Suze Rotolo obituaryby Richard Williams, guardian.co.uk
February 28th 2011
Suze Rotolo was the girl on the cover of the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan – a long-haired 19-year-old strolling down a snow-covered Greenwich Village street on the arm of a 21-year-old folk singer whose words and music would shortly be affecting the worldview of a generation. Rotolo, who has died of lung cancer, aged 67, was destined to become part of the Dylan legend: the girlfriend who inspired some of his finest early songs, including Boots of Spanish Leather, One Too Many Mornings, Tomorrow Is a Long Time and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.
Their relationship lasted from the summer of 1961, when they met at an all-day folk music concert in a New York church, until a protracted and painful break-up three years later. "Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her," Dylan wrote of their first encounter. "She was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blood Italian ... We started talking and my heart started to spin ... She was just my type."
During their time together, Rotolo became much more than a passive muse. Thoroughly familiar with the leftwing Greenwich Village scene and already active in the civil rights movement, she acted as a cultural guide to Dylan, who had arrived in New York a few months earlier from rural Minnesota with a head full of Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. She introduced him to the work of Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky, Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Together they went to see Picasso's Guernica and François Truffaut's Shoot the Pianist. After she told him the story of a 14-year-old African American boy who had been brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955, he wrote The Ballad of Emmett Till, one of his early broadsides against injustice.
Her constant sketching inspired him to take up drawing and painting, and some of the songs relating to their relationship were written during a months-long separation while she studied art in Italy. In later life she specialised in making one-off books constructed from items of memorabilia.
After keeping silent on the subject of Dylan for four decades, largely due to a fear of allowing her identity to be subsumed once more by his, she agreed to be interviewed for Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary, No Direction Home (2005). The experience, and that of reading Dylan's vivid and perceptive Chronicles (2004), encouraged her to write her own memoir, A Freewheelin' Time, published to a warm reception in 2008.
Rotolo was what America in the 1950s called a "red diaper baby": the daughter of card-carrying communists. She was born to Gioachino "Pete" Rotolo, an illustrator, printer and union organiser, and his wife, Mary, an editor and columnist for the American edition of L'Unità, the communist newspaper. She was brought up in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Her father died of a heart attack in 1958, leaving his wife with two teenage daughters: Susan (soon to become Suze, her own choice of spelling) and her older sister, Carla. They were, she wrote, "raised on Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger. We had listened to Oscar Brand's Folksong Festival on the radio while we were still in our cribs." As a teenager, Washington Square Park – with its poets, singers and chess players – became the centre of her universe, and her involvement in protest movements began in 1958, when she joined 10,000 other students on the Youth March for Integrated Schools, led by Harry Belafonte, in Washington DC.
On graduating from high school in 1960 she took a job in the New York office of the Congress of Racial Equality, from where she would venture out at night to experimental theatres and folk clubs. Often accompanying her sister, who worked as a researcher for Alan Lomax, the celebrated ethnomusicologist, she became a regular on the burgeoning Village folk scene.
It was at Gerde's Folk City, a venue for which she was designing posters and flyers, that Rotolo first saw Dylan, in a duo with the singer and guitarist Mark Spoelstra. A few weeks later they met, and soon they were seeing each other regularly. "He was funny, engaging and persistent," she remembered. When he acquired a recording contract, they found a little top-floor apartment in a four-storey building at 161 West Fourth Street. She was with him as his star began to rise, at first slowly but then with a speed that was exhilarating but strained their relationship. "Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse," she wrote. "He was also a black hole. He required committed backup and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself." Dylan's self-mythologising was already in full spate, and she did not discover his real name – Robert Zimmerman – until he dropped his wallet and his draft card fell out.
They had been together a year when she left to study in Perugia in Umbria, central Italy. After failing to persuade her to stay, Dylan sent her on her way with a volume of Byron's poems, followed by a series of ardent letters, often containing extracts from the lyrics of songs reflecting his feelings about her absence. They reunited soon after her return that December, and two months later the photographer Don Hunstein captured the charmingly informal image that became the cover of Freewheelin'. But the singer was already forming a liaison with Joan Baez, who presented him to her concert audiences before becoming his lover.
The role of artist's handmaiden made Rotolo uncomfortable. In Umbria she had read Françoise Gilot's Life With Picasso, in whose pages she encountered "revelations, lessons, warnings". She became envious of men who could sit alone in a cafe, writing or drawing. "If a girl did that it would mean she was alone," she told me three years ago. "It would take a lot of courage to do it, and when you did it, you took a chance."
Buffeted by Dylan's public infidelity and constant proposals of marriage on one side ("He could be a shit, like anybody else," she said) and on the other by her mother and sister, who both detested him, she moved out of their apartment. The relationship drifted on, either side of her visit to Cuba in 1964 with a group of students defying the US government's ban on travel to the island (they were welcomed by Che Guevara), but it was virtually over by the time she discovered she was pregnant, leading to an illegal abortion.
Badly wounded by the end of the affair, she fled to Italy for a while and in 1970 married Enzo Bartoliocci, whom she had met while a student. They returned to New York and settled in the East Village, a safe distance from sites that were turning into tourist attractions. Enzo became a film-maker with the United Nations and in 1980 Suze gave birth to their son, Luca, who makes guitars. Her art work has been shown in New York galleries, and in 2004 she joined Billionaires for Bush, a satirical street-theatre troupe.
She and Dylan were in touch from time to time, and he helped her when an apartment fire destroyed her possessions, including the green coat from the album cover. Of his songs, she said: "I can recognise things. It's like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what's hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go – his, mine, anybody's. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be."
She is survived by her husband and son.
• Susan Elizabeth Rotolo, artist, born 20 November 1943; died 24 February 2011
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