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Suze Rotolo, 67; Bob Dylan's muse helped symbolize 1960s folk revival

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 6:47 PM

Suze Rotolo, whose love affair with a young Bob Dylan shaped his early songwriting and who appeared with him on the cover of his first hit album, died Feb. 25 of cancer at her home in New York. She was 67.

Ms. Rotolo was just 17 when she met the raspy-voiced Dylan, then 20, at a Manhattan folk festival in 1961. Their attraction was immediate.

"Right from the start I couldn't take my eyes off her," Dylan wrote in "Chronicles: Volume 1," his 2004 autobiography. "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."

Dylan, Ms. Rotolo later recalled, was "charming in a scraggly way."

Over the next three years, as Dylan rose from obscurity to become a countercultural figurehead, Ms. Rotolo became closely identified with his music, especially after she was featured walking arm-in-arm with the singer on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

That image - Dylan's shoulders hunched against the winter cold, Ms. Rotolo leaning toward him and smiling shyly - came to symbolize the freedom and thrill of the 1960s folk revival.

The 1963 album established Dylan as a folk music star with songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," a lovelorn tune he wrote when Ms. Rotolo was thousands of miles away, studying art in Italy.

"I once loved a woman, a child I'm told," he wrote in "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." "I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul."

Ms. Rotolo was widely credited as his early muse. A native New Yorker with communist parents and cosmopolitan tastes, she introduced Dylan - a recent transplant from the Midwest - to avant-garde poetry and art, including the work of French writer Arthur Rimbaud and paintings by Picasso and Cezanne.

She also helped prompt Dylan to sharpen his political edge.

"She'll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her: 'Is this right?'" Dylan told his biographer, Robert Shelton. "Because I knew her father and mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was."

Their relationship, which had begun as a partnership between equals, shifted as Dylan's fame grew. The couple parted in 1964 after revelations of his affair with the folk singer Joan Baez.

Over the decades, Dylan fans remained curious about Ms. Rotolo. Intensely private, she declined to tell her story publicly until 2005, when - prompted in part by the publication of Dylan's autobiography - she gave a interview for Martin Scorsese's bio-pic "No Direction Home."

Three years later, she released her memoir, "A Freewheelin' Time."

"In so many ways my past with Bob Dylan has always been a presence," she wrote. "A parallel life alongside my own, no matter where I am, who I'm with, or what I am doing."

Susan Elizabeth Rotolo was born in New York on Nov. 20, 1943. Her mother was a columnist for the American version of L'Unità , a newspaper published by the Italian Communist Party, and her father was a union organizer. He died of a heart attack when Ms. Rotolo was 14.

When she sought independence from her protective mother after high school, Ms. Rotolo was drawn to Greenwich Village by its bohemian tradition. Working as a waitress and later as a theater set designer, she found her political voice as an activist protesting against nuclear weapons and for school desegregation.

A glowing New York Times review had launched Dylan to national prominence in late 1961. Several months later, Ms. Rotolo - feeling suffocated by Dylan's dark moods - left New York to attend art school in Italy.

Dylan sent frequent letters. "It's just that I'm hating time," he wrote. "I'm trying to stab it - stomp on it - throw it on the ground and kick it - bend it and twist it with gritting teeth and burning eyes - I hate it I love you."

In Italy, free from her identity as Dylan's girlfriend, Ms. Rotolo began to chafe at the idea that she would simply be her boyfriend's "chick," a "string on his guitar," she wrote in her memoir. She harbored artistic ambitions of her own and said she didn't want to "walk a few paces behind, picking up his candy wrappers."

She returned to New York and moved out of their shared apartment in 1963. They continued to see each other, but the relationship fizzled. A few years later, she married a man she had met in Italy earlier. She became a painter and jewelry maker and later turned to creating one-of-a-kind handmade books.

Survivors include her husband, Enzo Bartoccioli; a son, Luca Bartoccioli; and a sister.

More than four decades after leaving her famous ex-boyfriend, Ms. Rotolo said she was uneasy about being so identified with him. "It is an odd sensation," she wrote, "to see myself on the screen, under glass, and written about in books, forever enshrined and entombed alongside the legend of Dylan."

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