Visiting Hydra: Leonard Cohen’s Bohemian Idyll

A pilgrimage to the idyllic Greek island where the singer once lived and loved

Christopher P Jones
Nov 4, 2018 · 17 min read
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Hydra town

In the early afternoon we reached Hydra. That day, as we stepped from the ferry that deposited us on the harbour front, it was possible to believe we had stepped into a paradise. The great swathe of blue sky above us was high and fine, and the light that poured down into this attractive hollow was of such exhilarating strength that every stone and sail flared great gusts of pearl, peach and white. The geography of the harbour — a horseshoe bowl overlooked by villas of irregular size and shape — became apparent to me now. Its voluminous dimensions gave it a beneficent feel; a certain sharpness in the air allowed me to see how open the land was to the sea and sky.

A silent ridge rising from the sea, the Greek island sits on the fringes of the Saronic Gulf, just a few dozen miles adrift from the Peloponnese coast. Depending on the veils of mist and sun that rise and fall and spiral over the island, the diminutive mountains along its spine glow yellow from their dry grasses or opal-grey under the umbra of the sky.

The main town has undergone an extensive reconditioning since the 1950s, when, I have read, only half the residences were occupied and many others lay in a ruined state. The harbour now attracts the sort of yacht-riding tourist that perhaps also call Capri and Monaco their playgrounds. Doubtless — everyone is wondering — it is only a matter of time before the character of Hydra is irredeemably changed by this influx of extraordinary wealth, if it hasn’t happened already. Whether this would be for the worse or the better I could not say.

As we glanced up at the glinting tones that hummed around the harbour like a newly minted mosaic, a thought struck me: that every photograph I’d seen of this harbour bore not the least resemblance to the real thing.

Almost certainly, there was a specific photo I had in mind: a black-and-white image taken in about 1964, which presents Hydra in a perfectly pleasing way but — without the colours — gives only a feint suggestion of the vividness of the landscape. Nor does the photo, cropped as it is, glimpse above the rooftops where the town climbs more steeply to craggy hills, at various points splitting off like partitions in a stage-set, thereby generating a sense of depth and life, before the parched hillsides ascend towards the Monastery of the Prophet Elijah and the rocky summit of Mount Ere.

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Leonard Cohen at Hydra, 1964

The black-and-white photo I knew by heart was not principally of Hydra but of the poet-singer Leonard Cohen, taken when he was about thirty years old. In the photo, he stands on a plank leading to a fishing boat, half turned to the camera, his hands somewhat awkwardly squeezed into his pockets, wearing a dark pullover that contrasts with the glowing collar of a white shirt. His expression is quizzical; or is he merely squinting into the morning sun?

Cohen had arrived on Hydra in April 1960, four years prior to the photo, travelling on what was then a five-hour steamer service from Athens. Today, the Russian-built hydrofoils take around a third of the time to skate the same journey.

Earlier that day, moving our luggage under a fierce sun, our own ferry left from the port of Piraeus on the outskirts of Athens. The diesel engine gushed brown smoke into the air, the same potent stink that circulated around the inside of the cabin and lingered about our senses for the whole of the journey. We were fortunate to have a seat by the window, yet the oily deposits of this airborne pollution had grimed the glass and disfigured our view across the Saronic: as such, our expectations of what lay across the water were held in a type of murky suspension. On arrival, we too squinted into the sun and found a place of alarming beauty.

According to my research, the Hydra of 1960 had limited electricity, only a handful of telephones and virtually no plumbing. Leonard Cohen was twenty-five years old when he first stepped foot into this bucolic if rustic setting. I was interested to learn that the house he rented came at a cost of just fourteen dollars a month. Some five months later, he used a $1500 bequest from his recently deceased grandmother to buy a property of his own. It was this house, which he subsequently lived in with his new love, Marianne, that we had come to the island to find.

A glance backwards over the fortunes of Hydra reveal that it has been nearly-abandoned on several occasions, once in 1792 when a plague killed a large part of the population, and once again after the Greek War of Independence of 1821. During this more recent agitation, it is said the island gradually lost its maritime position in the Eastern Mediterranean — which until then had been considerable — thereby igniting an economic crisis. In the Second World War, between 1941 and 1943, when Greece was under Axis occupation, a shortage of food brought a desperate famine to the island, which, then as today, more or less relied on imports from the mainland to sustain itself.

It was hard to countenance these desperate tales with the benign setting we found ourselves moving through. Narrow streets twisting and tapering gradually up the hillside, shop-fronts and cafés, and about all, a certain peacefulness that is so hard to locate in most urban settings.

