March of 1960
was cold and wet. One day Leonard Cohen, then a young unknown Canadian poet
was returning to his apartment from a visit to the dentist when
decided to turn on one of those downpours that only
can. Seeking shelter from the rain he walked into a branch of the Bank
of Greece. There he began chatting to a teller who told him about
and sunshine, and beaches. This led to him arriving in
where he boarded a steamer for Hydra, an island 4 hours (1 hour now) out
of Piraeus. There he discovered a
Bohemian community headed by the Australian
writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift. George and Charmian invited
Leonard to stay in their spare room until he rented his own house.
Evening at Dousko's Taverna - October 1960 "They are
still singing down at Dousko's, sitting under the ancient pine tree,
in the deep night of fixed and falling stars" - Leonard Cohen
an interview for ABC radio (Australia) in March 1980. Leonard Cohen said… ‘I knew George Johnston and his wife
Charmian Clift very well because I lived in Greece
in those days on the same island... I guess it was from 60 to maybe 65
on Hydra. The Johnstons
were there. There were just a few foreigners there in those days. The Johnstons
were central figures. They were older.
They were doing what we all wanted to do which was to write and to make
a living out of writing. They were very wonderful, colorful, hospitable
people. They helped me settle in. They gave me a table and chair and bed
and really helped me out. I heard a lot about Australia
. You're on a little Greek island and there's nothing much to do but sit
around and talk. George was a magnificent talker. He used to talk about
his life here. He was Australian, there's no question about it. Now that
I've come here, I see just how Australian he was. I don't know if I can
characterize what an Australian is, but I know one when I meet one.'
Leonard Cohen & Nancy Bacal - Hydra 1964
A Postcard from Leonard Cohen to George Johnston - February 1962
HYDRA - Songs & Tales of Bohemia @ the Hellenic Museum Melbourne
2016 Chris Fatouros & Spiros Falieros
Leonard Cohen on the terrace of his house
How two Australian
writers came to be living on Hydra and became the elders of the Bohemian
community is a fabulous love story that began
in Melbourne, Australia
and is worthy of a Greek tragedy.
Johnston and Charmian Clift met at the Hotel Australia in Melbourne. George was a
boy whose family lived in Elsternwick. He went to Brighton
School. His talent for writing became obvious in his mid-teens and at 21 he
was offered a cadetship at The Argus. From here he was
's first War correspondent. After the war he was appointed Editor of the
Australasian Post and later Features Editor of the
Clift was born in Kiama, NSW and during the war, to escape the
claustrophobic and conservative life in Kiama, joined the Australian
Women's Army Service.She
was posted to Albert Park Barracks for training. Charmian was also a
talented writer and her abilities were recognised when she was made
Editor of the Ordnance Corps magazine "For Your Information".
After the war Charmian was offered a job at The Argus.
and Charmian began an affair and scandalised the Argus staff with their
behaviour. George was 35 and married; Charmian, a talented, vivacious
beauty and 23. The conservative management of the Argus couldn't wear
the scandal so Charmian was fired. George resigned in protest and they
both moved to Sydney.
George & Charmian - Sydney - a typewriting
with George as Features Editor of the Sun and Charmian still writing
novels, he was offered the job of Editor of the
Sun, a very prestigious posting.
February 1951 George and Charmian and their two very young children left
on the P&O ship Orcades.
a chauffer-driven limousine was waiting.
and Charmian became the toast of the Australian ex- pat community in
. They had a plush apartment on
Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park, they wrote novels, travelled in
and entertained Peter Finch, Sidney Nolan, Donald Horne, Laurence
Olivier and others. But George and Charmian were still not settled.
George disliked journalism and both he and Charmian wanted to write
novels full-time. They wanted more actually, they wanted to live on an
exotic island in
and write novels. To the surprise of many in 1954 George resigned as
editor of The Sun and with Charmian and the children moved to Kalymnos,
an island in the
close to the Turkish coast.
George & Charmian - London sophisticates
George and Charmian had given up secure careers in journalism
for the literary life on a remote Greek island. Kalymnos was certainly
remote. They lasted less than a year. 1956 saw them moving to Hydra and
in April the birth of their third child Jason. Jason was
Christened into the Greek Orthodox Religion because in those days a
child had to be christened to be allowed to attend school.
