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Bohemian tragedy: Leonard Cohen and the curse of Hydra

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The musician was inspired by married writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift when he visited the Greek island of Hydra in 1960. But their golden age came at a price

I’ve been noticing of late how often the woman you see in the photograph, with her head on Leonard Cohen’s shoulder is captioned as “Marianne”. In fact, this beauty is of a different and wilder nature. Her name is Charmian Clift, and she was one half of the tragic couple, cited by Cohen as his inspiration and often dubbed “the Ted and Sylvia of Australia”. It was Clift’s memoirPeel Me a Lotus, that first set me on the path to the Greek island of Hydra and to writing a novel set among the artists’ colony of which she and her husband, George Johnston, were the undisputed king and queen.

It is 60 years this month since a 25-year-old Cohen – pre-songwriting and with one collection of poetry under his beltset foot there, hoping to finish blackening the pages of his first novel. He had left Montreal on his first trip outside North America with a Canadian Arts Council Grant of $2,000, and had been attempting to complete three pages a day at a boarding house in Hampstead.

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