Remembering Suze Rotolo

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | February 25, 2018 0


Suze Rotolo died prematurely from Lung Cancer at the age of 67 in New York City on this day in 2011.

The principled daughter of two American Communists she inspired Bob Dylan’s radicalism and worked for Civil Rights during the period they were together. She appeared with him on the cover of his breakthrough album “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” walking down a snowy Jones Street in Greenwich village and he wrote “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” about her.

A CD of the music inspired by Greenwich Village featuring a picture of Washington Square Park with liner notes by Suze Rotolo

She was a 17-year-old art- and poetry-loving civil rights activist from Queens when she met the 20-year-old folk singer from Minnesota at an all-day folk concert at Riverside Church in Manhattan in the summer of 1961. “Right from the start, I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” Dylan wrote in “Chronicles: Volume One,” his 2004 memoir. “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen.” Dylan later wrote that meeting her “was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights”, adding: “She had a smile that could light up a street full of people… a Rodin sculpture come to life.”

After the sudden death of Rotolo’s father in 1958, her mother took to drinking. The teenage Suze began to take Sunday trips to Washington Square in the Village, joining the folk musicians, poets and political activists who took on the establishment in verse and propaganda. At 17, she caught the subway from Queens to the Village for a final time, “without looking back”. dylanrotolo

While still in high school, Rotolo volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, marching on Washington for civil rights and desegregation. At the age of 20, she made national news when she and four other students stood up for the “free travel of free Americans” by, in defiance of the government travel ban, heading over to Cuba. The group spent two months touring factories and schools and met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It was an incredibly brave thing to do.

Rotolo later wrote that Dylan “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.” So began a four-year relationship that was immortalised on a wintery day in 1963 when photographer Don Hunstein captured the young couple walking down a snowy Greenwich Village street, Dylan’s hands thrust in his pockets and Rotolo’s hands wrapped snugly around his arm. 

“It was freezing out,” she recalled in a 2008 interview with the New York Times. “He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all. Our apartment was always cold, so I had a sweater on, plus I borrowed one of his big, bulky sweaters. On top of that I put a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage.”

Paying my own personal tribute to Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo in Jones Street, Greenwich Village, NYC March 2012

The album displayed in a record store in Jones Street

The photo became the cover of Dylan’s breakthrough second album, which includes the songs “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Masters of War.”

A Book Art piece by Suze Rotolo

A Book Art piece by Suze Rotolo

Rotolo was born in Queens, N.Y., on Nov. 20, 1943, a so-called red-diaper baby whose parents were members of the American Communist Party. Her father died when she was a teenager, and she traded Queens for Greenwich Village after graduating from high school. She was working in the office of the Congress of Racial Equality — and had seen Dylan perform at a small club in the Village — when she met him at the folk festival. Rotolo, who moved into a tiny apartment on West Fourth Street in the Village with Dylan when she was 18, is credited with introducing him to modern art and poetry, avant-garde theatre and civil rights politics.

She worked on the production staff at a local Greenwich Village theatre and when Dylan visited there to pick her up one day, he was introduced to the theatre work of Bertolt Brecht, the German poet, playwright and theatre director. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan recalled Brecht on Brecht, a musical revue he saw there. He said Brecht had an enormous impact on his development as an artist. “My little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral, at least in songwriting terms,” Dylan wrote, describing his reaction to the music. “They were like folk songs in nature, but unlike folk songs, too, because they were sophisticated.” Dylan was struck in particular by Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera.  

Rotolo married Italian Enzo Bartoccioli, a film editor who works for the United Nations, in 1970. Together they had one son, Luca, who is a guitarist in New York. In New York, Rotolo worked as an illustrator and painter, before concentrating on creating book art, making book-like objects which incorporated found art. Remaining politically active, Rotolo joined the street-theatre group Billionaires for Bush and protested at the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. Her friend and Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman wrote that she died in her New York apartment “and the arms of her husband of 40 years, Enzo Bartoccioli”.

Rotolo appears in Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a documentary focusing on Dylan’s early career from 1961 to 1966. She was also interviewed nationally in 2008 by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air to promote her book, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties.

Rotolo’s book was published by Broadway Books on 13 May 2008. Rotolo recounted her attempts not to be overshadowed by her relationship with Dylan. She discussed her need to pursue her artistic creativity and to retain her political integrity, concluding: “The sixties were an era that spoke a language of inquiry and curiosity and rebelliousness against the stifling and repressive political and social culture of the decade that preceded it. The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market: we had something to say, not something to sell.”

Here is her website which features her artworks;

Susan Elizabeth Rotolo

November 20, 1943 – February 25, 2011


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