After several wrong turns, we found our hotel, the Hydroussa, set back from the harbour front by a walk of just a few minutes. It consisted of a three-storey building arranged around a courtyard paved in pale stone, with potted green-leaf plants around the perimeter, a trio of lemon trees in a row and a dozen marble-topped coffee tables to sit at. In this courtyard — a glittering sun-trap softened by a canopy of branches — we would eat our breakfasts and spend time reading and writing, easefully dislocated from the modest hubbub of town and the sound of donkey hooves against paved pathways.

Later went out to find food. As the slow heat of the day began to wilt and dusk stretched out like the languid cats of the island, the hillside colours faded to shades of low orange and the harbour front gradually lit up in opulent beckoning. We ate on the quayside and saw the sky sink from gold to mauve. The headland solidified into silhouette. On wandering home, perfect Greek tavernas crackled with eaters beneath pergolas of grape vine and bougainvillea. In this way, the Hydra we had come to see was even more decorative than we had hoped for; more idyllically Mediterranean, you might say.

And with this thought, so an element of doubt was brought into focus: had we come to find a fantasy and smile because we had so easily found it?

Cohen did not live alone on the island. He joined an existing community of expatriate artists and writers already well established there; principle among them were the Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift. The couple invited Cohen to stay in their spare room until he rented his own house, and through this early generosity the three came to be close friends during their time on the island together.

George and Charmian themselves make for an interesting side-story. Their relationship, which had begun in the conservative climes of 1940s Melbourne, was the source of some scandal at the time, not least because George was already married, but also because of the age difference: at thirty-five, he was twelve years her senior. Both were working for the Argus at the time, a Melbourne daily newspaper. Their employers disapproved of the relationship and three months later both were encouraged to leave the publication.

One can imagine that their decision to repatriate to Europe was inspired by the dishonour; on a more practical level, it also came about because Johnston had been offered a feature-writing role on the Sun newspaper in London. By 1954, he had resigned from that newspaper and moved with his family to the Greek islands in order to write novels, first to the sponge-diving island of Kálimnos, then a year later to Hydra. With several successful novels already under his belt, his plan was to launch himself as a writer of international repute.

If life on Hydra was an idyllic retreat, then it must have pertained to Albert Camus’ dictum that “there is no sun without shadow.” Charmian would later write of the struggles of bringing up two children in isolation in her Peel Me A Lotus. George too turned to a more candid form of writing, and had his biggest success with his first directly autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack.

The bohemian way of life in which the couple ensconced themselves was proving demanding. As Cohen himself wrote, “The Australians drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.”

This full-bodied lifestyle couldn’t last. In 1959 George developed tuberculosis of the lungs and went on to suffer significant weight loss. Charmian took to writing a weekly column for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Herald, and received much acclaim for her articles. She also carried the main burden of housework and parenting on account of Johnston’s illness. Forced to returned to Australia in 1964 to pursue their careers, five years later Charmian took a fatal overdose of sleeping tablets. George died of pulmonary tuberculosis almost exactly a year later.

Cohen’s own life had reached an important juncture as he established himself on Hydra. In his mid-twenties, his allegiance to the creative-life now entailed two strands, namely poetry and novel writing. Up until this point he had published a single collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), and had just received news that his next collection, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), had been accepted for publication by the Canadian publishing company McClelland & Stewart.

As a poet he was growing in reputation, though the scene in Canada from where he emerged was still nothing but a pinprick on the wider map. Now in the reclusive conditions of Hydra, Cohen planned to work on his first novel to broaden his reputation.

In a letter, he revelled in the nature of the ‘project’:

“I get up around 7 generally and work till about noon. Early morning is coolest and therefore best, but I love the heat anyhow, especially when the Aegean Sea is 10 minutes from my door.”

During these early months, Cohen quickly developed a relationship with the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen, who was living on the island with a fellow Norwegian, a writer, and their your child. When the novelist left the island to pursue an affair with another woman, Cohen invited Marianne to move into his house. What began as an act of friendship turned into something more, a relationship that would last for some six-and-a-half years.

Marianne said of Cohen, “To be with Leonard was to begin to know your own power as a woman.” She was later immortalised in his ballad, So Long, Marianne.

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Cohen and Marianne in October 1960, by LIFE Magazine photographer James Burke. © LIFE Magazine.

Cohen continued to write: early versions of the novel received rejections from several publishers, leading him to rework the manuscript several times during the first years on Hydra. He explained candidly to one publisher who had turned the book away:

“It took me some time to learn to write a poem. It will take me time to learn to write prose. I don’t know too much about the form right now, but I promise you, I intend to become the best architect in the business.”

