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. Fresh Air remembers Dylan's muse with excerpts from a 2008 interview.
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Remembering Suze Rotolo, Dylan's 'Freewheeling' Muse

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Remembering Suze Rotolo, Dylan's 'Freewheeling' Muse

Remembering Suze Rotolo, Dylan's 'Freewheeling' Muse

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Suze Rotolo had a pretty private life as an artist, wife and mother. But there was one thing she was famous for which made her the subject of mystery and speculation. She appeared in the picture with Bob Dylan on the cover of his famous 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." The album included the songs "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Don't Think Twice."

Suze Rotolo died Friday of lung cancer at the age of 67.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Think Twice")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Well, it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe, if you don't know by now. And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe, it will never do somehow.

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I'll be gone. You're the reason I'm traveling on. But don't think twice, it's all right.

GROSS: The cover photo of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" showed Dylan and Suze Rotolo walking arm in arm down a Greenwich Village street. They met when she was 17 and he was 20. They were a couple for about four years. She'd moved to Greenwich Village from Queens, New York on her own, after graduating high school. Dylan moved there soon after. At the time, the Village was the epicenter of the urban folk scene. Rotolo was an artist. She later taught at the Parsons School of Design. She lived in Greenwich Village with her husband. I spoke with her in 2008, after the publication of her memoir "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties."

In Dylan's biographical book "Chronicles, Volume One" he writes about you in the end of the book, and I want to read some of the things he says about you. He says...

(Reading) Right from the start 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. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid's arrow had whistled by my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard.

Suze was 17 years old, from the East Coast. Had grown up in Queens, raised in a left-wing family. Her father had worked in a factory and had recently died. She was involved in the New York art scene, painted and made drawings for various publications, worked in graphic design and in Off-Broadway theatrical productions, also worked on civil rights committees - she could do a lot of things. Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights.

And then he compares you to a Rodin sculpture come to life and says, (Reading) She reminded me of a libertine heroine.�She was just my type.

How does that description sound to you? Do you hear yourself in that description?

Ms. SUZE ROTOLO (Artist): I think that's wonderful and generous and a lovely thing that he wrote, and he captured that sense of being young and meeting somebody and being overwhelmed by feelings for them - and that's what young love is. He did that well.

GROSS: Everyone knows now that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman and he grew up in Minnesota. What did he tell you about his past when you met him?

Ms. ROTOLO: Well, at that time when I met him, I think it was the time when we all were - people were coming to the Village to find or lose themselves and you lived very much in the present, so I don't think any of us really talked about where we came from and what our parents were like. But there were rumors that that was his name because he had to get a cabaret card and then you had to have documentation, so rumors started flying that it wasn't his real name. I think a lot of people suspected it wasn't his real name, but it didn't make any difference. But for me, once we were a couple and we were together, I was hurt that he didn't tell me. It was okay that he didn't tell everybody else.

GROSS: So how did you find out that his last name was actually Zimmerman?

Ms. ROTOLO: We'd come home. We were living, by then, together on West 4th Street and we'd come home one evening and he was a bit in his cups, and he took his wallet out of his pants and everything fell on the floor and I saw his draft card - there were draft cards in those days - and I saw his name and I was really - that's when I was hurt. I said you never told me that this was your real name. I understand you didn't tell anybody else, but you could have at least told me.

GROSS: Now you said that, you know, just as he didn't want to be too forthcoming about his upbringing and his family, you felt the same way too. But you were from Queens, New York and your parents were both communists...

Ms. ROTOLO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you had to grow up with some secrecy, because you grew up during the McCarthy era.

Ms. ROTOLO: Exactly.

GROSS: So you couldn't very well go around talking about your communist parents.

Ms. ROTOLO: No, I couldn't until 1989 - I didn't feel comfortable saying that. So that was why, to give you an idea of how secrecy would make sense in something like that. I could understand people not wanting to talk about their story and I - you didn't go around saying that your parents were communists, because what was from the McCarthy era into the '60s certainly left its mark. And I'm sure there were many others with communist parents, certainly in the folk music world, but we didn't even identify each other. You know, it was a secret thing.

