In March of 1960 London 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 London decided to turn on one of those downpours that only London 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 Greece, and sunshine, and beaches. This led to him arriving in Piraeus, Greece where he boarded a steamer for Hydra, an island 4 hours (1 hour now) out of Piraeus. There he discovered an ex-pat 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.
How two Australian writers came to be living on Hydra is a fabulous love story that began in Melbourne and is worthy of a Greek tragedy.
George Johnston and Charmian Clift met at the Hotel Australia in Melbourne. George was a Melbourne boy whose family lived in Elsternwick. He went to Brighton Technical 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 to become Australia 's first War correspondent. After the war he was appointed Editor of the Australasian Post and later Features Editor of the Sydney Sun.
Charmian 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.
George 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.
While in Sydney with George as Features Editor of the Sun and Charmian still writing novels, he was offered the job of Editor of the London Sun, a very prestigious posting.
In February 1951 George and Charmian and their two very young children left for London on the P&O ship Orcades. In London a chauffer-driven limousine was waiting.
George and Charmian became the toast of the Australian ex-pat community in London. They had a plush apartment on Bayswater Road, opposite Hyde Park, they wrote novels, travelled in Europe 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 Greece 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 Aegean close to the Turkish coast.
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.
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.
Hydra 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 and her three children were paid extras in the Film 'Island of Love'. Charmian is best seen in the wedding scene as they are coming out of the church. Charmian in big straw hat is directly behind the groom and the man with her 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 Evangelina.
Leonard 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 Johnstons were doing exactly what Cohen wanted to do, live on an exotic island and write novels.
At lunchtime they sat outside the Katsikas General 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.
One 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."
Although 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.
February 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.
Leonard 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 New York 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 New York 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.
George 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 Australia, England and Greece. 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. James came to Hydra in October of 1960 and photographed the ex-pat community. His photographs of that era are all on the Google LIFE archive and can be viewed here.