The work was eventually published as The Favourite Game in late 1963, an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing.

More work followed, as Cohen’s attitude shifted between high-ambition and low-moods. He published his third poetry collection Flowers for Hitler in 1964, and a second novel Beautiful Losers in 1966. Yet it was at this point, some six years after arriving on Hydra, periodically spending time in Montreal and London, that Cohen made what seems like an extraordinary decision — to leave behind the writer’s life and pursue a singing career; since writing had not bought him the recognition he desired. In November 1966 he left Hydra and travelled to Nashville with the intention of becoming a country & western singer; on the way he stopped in New York and found a burgeoning folk scene there. He stayed, on and off, for two years, and released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, on December 27, 1967.

I have thought about the story of Hydra many times — that is, Cohen’s arrival and his staying there. It perpetuates an archetypal story that exists in my imagination, of an artist disappearing into the world in order to see and enjoy a deeper mode of experience. Intertwined with this narrative is the Mediterranean sea and the warm sunlight that is so frequently visited upon it. I felt I had entered a dream landscape and was unable to dislodge the baffling sensation of these old subterranean ideas now reawakened. The first few hours after our arrival unfolded under this strange duality of imagination, as if all the fantasies that I had allowed to grow within me over years like a tangled knot of flowers had now been cut back and allowed to grow again, in haste, under the new logic of actual reality.

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Man rides a donkey along “Leonard Cohen” street

On day two, we elected to find Leonard Cohen’s house. I had researched where we needed to go. The instructions I had pieced together ran like this: take the path from the harbour, past the clock tower, move inland and keep right, seek the main upper route to Kamini, expect several flights of stairs, until you reach the Quartre Coins (Four Corners) grocery store, at which point go immediately right, along a narrow street until you find another street, more narrow still, which these days bears the name Leonard Cohen. The house itself has a brass door-knocker in the shape of hand.

At first, I took the detail of the hand-shaped door-knocker to be decisive, and indeed believed I have found the house all to easily, until I realised that these curious door-knockers are everywhere over Hydra. And yet, within minutes, we had indeed found the Four Corners grocers and without further error were soon standing beneath the blue street sign with Cohen’s name printed in white.

In Cohen’s own words, in a letter to his mother written shortly after his arrival, the house “has a huge terrace with a view of dramatic mountains and shining white houses. The rooms are large and cool with deep windows set in thick walls. I suppose it’s about 200 years old and many generations of seamen must have lived here. I will do a little work on it every year and in a few years it will be a mansion… I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years. All through the day you hear the calls of the street vendors and they are really rather musical…”

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The door handle

It was all there. The whitewashed house, the wall upon which the terrace stood, several small windows looking through thick walls. In a landscape sweetened by the syrup of the sun, I had found the place I was looking for. I stood before the faded-lilac door and entertained the temptation to lift and strike the brass knocker. I resisted the inducement and instead wrapped my palm around the door handle, an onion-domed brass bulb situated at waist height. With the sensation that he too must have put his grip around this handle, my pilgrimage had reached its quiet conclusion. We returned back to the town satiated, back to the world of grocers, timekeepers, fishermen, hairdressers, tourists and lovers.

I think it is easy to see how musicians and rock stars can become our everyday heroes. The intimacy with which we experience the presence of artists through their work is perhaps especially true of singers. The words they vocalise — or in Cohen’s case, sonorously ramble — are there, right inside our ears. Moreover, recorded music repeats its fidelity with every listen. We learn the lyrics and master the vocal cadences, deeper and deeper each playback. We notice how successive albums display an arc of artistic progress. We observe the musical habits, the motifs that repeat between unrelated records, or how ‘live’ renditions vary from studio albums. With each listen these truths become more true over time. All these details we can come to know so forensically that it can sometimes feel we are the first to make sense of them.

In these details — the details of the songs themselves — Leonard Cohen has always represented to me a person who forged his own path. If he emerged out of an established tradition, out of some contemporary fashion for solemnity and eloquence, then he shaped it to his own needs. Because of this, I always found in Leonard’s sparse voice and dulcet melodies a repudiation of ordinary life, and all the predictable concerns that arise out of it. With Leonard speaking to me, I felt shielded from banal discomforts.

On the coastal path to Kamini, we came across a stone bench dedicated to Cohen. It was unveiled in 2017, a year after his death. We found it during the bloom of midday — when the heat has the effect of scattering people. A cat was asleep along a shaded edge, and we too took a moment’s respite on the bench.

