By WILLIAM GRIMES Published: March 1, 2011
” In “A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” (2008), Ms. Rotolo described Mr. Dylan as “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way.” They began seeing each other almost immediately and soon moved in together in a walk-up apartment on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. The relationship was intense but beset with difficulties. He was a self-invented troubadour from Minnesota on the brink of stardom. She was the Queens-bred daughter of Italian Communists with her own ideas about life, art and politics that made it increasingly difficult for her to fulfill the role of helpmate, or, as she put it in her memoir, a “boyfriend’s ‘chick,’ a string on his guitar.” Her social views, especially her commitment to the civil rights movement and her work for the Congress for Racial Equality, were an important influence on Mr. Dylan’s writing, evident in songs like “The Death of Emmett Till,” “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Her interest in theater and art exposed him to ideas and artists beyond the world of music. “She’ll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her: ‘Is this right’?” Mr. Dylan told the music critic and Dylan biographer Robert Shelton. “Because her father and her mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was.” When, to his distress, she went to Italy for several months in 1962, her absence inspired the plaintive love songs “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “One Too Many Mornings” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” Mr. Dylan later alluded to their breakup and criticized her mother and sister, who disapproved of him, in the bitter “Ballad in Plain D.” Ms. Rotolo spent most of her adult life pursuing a career as an artist and avoiding questions about her three-year affair with Mr. Dylan. (He was, she wrote, “an elephant in the room of my life.”) She relented after Mr. Dylan published his autobiography. She appeared as an interview subject in “No Direction Home,” the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary about Mr. Dylan, before writing “A Freewheelin’ Time.” Susan Elizabeth Rotolo was born on Nov. 20, 1943, in Brooklyn and grew up in Sunnyside and Jackson Heights, Queens. Her mother, from Piacenza, Italy, was an editor and columnist for the American version of L’Unità, published by the Italian Communist Party. Her father, from Sicily, was an artist and union organizer who died when she was 14. Artistically inclined, she began haunting Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village as the folk revival gathered steam, while taking part in demonstrations against American nuclear policy and racial injustice. She adopted the unusual spelling of her nickname, Susie, after seeing the Picasso collage “Glass and Bottle of Suze.” The famous photograph of her and Mr. Dylan, taken by Don Hunstein on a slushy Jones Street in February 1963, seemed less than momentous to her at the time, and she later played down her instant elevation to a strange kind of celebrity status as the girl in the picture. “It was freezing out,” she told The New York Times in 2008. “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 on a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage.