Well, there’s really not much to remember because I never knew Suze Rotolo. It was years before I even learned who she was.
However, take a good look at this album cover. With all the information in the picture, the thing that strikes you is the young woman’s smile. The first time I saw this album all I could see was that smile. Many things passed through my mind. Was she really Dylan’s girlfriend? Or a model hired for the photo shoot? Who the hell is Bob Dylan, anyway? Wouldn’t it be great to have a girlfriend like that? How fortunate he is to have a beautiful girl like her clutching his arm with such obvious affection. Why does Dylan look so grim while her smile radiates the warmth of the sun? (Turns out that Dylan was freezing while she was bundled up with layers!)
Look at the rest of the photo: The fire escapes of the row houses; the VW microbus on the left and the 54(?) Chevy taxicab on the right (the photo was taken in 1963); the slush in the street; the steely grey winter sky. All winter and gritty Greenwich Village life. Dylan looks like the skinny kid who still does not know how this is all going to end. Suze’s beautiful face warms the whole scene with her confidence and obvious affection. The album songs are listed on the front cover, among them Blowin’ in the Wind, probably Dylan’s most influential work. Whoever heard of such songs: Masters of War; Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Bob Dylan’s Dream; Talkin’ World War III Blues? The two figures seem to emerge from the vanishing point of the perspective indicating a sense of new directions and things that have not been heard of yet. If you were alive in that moment, the whole cover resonates with the possibilities that those times presented. Like Dylan, we didn’t know how it would end, but we were sure that it would be great mainly, I think, because of Suze’s smile.
We are told that Suze stayed with Dylan for four years. She said in an interview that she was not comfortable with the trappings of celebrity that began to surround Dylan as his success grew. Finally, she left for Italy to continue her art studies. She became a successful artist in her own right, married, raised a family, and had a successful career teaching at Parsons School of Design. She was a liberated woman before there was such a thing.
Suze inspired several Dylan songs. While he may have written about the happy times with her, the ones that got on albums were about the effect of her leaving: Don’t Think Twice, Boots of Spanish Leather, Girl from the North Country. And who wouldn’t be distraught after losing the young woman on the album cover?
Suze also influenced Dylan in other ways. She said that she was raised without television. She described her home as “poor in material things but rich in culture.” Family life revolved around books and recordings of all different kinds of music, including opera. All of this she shared with Dylan who did not have access to this kind of culture growing up. The things she showed him expanded his range of experience and influenced his own work.
Suze died of cancer last week. If you see pictures of her in later life, the beauty is still there, changed, certainly, but not diminished by age. What does that matter? For a certain generation, her beautiful smile will always remain in our memories. Reflecting on that riveting image will always recall times of joy, possibility, and beauty beyond description. I wonder if she ever knew what that smile meant to so many people?