During this time the local people have more sense than to overheat, and so stay indoors or else keep a mindful eye from the apertures of doorways, ready to recoil into the cooled confines of a ceramic interior. They elect to make only the most necessary of journeys, and if it is more than a few hundred metres they do so on the hind quarters of a donkey. In contrast, tourists like us can be found trekking the stony paths along the coastline with blow-up buoyancy toys in their arms, most of them heading in the direction of favoured swimming spots. To a person, they are chronically doused in perspiration for which the only remedy they can imagine is the chilled tonic of the sea.

We ourselves elected the tiny pebble beach at Avlaki, where one enters the water from a concrete jetty using a chrome ladder. Otherwise, you must go over the pebbles which, thought rounded and smooth, are awkward to walk over in bare feet and affect a hobbling gait in those who try. Neither entrance has the comfort of a gentle sandy beach, but once in the water, the sense that one is swimming on a profound fault-line of nature’s two most profound ideas — sea and land — is enlivening.

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Bathing jetties at Avlaki

The waters drop away at a pace on these shores, so swimmers tend to be confident in their abilities. The most adept are the children, who dive and plunge with abandon, and if courage is allowed to blossom, climb the nearby rocks and leap off from great heights with a splash. We did no such thing.

Later, my sense of living in a surreal dilemma returns: we fall into conversation with our hotel concierge, a warm-hearted man named Costas, who tells us that he met Cohen once in the 1980s. I am delighted by the unearthing of this feint link through history. Furthermore, Costas tells us, his uncle was the proprietor of Rolio’s café, which I knew from my reading was where Cohen used to drink and play guitar, and where, it is said, he played his first public performance. Finally, Costas confirms, he remains friendly with the family who still own the house we had earlier loitered in front of, and that Cohen’s son, Adam, happened to be staying there at the present time.

We had no idea what to make of all this information, except to face up to the simple quandary: that we had either made a discovery of vital significance, or else that the curtain that hangs between the lives of ordinary people and the lives of our heroes is merely a thin veil to be easily drawn aside.

Later in the afternoon, satisfied with all we had experienced, we found ourselves stunned by a sun-invoked tiredness. We ate a simple lunch, drank a glass of wine, and then sat on the shaded side of the harbour to watch the great yachts linger at their moorings, wondering — with a touch of injured hope — what it must be like to afford such a lifestyle. The occupants of these boats, some of them bigger than the public ferry that brought us into the port, bask on their decks in the generous palm of the setting sun and their own luxurious furnishings. In these conditions, the streets of the town grow into a plethora of eating and drinking, and the sense of salubriousness is upheld well into night.

In October 1960, the artistic community on Hydra was visited by LIFE Magazine photographer James Burke. Burke was an old friend of George Johnston whom he met when both were war correspondents in Asia. He came to Hydra to capture the bohemian scene there, and the photographs that survive record what appears to be an impeccably carefree and spontaneous form of existence. There is Marianne and Cohen riding side-saddle on donkeys, evening scenes in small cafés, sunlit lunches over checked tablecloths, sea bathing off the rocks, guitar sing-alongs, painters and artisans at work, a trip to a remote church, a writer at his typewriter, Marianne at the harbour feeding her child, and much feasting and drinking besides. Cohen and the Australians appear consistently.

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Cohen playing guitar at the Douskos Taverna, by LIFE Magazine photographer James Burke. Charmian Clift sits beside him. © LIFE Magazine.

These remarkable testimonies to a fleeting set of conditions appear to anchor the scene of Hydra to something more permanent. Yet the community could only ever be a visiting tribe, and within a few years the scene had begun to disband. Of the local Hydriots, the photos capture virtually nothing.

Photographs freeze time, and in doing so, conquer one of our greatest fears, but it is an illusion. My heart trembles at the thought of such truths.

On our last day on Hydra, it was my birthday: I turned forty. I spent the day dreaming of where to take my life next under the hope that Hydra might leave a more permanent mark on me.

Turning forty, you have to accept the creases around the eyes and the worn look of tiredness accruing in the skin. Time demands this evidence. Yet – I tried to convince myself – if there was ever a moment to be faithful to myself, and in doing so, to reject the dishonesty of my pride and hunger, it was now. I asked to acquire a lightness of touch and a fresh lucidity, so that the placing of one foot in front of the other could take on a new conviction. These were the gifts I hoped to receive from Hydra, an island scented in the visions of artists and dreamers. Tomorrow, perhaps, we will take the ferry to Athens.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

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