Leonard Cohen’s Greek years

Leonard Cohen will be missed. The gentleman and poet, passed away at age 82 and a very specific piece of Greek land, a haven of his, Hydra mourns. “I was writing novels, putting books of poems together” Cohen reminisced in a 1988 BBC interview filmed in his Hydra hilltop house. “We’d get up early, and have breakfast, and I’d go to work… I think I was on speed too, so I wasn’t eating very much.”

For the residents of Hydra he was and will always be their Leonardo. Cohen bought the simple 19th-century house for just $1,500, an inheritance from his grandmother. He considered the purchase of this property the best decision he ever made in his life, deciding to make as few changes as possible to the old building. The tree in the yard, the five rooms on different levels, the veranda, the traditional décor, he kept it all. He was in love with the house and the sun, the island and Greece.

“Having this house makes cities less frightening. I can always come back and get by. But I don’t want to lose contact with the metropolitan experience,” he wrote. Cohen described his first encounter with Greece in an interview in 1991. It was 1960 when he found himself wandering the streets of rainy London. “I saw the door of a branch office of the Bank of Greece. I went inside and I saw the tanned cashier behind the counter. I asked him ‘What’s the weather like in Greece?’ And he replied, ‘It’s spring.’ Two days later, I left for Greece.”


“A few weeks later, Leonard arrived in Piraeus, where he boarded a ferry for Hydra, one of the Saronic islands, then 4 hours from Piraeus. When he arrived he discovered an English-speaking community of artists and writers headed by the Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift. George and Charmian invited Leonard to stay in the spare room of their house. Seven months later Leonard Cohen, aged 26, bought a house on the hill above Hydra town. This became his permanent home” writes Harry Fatouros.


“Hydra had almost no electricity, few telephones and no cars or trucks. But it had an ever-changing bohemian community which George and Charmian immediately fell in love with. George and Charmian were in their element, very hospitable, hard drinking and partying and presided over the cosmopolitan assortment of authors, painters and musicians who frequented the island. In the ’50s many movies were also made on Hydra so many famous actors and directors frequented: Michael Cacoyannis, Sophia Loren, Alan Ladd, Melina Mercouri, Tony Perkins, and many others. George and Charmian became close friends with Michael Cacoyanis and most of the actors.

At lunchtime they sat outside the Katsikas Brothers store on the waterfront, waiting for the ferry from Piraeus which brought mail and more artists and writers looking for adventure. At night they would sit under the old pine tree at Douskos Taverna and talk philosophy, politics, religion, drink and sing. It was here that Cohen began writing the song Bird On A Wire. The song reflects the changing landscape on Hydra when telephone and electricity poles and wires were installed and Cohen saw birds sitting on the wires just outside his bedroom window. It was here that George Johnston introduced Cohen to his most famous muse, Marianne. It was on Hydra that Cohen lived with Marianne for nearly 10 years. She was the inspiration for the song So Long Marianne.

The influence of the Greek people of Hydra, George Johnston, Charmian Clift, Marianne, still show as he strokes the komboloi. Many of his poems and songs tell the story of that golden era of the 1960s on Hydra”.

His first concert was in the back room of the Katsikas Brothers Grocery Store on the Hydra waterfront in 1960. That was a way to start an sun drenched dance to the end of love.


All images via Leonard Cohen on Hydra/Facebook