it now, because they’re all dead. Marianne was pregnant a few times, but she knew Leonard did not want to have kids, and she did not want to burden him. Leonard was the Poet. If anyone deserved to have Leonard’s children it was her, but she didn’t for Leonard’s sake.” Instead, she obediently aborted them. Marianne was Cohen’s most famous muse, and he nearly destroyed her.
Cohen knew that he had done Marianne great wrong and said so. As he wrote in the poem “Days of Kindness,” penned on Hydra:
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
and manifests as tears
I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world.
Even while living it all out, Cohen felt—and documented—the emptiness of the sexual revolution. His most apocalyptic, almost Ginsberg-like commentary on the world he and his fellow revolutionaries had created was the 1992 song and album, The Future, which ended with these verses:
Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby
It is murder
Leonard Cohen lived long enough to see the freedom of the sixties turn into something else—something that, despite his enthusiastic personal participation, was poisonous, especially for the vulnerable. At the very end of his life, his mind turned to Marianne and the life he’d lived with her. He knew that he had failed many of those he should have loved. His best lines are not those extracted from the women he consumed as content, but those derived from deep self-reflection.
Cohen had come of age with the sexual revolution, drunk deeply of its pleasures, and witnessed its resulting pains. I wonder if that is what he had in mind when he wrote one of his most haunting lines in the song “Stories of the Street”: “Where do all these highways lead, now that we are free?”
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.
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