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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: The age of the muse may be over

Sometimes an obituary brings something into focus, not just about its subject's life but about the era in which he or she lived.

The middle decades of the 20th century already seem like another age, thrilling and contradictory as social attitudes changed yet some things continued to run on traditional lines.

Two women who died in the past few days embody those contradictions, which surfaced in their obituaries and would, I suspect, have made at least one of them uncomfortable.

Susan Crosland, whom I knew slightly and liked, was a hugely successful American journalist who also wrote novels. Clever, charming and kind, she was described in headlines after her death last week as the "wife of Labour minister Tony Crosland". Susan Crosland became her husband's biographer after his sudden death in 1977, and their relationship was so central to her life that I don't think she would have minded being described in terms of her second marriage. But I doubt very much whether her fellow American Suze Rotolo, who died a couple of days earlier, would have enjoyed being obituarised as "Bob Dylan's girlfriend and the muse behind many of his greatest songs".

The two women were from different generations – Crosland was 84 when she died, Rotolo 67 – and that may account for some of the differences between them. What's striking is that they were both young adults in the 1960s, when the exhaustion of the Second World War was about to be swept away by a revolution in popular music and politics. Dylan later described his first meeting with Rotolo in 1961 in conventionally romantic terms: "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-blood Italian."

In fact, 17-year-old Rotolo was already much more than a pretty face. A native New Yorker whose parents were members of the American Communist Party, she was involved in the civil rights movement and took the unknown young folk singer from Minnesota to meetings of the Congress of Racial Equality. She politicised Dylan, and was photographed with him on the cover of his early LP, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. When she went to Italy without him, he wrote some of his best-known early songs, including "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right".

Their relationship wasn't all right, however, and according to Rotolo's memoir it broke up because he wanted both a muse and someone to look after him. "Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse," she wrote. "He was also a black hole. He required committed back-up and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself." Dylan had already met Joan Baez, with whom he had a short relationship, while Rotolo worked as an artist, never achieving anything like her ex-boyfriend's fame but keeping up her political activities.

Susan Barnes, as she was known in her journalistic career, married Tony Crosland in 1964, around the time Rotolo was breaking up with Dylan. The wedding took place at Chelsea Register Office and the witnesses were Dora Gaitskell and Ruth Dalton, widows of a former Labour leader and Chancellor respectively. Susan Barnes was a much more glamorous figure than other Labour wives of the period and she managed to maintain a separate identity, retaining her own surname until after her husband's death. But she nevertheless took on the role, according to one of her obituaries, of "his charming foil".

From the standpoint of 2011, the Crosland marriage looks like a stage in the evolution of the political marriage, far from traditional but not yet the dual-career partnership shared by Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. But Suze Rotolo was definitely a woman ahead of her time, rejecting the supporting role that some of her contemporaries would have relished. Even in 1964, she seems to have realised that a man who needs a muse will probably expect her to do the washing-up as well.