Suze Rotolo, 67, artist linked to Bob Dylan

Suze Rotolo on Dylan’s 2d LP. Suze Rotolo on Dylan’s 2d LP. (Museum of Fine Arts)
By William Grimes
New York Times / March 3, 2011

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NEW YORK — Suze Rotolo — who became widely known for her romance with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, strongly influenced his early songwriting and, in one of the decade’s signature images, walked with him arm-in-arm for the cover photo of his breakthrough album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’’ — died Friday at her home in Manhattan. She was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Enzo Bartoccioli.

Ms. Rotolo met Dylan in Manhattan in July 1961 at a Riverside Church folk concert, where he was a performer. She was 17; he was 20.

“Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her,’’ Dylan wrote in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume 1,’’ published in 2004. “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard.’’

In “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties’’ (2008), Ms. Rotolo described Dylan as “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way.’’

They began seeing each other almost immediately and soon moved in together in a walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village.

The relationship was intense but beset with difficulties. He was a self-invented troubadour from Minnesota on the brink of stardom. She was the Queens-bred daughter of Italian Communists with her own ideas about life, art, and politics that made it difficult for her to fulfill the role of helpmate, or, as she put it in her memoir, a “boyfriend’s ‘chick,’ a string on his guitar.’’

Her social views were an important influence on Dylan’s writing, evident in songs like “The Death of Emmett Till,’’ “Masters of War,’’ and “Blowin’ in the Wind.’’ When, to his distress, she went to Italy for several months in 1962, her absence inspired the plaintive love songs “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’’ “Boots of Spanish Leather,’’ “One Too Many Mornings,’’ and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.’’

Ms. Rotolo spent most of her adult life pursuing a career as an artist and avoiding questions about her three-year affair with Dylan. She relented after Dylan published his autobiography. She appeared as an interview subject in “No Direction Home,’’ the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about Dylan, before writing “A Freewheelin’ Time.’’

Susan Elizabeth Rotolo was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens.

Artistically inclined, she began haunting Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village as the folk revival gathered steam, while taking part in demonstrations against US nuclear policy and racial injustice. She adopted the unusual spelling of her nickname, Susie, after seeing the Picasso collage “Glass and Bottle of Suze.’’

The photograph of her and Dylan, taken by Don Hunstein on a slushy Jones Street in February 1963, seemed less than momentous to her at the time.

“It was freezing out,’’ she told The New York Times in 2008. “He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all. Our apartment was always cold, so I had a sweater on, plus I borrowed one of his big, bulky sweaters. On top of that I put on a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage.’’

The album, Dylan’s second, included anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind,’’ “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’’ and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.’’

Ms. Rotolo moved out of their apartment in August 1963 and, after discovering she was pregnant, had an illegal abortion.

By mid-1964 she and Dylan had drifted apart. “I knew I was an artist, but I loved poetry, I loved theater, I loved too many things,’’ Ms. Rotolo told The Times. “Whereas he knew what he wanted and he went for it.’’

In “Chronicles,’’ Dylan wrote: “The alliance between Suze and me didn’t turn out exactly to be a holiday in the woods. Eventually fate flagged it down and it came to a full stop. It had to end. She took one turn in the road and I took another.’’

In 1967 she married Bartoccioli, a film editor she had met while studying in Perugia.

She remained politically active. In 2004, using the pseudonym Alla DaPie, she joined the street-theater group Billionaires for Bush and protested at the Republican national convention.