Bohemian tragedy: Leonard Cohen and the curse of Hydra

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

An inspiration: Leonard Cohen with Charmian Clift, Hydra, 1960.
An inspiration: Leonard Cohen with Charmian Clift, Hydra, 1960. Photograph: James Burke/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images


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 memoir Peel 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.

April 1960 was unusually cold and rainy, and on meeting Barbara Rothschild at a party, he learned that she was to be married to the Greek artist Nikos Ghika, the owner of a 40-room mansion on the sunny Aegean island of Hydra where artists and writers sometimes stayed, among them Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Cyril Connolly and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Cohen set off right away. Unfortunately, the advice to drop Rothchild’s name fell on the hostile ears of a housekeeper who, with a Mrs Danvers’s style attachment to the first Mrs Ghika, turned him away, with the words: “We don’t need any more Jews here.” Cohen claimed he put a curse on the place and the house burned to the ground in spectacular Manderley style the following year.

The house where Cohen lived on Hydra, in November 2016.
The house where Cohen lived on Hydra, in November 2016. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP /Getty Images


Cohen was scooped up by Clift and Johnston who invited him to stay and to work on their terrace. The Johnstons were doing exactly what Cohen hoped to do, living by their writing. In their decade in Greece, between them, they published 14 books. As Cohen later said: “They 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.” When he first played Sydney in 1980, by which time the couple had been dead for over a decade, he dedicated the show “To George Johnston and Charmian Clift who taught me how to write,” and opened with the Hydra-inspired song “Bird on a Wire”.

Our Daily Breather: Angelica Garcia Finds Sanctuary In Ranchera Music

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Angelica Garcia is looking to the ancestral guidance of ranchera music. Caitlyn Krone/Courtesy of the artist


Our Daily Breather is a series where we ask writers and artists to recommend one thing that’s helping them get through the days of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

The past few days I’ve experienced a flux of emotions. On one hand, I’m grateful to have time in the morning to sit and drink coffee; on the other hand I feel the chaos outside and I’m flinching every time I hear someone cough in the alley. I feel like the way that I confront chaos is by facing it, though. I can’t push aside everything I feel unless I truly want to feel the entire weight of everything at a later, unexpected date.

Since a lot of things are floating in the air — income, tours, bills — I’ve decided to use this time to absorb the most emotive music I can personally think of: ranchera music. In the past, I’ve found myself in a bathtub at the end of the night with Chavela Vargas playing in the background. The experience of sitting in the water and hearing her voice reverberate off the tiles felt similar to letting out a healthy cry.


So much of the classic ranchera music comes from a generation of writers who dealt with crisis regularly. They lived through episodes of famine or the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return home from war. On top of it all, the world was so much less connected than it is now — sometimes the news of a change of fate arriving in a small letter. This is why I feel ranchera music is so on the nose. It says absolutely everything it needs to say because people weren’t always sure of their future. This could be seen as a grim outlook, but personally I am in awe knowing that ancestors took uncertainty and hardship and turned it into something so genuine that beautifully articulates the landscape of the human experience. I’m especially thinking of them now. Whether I pick up my guitar or my paintbrush, I think of them when I don’t know how to feel.



These old songs are guidance and sanctuary to me. I’m challenging myself now to have that same directness with anything I create during this time. Life is precious and chaotic. I am most at peace when I look it in the eyes for what it is.


John Prine Hospitalized With COVID-19 Symptoms: ‘His Situation Is Critical’ ~ RollingStone

“John was hospitalized on Thursday,” family says in statement. “He was intubated Saturday evening, and continues to receive care”

John Prine performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, in Manchester, Tenn2019 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival - Day 3, Manchester, USA - 15 Jun 2019

John Prine has been hospitalized since Thursday after suffering from symptoms synonymous with the novel coronavirus. Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

John Prine has been hospitalized since Thursday after suffering from symptoms synonymous with the novel coronavirus. While Prine’s exact medical condition is unclear, “his situation is critical,” his family said in a statement Sunday.

“After a sudden onset of COVID-19 symptoms, John was hospitalized on Thursday. He was intubated Saturday evening, and continues to receive care, but his situation is critical,” the Prine family wrote.