GROSS: Let's talk about the cover - the now famous cover from the "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," the cover that you're on with him, walking down a partially snow-covered street. He has his hands in his pockets and his shoulders up because it's cold, and you have your arms wrapped around one of his arms. You're wearing like a green trenchcoat that's tied around the waist and you have on nearly knee-high boots.

Ms. ROTOLO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you look really in tuned with each other. It's such a romantic cover. I mean what woman didn't want to be on Dylan's arm in that cover? What woman didn't want to be in your place?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So tell us how that cover came to be?

Ms. ROTOLO: It was all very casual, and the apartment was very small, and the photographer came and the publicity guy from Columbia came. So then they started - figured they'd start taking some pictures in the apartment of Bob sitting around, pick up your guitar, put it down, sing something. And then he said - Don Hunstein said to me, get in some of the pictures. So I did. And he took more pictures. And then he said let's go outside and walk. It was very casual, completely unplanned and it was freezing outside. And then again, referring to Bob getting dressed, he 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. The last one was his, a big bulky knit sweater because the apartment was cold and I threw on a coat on top. So I always look at that picture as 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.

GROSS: Well he was freezing you say in part because he wore this light suede jacket because it looked good.

Ms. ROTOLO: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTOLO: Image. Image.

GROSS: Even though he knew he was going to be really cold.

Ms. ROTOLO: Yeah.

GROSS: How did that album cover change your life?

Ms. ROTOLO: I had no idea and I don't think anyone who had anything to do with it thought it would be - would have such an enormous impact. So it became something that was, you know, was my identifier, but it wasn't my identity, so it became something that was separate from who I knew myself to be, which might sound odd but I thought it was a great cover, very unusual cover for the time. And the first time I saw it was - he was playing at Carnegie Hall, I think or Town Hall and it was, the cover was blown up and put on right outside. It was in black and white and blown up very big and that really made an impression. It was almost embarrassing. There we were up on 57th Street. Huge. Huge. So each time the album became more and more known, as the album became more of what it is, it became an iconic album, the more I could detach from it and just look at it, okay, that's what that is. But it was an odd feeling for many years.

GROSS: I think one of the problems for young women who fall in love with men older, even if they're just slightly older - particularly if that man becomes very famous - is that you risk this kind of mentor, mentee relationship where, you know, the woman is expected to be the learner, looking up to the man, and he teaches her everything he knows. And it could really be a kind of uncomfortable relationship, as opposed to like a relationship of equals. But when you and Dylan met, you had so much to learn from each other. I mean you really admired his music and had so much to learn from that. He was really interested in learning about your world. You were working in the civil rights movement. You were working in avant-garde theater. He learned about the music of Weill and Brecht through the fact that you were working on a Brecht production. And he writes in his memoir about how it really changed him to be exposed to that music. You exposed him to art that he was unaware of because you were an artist yourself. I was glad to see that, to see how much you had to learn from each other.

Ms. ROTOLO: That's nice, because it's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTOLO: We did. We were very curious and we were both in search of poetry and we fed each other's curiosity. And I was - well, because I was from New York City also, you know, and he was from Hibbing, Minnesota. So the fact that in New York you're exposed to a lot more, plus the family I came from, we were very - we didn't have much money, but we were very culturally - I always think of as being culturally very, very wealthy. Because of, you know, books, we had - we didn't have a TV, but the house was filled with books and phonograph records and we listened to the radio. I was exposed to all different kinds of music from a very early age. My mother loved Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf and they listened to opera, classical records we had. It was very, very rich. And when you grow up in that, you just assume everybody else knows all this, but I knew an awful lot about music just from listening and hearing and being exposed to it. Whereas with Bob, he was, he heard this music and knew this is what he wanted to investigate, but he had a harder time finding it and finding people. And there are stories now, about when he was in Minnesota, stealing people's records so he could learn the music on it. So he had a harder time finding things, whereas I was almost born into it.


