An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Suze Rotolo, Dylan's 'Freewheeling' Muse

Suze Rotolo, who strongly influenced Bob Dylan's songwriting and walked beside him on the album cover for The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, died of lung cancer on Friday. She was 67.

Rotolo, an artist and teacher, grew up in Queens. She began dating Dylan in the early 1960s, after meeting him at a marathon folk-music concert at the Riverside Church in New York City. She was 17 at the time.

In 2008, she wrote about her relationship with him in a memoir, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, and joined Terry Gross for a conversation about their relationship, Dylan's music and the 1963 photo shoot for the Freewheeling album cover, where she was pictured walking arm-in-arm with Dylan down a partially snow-covered New York City street.

"It was very casual, completely unplanned and it was freezing outside," she said. "Bob just took this thin suede jacket that wasn't good for a New York cold winter day, and I had on a couple of sweaters ... and I threw a coat on top. I always look at that picture [and] I feel like an Italian sausage because I had so many layers on, and he was freezing and I was freezing and had more clothes on. It was very cold that day."

Though the album cover became iconic, Rotolo said she had little idea how it would change her life.

"I don't think anyone who had anything to do with it thought it would have such an enormous impact," she said. "It became something that was my identifier, but it wasn't my identity. ... So [as] it became an iconic album, the more I could detach from it and just look at it [and think], 'Okay, that's what that is.' But it was an odd feeling for many years."

In 1962, Rotolo left for Perugia, Italy, for eight months. Her separation from Dylan — who didn't want her to go — inspired the songs "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Boots of Spanish Leather."

When Rotolo returned, the reception in Greenwich Village was not friendly. A lot of people thought she'd been cold and indifferent to leave Dylan for so long, and many folksingers on the scene deliberately sang songs that Dylan had written about his heartache whenever Rotolo was around.

"I've always been a shy person, so to have this relationship kind of thrown right out there in public was very horrible," Rotolo said. "I didn't go broadcasting things around, and yet people seemed to know how I had made him suffer. Publicly, he was letting that out. But I see that that was just his way of working through it, making it part of his art. But at the time, I just felt so exposed. It was awful."

Slowly, Rotolo and Dylan began to move apart. In August 1963, she moved out of their apartment in the Village while Dylan began spending more time on the road.

"I just felt that that I no longer had a place in this world of his music and fame," she said. "I felt more and more insecure, that I was just this string on his guitar; I was just this chick. And I was losing confidence in who I was. And also, the more famous he got, there were more pressures on him; and, of course, there's all these women that were running around, and so it became something I didn't like being involved in anymore. I saw it as a small, cloistered, specialized world that I just didn't belong in."

Dylan began dating Joan Baez, who was performing with him on the road. In 1967, Rotolo married Enzo Bartoccioli, a film editor she'd met in Italy. They had a son, Luca.

Rotolo taught at the Parsons School of Design in New York. She is survived by her husband and son.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.