“This is hard news for us to share. But so many of you have loved and supported John over the years, we wanted to let you know, and give you the chance to send out more of that love and support now. And know that we love you, and John loves you.”

John Prine


An update on John

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On March 20th, Prine’s wife Fiona revealed that she had tested positive for the coronavirus, and while her husband also tested, his status remained “indeterminate” at the time.

“There’s a chance he may not have this virus,” Fiona Prine said on Instagram, “and we are working really, really hard and being really diligent about all of the protocols. We are quarantined and isolated from each other and members of the family. It’s hard, I won’t lie, but it’s absolutely important.”

Prine’s health issues over the past few decades have been well-documented, as has the singer’s comebacks: In the late-Nineties, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his neck; after rounds of radiation, surgery and a year of rehabilitation, Prine returned to music, his deepened voice a battle scar from the cancer fight. In 2013, Prine announced he had an operable cancer, “non-small cell carcinoma,” in his left lung, briefly sidelining him. 

San Francisco’s Top Art School Plans Closing After Almost 150 Years ~ NYT

Efforts to save the alma mater of Annie Leibovitz and Kehinde Wiley collapsed as the coronavirus sent the Bay Area on lockdown.

Credit…Diana Cheng/Getty Images


The San Francisco Art Institute will not accept students for the fall semester after almost 150 years in operation, ending the legacy of a once-storied school that produced famous artists like Annie Leibovitz, Kehinde Wiley and Catherine Opie.

The institute announced Monday in a schoolwide letter that it plans to suspend classes after the spring semester. Graduating students will receive their degrees in May, but faculty and staff were told to prepare for mass layoffs. One senior official close to the decision-making process said the school was likely to close because of mounting debt.

“We are looking down the barrel of a gun,” Gordon Knox, the college president, told faculty during a town-hall meeting in late February. Like many art schools across the country, declining enrollment and financial hardships have plagued the institution for years. In 2017, S.F.A.I. spent millions on a second campus on the city’s waterfront. This year, the school abandoned another costly project to build new dormitories. The final straw for the faltering institution was when discussions to merge with a local university collapsed after the coronavirus sent the Bay Area into a lockdown. Pam Rorke Levy, the institute board’s chair, estimated the university’s total debt was around $19 million but likely to increase because the school is not earning revenue during the health crisis.

“While we remain hopeful there is a strategic partnership that will allow this commitment to continue,” Mr. Knox wrote to students and faculty on Monday, “we are realistic that this will not happen any time soon in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic.”

The school is currently closed because of the coronavirus. Students learned it was facing closure as they sheltered in place and adjusted to sometimes-haphazard online instruction in studio art and sculpture. “What institution is going take me now during coronavirus?” asked Rebecca Sexton, a 28-year-old pursuing a dual-degree graduate program. “It’s hard to know what exactly will happen,” added Ms. Sexton, who was expecting to start writing her master’s thesis next year.

Corinna Kirsch, an art history lecturer, said, “I’m really sad that a vibrant community where you could still see artists walking around barefoot on campus has come to an end.” Founded in 1871, S.F.A.I. claims to be the only fine arts school dedicated to contemporary art. It gained an illustrious reputation on the West Coast for courting faculty members like the photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston.

In 1931, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” in the school’s gallery. Faced with its current financial crisis, administrators have floated the idea of selling the Rivera fresco, which has been appraised for $50 million. “When you have an asset that’s that valuable,” Ms. Levy explained, “there’s always a discussion.”

“As a small college in an expensive town we are feeling the pain,” she added.

The San Francisco Art Institute joined a growing list of more than a dozen art schools across America that have faced bankruptcy in the last year. In February, the Watkins College of Art made headlines when it announced a planned merger with Belmont University, a Christian institution in Nashville — a decision that led students and professors to protest over concerns about freedom of expression.

“Every art school is dealing with economic hardship in one degree or another,” said Massimo Pacchione, who was the school’s director of student experience until being laid off this week. “Education is increasingly seen more as an engine for economic advancement rather than a pursuit of passion.”