GROSS: You decided to leave for Perugia, Italy. You were supposed to go there after high school. You'd have a trip planned, but because of a car accident you never made it. And then you moved to Greenwich Village, and then you met Dylan and so on. But the opportunity was offered to you again by your mother, so you decided to leave for Perugia. It was a very difficult decision for you. What was his reaction when you told him you were going?

Ms. ROTOLO: Well, he didn't want me to go, but at the same time he didn't want to put pressure on me. He did say don't go, but he didn't want to restrict me from considering going at the same time. And it was a difficult decision for me. I kept hemming and hawing on whether I should or shouldn't, or whether I wanted to or not. It was difficult.

GROSS: Is the song "Boots of Spanish Leather" written about your leaving for Italy?

Ms. ROTOLO: You know, most of his songs that he's written, I hate to say, oh this is written about me or this - but that's a good example of a song that is a fiction based on an experience he was going through. So...

GROSS: And the experience he was going through was the experience of missing you?

Ms. ROTOLO: Yes. So that's a good example of how it becomes art, your life experience, you translate it into art. It serves a purpose for the music you're making or the art you're making.

GROSS: So the fiction is that you weren't in Spain, you were in Italy. And did he ever ask for boots of Spanish leather?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTOLO: No. I think I had a pair though, of boots of Spanish leather at some point.

GROSS: After about eight months in Perugia you came back to Greenwich Village and you write that during your absence he suffered in public. You didn't get a friendly reception when you returned. A lot of people, you say, thought that you'd been cold and indifferent to someone who loved you. And that some of the folk singers deliberately sang songs that Dylan had written about his heartache, as well as any ballad that pointed a finger at a cruel lover, when you were around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTOLO: Yeah.

GROSS: And you say it was as if every letter Bob had written to me and every phone call he had made had been performed in a theater in front of an audience. What do you mean by that?

Ms. ROTOLO: I've always been a shy person, so to have this relationship kind of thrown right out there in public was very horrible. I thought it was terrible. I was very private. 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.

GROSS: Well, you moved back to Greenwich Village and you got together, but then you eventually moved out of the apartment that you shared with Dylan. What was the breaking point for you?

Ms. ROTOLO: Well, it was all this stuff that was going on around his fame and there was so much pressure. I just felt that there was no longer - I no longer had a place in this world of this music and fame. And I more and more - felt more and more insecure, that I was just a string on his guitar; I was just this chick. And I was losing confidence in who I was, in the way I felt in Italy, that I was still - I was my own self and could continue my life. 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 that I didn't like being involved in anymore. I saw it as a small, cloistered, specialized world, that I just didn't belong in it.

GROSS: You're married. You have one child?

Ms. ROTOLO: Yes.

GROSS: And your husband's Italian. Did you meet him when you were in Perugia?

Ms. ROTOLO: Initially, yes. I had met him all that long time ago but then we met up again many years later. So it's funny that he came from a certain time also.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. ROTOLO: Yeah, and then we met again many years later.

GROSS: Do people still recognize you from the "Freewheelin'" album?

Ms. ROTOLO: I look exactly the same, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. Don't we all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTOLO: Yes.

GROSS: But, you know, still it doesn't mean that you're not recognizable.

Ms. ROTOLO: Well, for those who notice those things, yes, I mean otherwise, no. I mean it's a funny kind of recognition and it's people who are Dylanphiles, you know, Dylanophiles, or however I could say that, would know to recognize the name, but not everybody does. So it's kind of a funny - sometimes I'm surprised that someone recognizes me.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ROTOLO: Thank you. It's been a pleasure to speak to you.

GROSS: Suze Rotolo died Friday of lung cancer at the age of 67. Our interview was recorded in 2008 after the publication of her memoir "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties."

(Soundbite of song, "Boots of Spanish Leather")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Oh I'm sailing away my own true love. I'm sailing away in the morning. Is there something I can send you from across the sea, from the place that I'll be landing.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Boots of Spanish Leather")

Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) unspoiled from across that lonesome ocean. Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine. Made of silver or of golden...

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