Suze Rotolo: Dylan’s muse and mentor

There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river
There’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky
But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty
That I remember in my true love’s eyes
‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’

For countless legions of us she will always be the girl on the cover of  Freewheelin’, scrunched into Bob Dylan’s left shoulder, warm as toast as the young troubadour freezes in his flimsy, carelessly buttoned jacket.  Suze Rotolo, whose death from lung cancer at 67 has been announced was Dylan’s muse – we knew that much at the time.  But what those far from the New York scene did not realise was how much the 19-year old artistically inclined civil rights activist from a family of deeply committed Communists shaped Dylan’s outlook and artistic direction during their time together.

Meeting Suze Rotolo had a profound effect on Bob Dylan’s interests and song-writing, turning it firmly, for the year or so that they were a couple, in the direction of political protest:

Our time together fed his work. I know I influenced him. We marked each other’s lives profoundly. He once told me that he couldn’t have written certain songs if he hadn’t known me…. I served as his muse during our time together, and that I don’t mind claiming.
– Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

Dylan met Suze Rotolo shortly after he had arrived in New York at the beginning of 1961.  She was from a family of deeply committed Communists – her mother was deeply involved with the Party’s illegal work, acting as a courier, travelling to Fascist Italy and war-torn Spain carrying concealed passports gathered from Italian Americans to Europe, where the passports were doctored to provide passage for underground cadres in Italy to travel into Spain to join the International Brigades. These passports later gave safe passage to Italian Communists trapped in France after the defeat of the Spanish Republic. These activities had placed Suze’s mother in mortal risk.  While still attending high school, Suze had worked in Harlem on initiatives of the Congress of Racial Equality. She also helped organize for The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy Committee and had defied a U.S. government ban by visiting Cuba.

In Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One, he describes meeting Rotolo backstage at a concert:

Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair skinned and golden haired, full-blooded 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.

Many of the songs that Dylan wrote then were inspired by Suze— ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’, ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘All I Really Want to Do’, Boots of Spanish Leather’ and ‘Down the Highway’:

Well, the ocean took my baby
My baby stole my heart from me
Yes, the ocean took my baby
My baby took my heart from me
She packed it all up in a suitcase
Lord, she took it away to Italy

Like ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, that song from the Freewheelin‘ album came out of  the time, in the summer of 1962, when Dylan had been left alone and heartbroken in New York after Rotolo had left to study in Italy. During this period he wrote ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and  ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’.

She returned in January 1963, and a few weeks later photographer Don Hunstein was commissioned by CBS to photograph the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The couple walked up and down Jones Street, round the corner from their apartment in West Fourth Street,  while Hunstein shot the romantic image that became a sixties teenage icon:

Bob stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and leaned into me.  We walked the length of Jones Street facing West Fourth with Bleecker Street at our backs. In some outtakes it’s obvious that we were freezing; certainly Bob was, in that thin jacket. But image was all. As for me, I was never asked to sign a release or paid anything. It never dawned on me to ask.
– Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

Rotolo once spoke of her radical roots: ‘I grew up as an outsider, having politically Left parents. Having a sense of social consciousness in the 1950s was very, very, very unusual . . . people were very wary of speaking out, of saying anything. And folk music was a place to hear other voices and people who were like you, who were socially conscious . . . and it was through music that I found people . . . who had the same interests I had.’
It was after Rotolo had told Dylan the story of the brutal murder in 1955 of Emmett Till that he wrote his first  significant protest song, ‘The Death of Emmett Till’:
How many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to [Suze] and asked, ‘Is this right? Because I knew her mother was associated with unions, and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked the songs out with her.

Towards the end of 1961, Suze moved into Dylan’s apartment above Bruno’s Spaghetti Shop at 161 West 4th Street.  At the time she had a job with CORE (the Congress for Racial Equality) in an office where news constantly poured  in  about the  civil rights struggles in the South:

The time of the early 1960s was a protest time and an eventful time and an event-filled time and the time leading up to and out of the release of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album  in  1963 – and  talk  made  the  music  and music made the talk, and action was already in the making with Civil Rights marches and marches against  the  Bomb,  and  the Beats  had already cracked the rigid morality of the 1950s. So we were ready to roll. And it was my personal story but … it’s become history.

In Chronicles Volume One Dylan recalled:

Suze was seventeen years old. .. She was involved in the New York art scene, painted and made drawings for various publications, worked in graphic design  and in off-Broadway  theatrical  productions, also worked on civil rights committees – she could do a lot of things. Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights. She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a particular kind of  voluptuousness—a  Rodin  sculpture  come  to life.

Rotolo not only influenced Dylan’s politics – she also gave him significant introductions to art, drama and poetry:

Someplace along the line Suze introduced me to the poetry of French  Symbolist  poet  Arthur  Rimbaud.  That was a big deal too…I began to broaden my horizons, see a lot of what her world was like, especially the off-Broadway scene …[and] I went with her to where the artists and painters hung out  … A new world of art was opening up in my mind .

For herself, Rotolo later recalled that Dylan at this time was soaking up influences like a sponge:

He saw something. The guy saw things. He was definitely way, way ahead. His radar was flying. He had an incredible ability to see and sponge – there was a genius in that. The ability to create out of everything that’s flying around. To synthesize it. To put it in words and music. It was not an intellectual approach that he had to research something—he did it on his own.

But, eventually the relationship fell apart.  Suze’s sister Carla and her mother regarded Dylan as a phoney
and nicknamed him Twerp.  Suze discovered that Dylan was not who he claimed to be – a runaway from a travelling circus – but Robert Zimmerman, the oldest of two sons of second-generation Jewish parents who owned and operated a clothing store in Hibbing, Minnesota. In her memoir, Rotolo recalled:

Mother had a hunch right off the bat that the tales he told about himself, not to mention his name, were bogus.

The tensions between them all were cruelly documented by Dylan in the bitter ‘Ballad in Plain D’:

Of the two sisters, I loved the young
With sensitive instincts, she was the creative one
The constant scapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her

For her parasite sister, I had no respect
Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect
Countless visions of the other she’d reflect
As a crutch for her scenes and her society

Myself, for what I did, I cannot be excused
The changes I was going through can’t even be used
For the lies that I told her in hopes not to lose
The could-be dream-lover of my lifetime


Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
‘How good, how good does it feel to be free?’
And I answer them most mysteriously
‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?’

There’s a nice tribute to Suze Rotolo in The Guardian’s editorial today:

More people than usual probably got their CDs of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan off the shelves last night. A few maybe dug out their surviving vinyl copies too. For the death of Suze Rotolo, the girlfriend in the green coat on Dylan’s arm on the album cover, is one of those shared generational moments. … The album fully deserves its fame.

Yet Rotolo deserves honour in her own right too, and not just, as she put it, as “a string on his guitar”. In her hugely readable memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time – with another of Hunstein’s 1963 pictures on its cover – Rotolo gave a candid and credible account of what it was like to be around Dylan in those years and of what it was like to grow up on the left in 1960s New York – where her parents were idealistic communists. Rotolo brought a lot of leftwing politics to her years with Dylan, and they left their mark. But it was her feminism, which Dylan – “a lying shit of a guy with women” – did not share, that caused her to walk away from the relationship. The book, not the album cover, is Rotolo’s true epitaph, the book which ends with her resonant statement: “The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market: we had something to say, not something to sell.”


  • Obituary in The Guardian, written by Richard Williams

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