On September 27, 1960, six days after his twenty-sixth birthday, Cohen bought a house on Hydra for $1500, using a bequest from his recently deceased grandmother. This was a “big deal” in the words of one of his friends, a commitment to a place and a world that was mysterious and unusual to him.
Buying the house was a complicated act, needing the assistance of his friend Demetri Gassoumis as translator, advisor, and witness to the deed. Cohen later said that it was the smartest decision he ever made.
Cohen described his home to his mother: “It has a huge terrace with a view of dramatic mountain 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 sea-.men 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. 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.”
Cohen’s house gave him a foundation. To a friend he explained that “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.”
Buying the house also gave him confidence: “The years are flying past and we all waste so much time wondering if we dare to do this or that. The thing is to leap, to try, to take a chance.” It was a place of solitude, of plodding donkeys (even today no cars are allowed on the island; nor would they get very far if they were), cold water and kerosene lamps.
On Hydra Leonard discovered the Greek way of life – its alternating rhythms of work and leisure, both on a seasonal and on a daily basis, which are so crucial to creative thought and achievement.
In the island’s solitude he began to crystallize the wisdom of some of his best poetry, writing and songs. He truly began to find himself, with the music of Greece entering his soul, evoking earlier memories and melodies, combining with them to suggest a new style, his own mystique.
James Browning, a Briton born in Cyprus, came to Hydra in the 1960s and is one of the last people who knew Cohen well and saw the island in those days. “There used to be some very fun, interesting people here, back in those days,” he remembers.
On Hydra, Cohen lived with the first of his legendary romances, Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian from Oslo commemorated in his classic song “So Long, Marianne.”
Cohen worked on his novel, Beautiful Losers, while living on Hydra – and it just about cost him his mind. It was published in 1966 and it is a genuinely daring, groundbreaking and startlingly sexual work about a man’s search for identity, memory, purpose and transcendence, amid a dizzying weave of romantic, religious and historical betrayals.
In one of his last visits to the island in 1988, Cohen allowed a BBC camera to follow him around the house, as he remembered his most creative time on the island in the 1960s. His description of life there, now a famous quote in Greece, still feels relevant: “There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra.”
Source: The Guardian