Suze Rotolo: Bob Dylan's muse who inspired some of his best-known songs and helped shape his political sensibilities

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The Independent Online

Issued in May 1963, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter's second studio album, contained such epochal songs as "Blowin' In The Wind", "Masters Of War" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", and helped establish their author as the spokesman of a generation. Dylan's breakthrough album came packaged in an emblematic cover as vibrant as the Greenwich Village folk revival scene he sprang from. Shot by the Columbia Records staff photographer Don Hunstein in February 1963, it showed the skinny musician, shivering in the cold New York City air, walking arm-in-arm in the snow with his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, near the small apartment they shared at the time.

Even if her relationship with Dylan inspired the lyrics of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Down The Highway" on Freewheelin' – and other songs released subsequently, such as "All I Really Want To Do" – Rotolo was more than Dylan's muse and supporter in the heady first two years of his recording career. Through her involvement with the radical left she played an important part in his political awakening and helped inform the subject matter of several of his early songs.

Rotolo and Dylan broke up towards the end of 1963, when it became obvious he was having a liaison with Joan Baez, and over the next four decades she never traded on her celebrated status among Dylanologists, though she sometimes referred to the singer as "the elephant in the room of my life." Nevertheless, she agreed to be interviewed for No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary about Dylan's early years. In 2008, she wrote a memoir, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, in which she reflected on the significance of the Freewheelin' photo.

"It is one of those cultural markers that influenced the look of album covers precisely because of its casual down-home spontaneity and sensibility," she wrote. "Most album covers were carefully staged and controlled, to terrific effect on the Blue Note jazz album covers, and not-so-great-effect on the perfectly posed and clean-cut pop and folk albums. Whoever was responsible for choosing that particular photograph for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan really had an eye for a new look." She ended with a telling remark, in keeping with her ideals: "We had something to say, not something to sell."

Born in 1943, she was the youngest of two daughters, and described herself as a "red-diaper baby", since her parents were members of the American Communist Party. Her father, Gioachino, an illustrator, printer and union organiser, died of a heart attack when she was 14. Her mother, Mary, supported the family with translation work for medical journals alongside her radical writing. After seeing the Picasso collage Glass And Bottle of Suze, Rotolo started spelling her first name the same way as the French apéritif.

She first saw Dylan at Gerde's Folk City, a Greenwich Village venue she designed posters and fliers for. Intent on following in Woody Guthrie's footsteps, he had arrived from Minnesota in January 1961. She and her sister Carla befriended the singer after he appeared at a Hootenanny Special at the city's Riverside Church.

In his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan recalled the meeting. "I couldn't take my eyes off her," he wrote. "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." For her part, Rotolo thought Dylan was "charming in a scraggly way. He made me think of Harpo Marx, impish and approachable, but there was something about him that broadcast an intensity that was not to be taken lightly."

He got on well with Suze, and Carla, who was an assistant to the musicologist Alan Lomax. The sisters helped feed his appetite for traditional tunes as he considered material for his eponymous debut album. Dylan began gravitating towards the liberal circles they moved in. "A lot of what I gave him was a look at how the other half lived, left-wing things that he didn't know," Suze said. "He knew about Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but I was working for CORE [the Congress of Racial Equality] and went on marches for civil rights, and all that was new to him."

Dylan went on to write protest songs like "The Death Of Emmett Till", about the murder of an African-American teenager by two white men in 1955, and often asked Suze for her opinion about the tone and the tenor of the material he was writing. She broadened his outlooks and interests, and took him to see experimental theatre, European films and modern art exhibitions.

By the time Bob Dylan was released in March 1962, they were living together, much to the disapproval of Rotolo's mother, who had remarried, and did everything she could to thwart the relationship. "My mother did not approve of Bob at all," Rotolo wrote. "He paid her no homage and she paid him none." Her mother suggested Suze accompany her and her new husband, Dr Frederick P Bowes, on a lengthy trip to Italy, and she reluctantly agreed.

The pair kept in touch, and he composed several bittersweet ballads which made not-so-oblique references to her. "I once loved a woman, a child I'm told, I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul" he sung in "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", and alluded to the romance in "Boots Of Spanish Leather", "One Too Many Mornings" and "Tomorrow Is A Long Time".

Rotolo extended her stay in Italy to six months – and studied art at L'Universita Per Stranieri Di Perugia – but by early 1963 she was back in New York and walking down Jones Street with Dylan as Hunstein snapped away. "Bob stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and leaned into me," she wrote. "We walked the length of Jones Street facing West Fourth with Bleecker Street at our backs. In some out-takes 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."

However, Dylan was fast becoming the dominant counter-culture figure of the era and not always behaving as he should have done, in particular after he met Baez. In August 1963, Rotolo moved into Carla's apartment. "I could no longer cope with all the pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed," she wrote. "I was on quicksand and very vulnerable."

Their relationship floundered. Rotolo discovered she was expecting Dylan's child, turned down his marriage proposal and had an illegal abortion. Her sister also turned against the singer, who documented the break-up and vented his feelings towards the Rotolo family in "Ballad in Plain D". He subsequently apologised for including the song on Another Side Of Bob Dylan. "I must have been a real schmuck to write that," he said in 1985. "I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone."

In Italy, Rotolo had met the film editor Enzo Bartoccioli. After travelling to Cuba in 1964, she returned to Italy and married Bartoccioli in 1967. The couple settled in New York. She taught at the Parsons School Of Design and was celebrated for her distinctive "book art", combining drawing, paintings, collage and found objects, which she exhibited across the US. "I think of my works as reliquaries – repositories for the ideas, obsessions, personal stories, and philosophy of life, that I have acquired over time," she said. She remained politically active and joined a street-theatre group, Billionaires For Bush, in 2004. She died of lung cancer. The couple's son, Luca, is a luthier.

Pierre Perrone

Susan Elizabeth Rotolo, artist and activist: born New York 20 November 1943; married 1967 Enzo Bartoccioli (one son); died New York 24 February 2011.