Suze Rotolo, an American artist who became famous during her four-year relationship with Bob Dylan, died recently in New York City, after a long bout with lung cancer. She was 67.
Rolling Stone has described Rotolo as the muse behind some of Dylan’s classic songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” In Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, he compares Rotolo to “a Rodin sculpture come to life.”
The pair began dating in 1961, when she was 17. She was raised in Queens in an immigrant Italian communist family, and was working for a civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality, when they met. Her mother, from Piacenza, Italy, was an editor and columnist for the English-language version of L’Unita, published by the Italian Communist Party. Her father, from Sicily, was a union organizer.
Her leftwing views may have influenced Dylan’s own political awakening, and Dylan himself credited her with helping spark his resolve to craft classic progressive anthems like “Masters of War.” 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 Death of Emmett Till,” one of his early broadsides against racial violence. Rotolo took him to CORE meetings and taught him about the civil rights movement. The influence of Bertolt Brecht on Dylan’s songwriting has also been acknowledged by Dylan as stemming from Rotolo’s participation in Brechtian theater during their relationship.
Rotolo is best known for a photograph of her and Dylan walking arm in arm down Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Taken by Don Hunstein, the picture became the cover of Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the most important images in her life were the disenfranchised people she invested so much time in helping.
She devoted her life’s work to the progressive causes that had engaged her since well before she met Dylan. (In 1958 she joined 10,000 other students on the Youth March for Integrated Schools, led by Harry Belafonte, in Washington, DC.) An ardent civil rights activist and alumni of the leftwing Camp Kinderland, Rutolo was also active in the antinuclear and early environmental movements and was a forceful advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba.
Rutolo remained engaged throughout her life. In 2004, using the pseudonym Alla DaPie, she joined the street theater group Billionaires for Bush and protested at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan that August.
In her memoir, as beautifully recounted by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, Susan calls Dylan ‘the elephant in the room of my life’; but the book is “essentially about her youth—how it felt to be a working-class red-diaper baby, the child of Italian-born anti-fascists living in Sunnyside Gardens, a teenager in love at the epicenter of the folk revival, an art student in Italy, a tourist of the revolution in Cuba, an off-off Broadway stagehand. The story is hers and so is the voice (no ghost writing allowed). She signs off with the words ‘we had something to say, not something to sell.’ ”