George & Charmian at the Christening of
Jason on Hydra -1956
Hydra being one of the closest islands to Athens
meant that many rich Athenians, such as Onassis, had holiday houses
there and often frequented the island with their fabulous yachts moored
in the picturesque harbour. Since the early 1900s the island has also
been popular with writers and artists. Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell
came to stay with the painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas at his
family’s mansion in the late 1930s.
had almost no electricity, few telephones and no cars or trucks but it
had an ever-changing ex-pat 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. A group that included
Sidney Nolan, Mungo MacCullum, Peter Finch and the leading Beat generation poet Allen
Ginsberg. In the 50s many movies were also made here so many famous
actors frequented: Sophia Loren, Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Tony Randal,
Brigitte Bardot, Melina
Mercouri, Tony Perkins and many others. In 1962 Charmian, George and their three children were paid extras in
the Film 'Island
Charmian & George are best seen in the wedding scene as they
are coming out of the church. Charmian in big straw hat is directly
behind the groom, George is to her left and the man on her right is Gordon Merrick, best-selling US
author who also lived on Hydra. The children, Martin (in black-rimmed
glasses) with his sister Shane are clearly seen in their own full-frame
shot walking along the port and in the next shot Jason with his friend
became close friends with the Johnstons. Leonard wrote later "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.” As far as Cohen was concerned the
were doing exactly what Cohen wanted to do, live on an exotic island and
George on the terrace of his Hydra
house writing 'My Brother Jack'
lunchtime they sat outside the Katsikas General Store on the waterfront
waiting for the ferry from
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.
Lunch at Katsikas - Marianne - Leonard - George - Charmian
Evening at Douskos - Leonard singing to Charmian
of Leonard's closest friends, Steve Sanfield, said of the Hydra years,
'One of the things I wanted to mention and which a lot of people haven't
caught is really how important those Greece years and the Greek
sensibility were to Leonard and his development and the things he
carries with him. Leonard likes Greek music and Greek food, he speaks
Greek pretty well for a foreigner, and there's no rushing with Leonard,
it's, "Well, let's have a cup of coffee and we'll talk about
it." He and I both carry komboloi - Greek worry beads; only Greek men do that. The beads have
nothing to do with religion at all - in fact one of the Ancient Greek
meanings of the word is "wisdom beads", indicating that men
once used them to meditate and contemplate.'
this life sounded ideal and from the outside it seemed so, there were
problems. The biggest problem was money. Most of the ex-pats needed
money. The books George and Charmian wrote did not do as well as
expected. Leonard had the same problem. His time on Hydra was
productive. From the time he arrived on Hydra he wrote and published two
novels - The Favourite Game, Beautiful Losers and two books of poetry -
Flowers for Hitler and Parasites of Heaven.None was a financial success.
of 1964 was a sad year for the ex-pat community because due to the
success of My Brother Jack George and Charmian decided to move back to Australia. George would fly back for the publicity tour and Charmian and the
children would follow by ship. A small group of ex-pats watched the
island ferry leave. They knew they would never see George again. Leonard
was devastated. George was the first to show him the possibility of
living as a writer on an exotic island paradise. Leonard and George
would often discuss many topics; George having been a war correspondent
had many stories and ideas about politics and the world. Leonard was
always searching for meaning so he liked talking to George. In fact
Leonard is reputed to be responsible for the title of My Brother
Jack.In 1963 George was discussing his latest book with Leonard, he
said, "I just don't know what to call it," Leonard said,
"What's it about?" he said, "My brother Jack,"
Leonard said, "There you are."After George and Charmian left Hydra Leonard wrote and published
one more novel. His finances did not improve. The Australians leaving
was not the only change on the island. The small insular ex-pat
community began to fragment as more and more celebrities and tourists
descended on the island.
gave up trying to be a novelist and began turning his poems into songs.
He often stood in front of a full length mirror and practised the
guitar. He went to
and began offering his songs to singers and producers. Judy Collins
accepted and recorded Suzanne in 1966. In February 1967 Judy Collins
introduced Leonard to a
audience as the writer of Suzanne. Although he never fully embraced
performing and there have been absences from music he is still
performing on the world stage.
and Charmian did not fare as well. Upon their return George wrote two
more novels and Charmian for 4 years wrote a successful weekly column
for The Sydney Morning Herald. They wrote scripts for the ABC and worked
on the mini series of My Brother Jack. George and Charmian's drinking
and smoking had taken their toll. Their relationship was also strained.
Charmian died in July 1969 and George a year later in July 1970. George
Johnston and Charmian Clift were unique Australian talents. Naturally
gifted writers, both came from working class families and were only
educated to High School level. Through their writing talent and
incredible charm both became much loved in
. Equally, Leonard Cohen is a classic gentleman with incredible charm.
The influence of George, Charmian, Marianne and Hydra still show as he
strokes the komboloi (Greek
worry beads) he still carries. His poems and songs tell the story of
that golden era on Hydra.
There are hundreds of photographs of the ex-pats
on Hydra. One of George's friends was the LIFE Magazine photographer
James Burke. During World War 2 they were both War Correspondents in
Asia and developed a close friendship when they took a perilous trip
to Tibet in June 1945. (see below). James came to Hydra in October of 1960 and photographed the
Johnston - Australian War Correspondent (left) - James Burke -
US War Correspondent in Tibet June 1945