Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fifty-Two Years and Countless Cats: Good-Bye, My Friend

Someone very close to me died last week. Suze Rotolo, whom I met in 1958, had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer shortly before publication of her book A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway, 2008). The autobiography includes details of her several years with Bob Dylan. She was known around the globe as the pretty girl on the iconic cover of his second album, 1963’s A Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. To me, Suze was a politically savvy, artistically inventive, thoroughly unpretentious, loyal, smart, warm, witty, whimsical, mischievous kindred spirit. And we shared an unbridled passion for kitties, many of which found homes with us over the decades.
Camp Kinderland. Suze next to Susan on the far right.
We met when she was 14 and, 11 months older, I already had turned 15, both of us counselors-in-training at the leftie Camp Kinderland in Upstate New York. Every Sunday afternoon in the fall, we would head for the Village together to rendezvous with our like-minded pals at Washington Square Park, where young bohemians gathered by the hundreds to sing and play folk music. As high school seniors in 1960, Suze and I spent our Saturdays picketing Woolworth stores in Manhattan to support the sit-ins by black college students at segregated lunch counters in North Carolina. We’d find sympathetic passersby willing to boycott the retail chain, take our leaflets and sign petitions provided by the Congress of Racial Equality. On May 19 that year, we volunteered as ushers at a Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy rally in Madison Square Garden. Before it even started, someone invited us backstage to shake hands with one of the speakers, Eleanor Roosevelt – a photo op and unforgettable moment of personal history.

Although Suze was Italian and I’m Jewish, we were atheists who worshipped all things Irish, reading plays by Brendan Behan and Sean O’Casey, listening to tunes about The Troubles belted out by the Clancy Brothers. After we graduated from our respective high schools in Queens and Long Island, she lived at my house for a month while we worked on summer-stock children’s productions at a theater about half-hour’s drive away. In one of them, she wore her long hair in braids to appear as Gretel; mine was teased like a fright wig so I could make a convincing witch. By happenstance, I witnessed Dylan perform at an intimate setting of six or seven people in April 1961, not long after he had arrived in New York. I later raved to Suze about this unusual, appealing kid. He also showed up for Monday open-mic nights at Gerde’s Folk City, the most popular hangout in the Village for aficionados. She and I haunted the club.
I left town for a summer job in Connecticut. In the e.e. cummings-inspired lower case we both preferred as teenagers, Suze wrote that she had spent time with Bobby during a July daylong folk music showcase at the Riverside Church: “dylan gave us a private concert, a repeat of the private one i’d gotten that afternoon in the soundproofed room. he’s a good composer, too. he and john (herald) sang a song that lasted a half hour, completely impromptu...dylan giggling his adorable giggle all through it.” Bobby and Suze soon became a couple. In late September, he crashed into the national consciousness when New York Times music critic Robert Shelton, reviewing a show at Gerde’s, described Dylan as “a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik.”

Richard Boone on Have Gun Will Travel.
When Bobby was in talks about a possible guest role on Have Gun, Will Travel – an Old West series on CBS we all enjoyed – he suggested Suze and I could write the script. This acting debut did not come to fruition, along with his plan for us to shine as the brilliant wordsmiths we imagined ourselves to be. She and I were inveterate letter-writers. Our missives contained florid prose, French phrases, bountiful ellipses, cussing, pretend-insults and affectionately rude nicknames. Dylan was “the pig,” for example.

In early November of 1961, we apparently were working on a plan to meet up in southern Vermont during a period when I was rehearsing for my role as an Elizabethan prostitute in a one-act play on campus. I wrote Suze to enumerate some details about the potential visit: “i secured a ride to and from bennington on friday, dec. 1. that means that i can come to see bob’s concert and that if you two wish to return with me to goddard for the weekend, you can. you can stay here both as long or as short as you like FREE OF CHARGE. eating too can be arranged very sneakily so that you don’t have to pay a cent.” We were all broke back then. But I don’t remember what happened; either she could not travel north for some reason or his show was cancelled. A few days later, Suze wrote to me expressing her regrets: “i wanted to come up and see you so much, i cursed the world for 2 days. i was dying to see some scenery aside from steel girders and sidewalks. wish i could come up this weekend and see you play the whore. t’would be fun.”

Bobby had just worked on his first album. Suze described the experience: “things are going fantastically, unbelievably great for the pig. things are happening to him that only happen in the movies.......take my word for it, they’ll be selling bob dylan hats pretty soon. just listen: he recorded for columbia records 2 weeks ago. i went to one of the sessions and i couldn’t believe my eyes. john hammond (the guy who ‘discovered’ the pig and is doing all for him) completely flipped. i swear if dylan vomited into the microphone hammond would have said ‘great bob, but try it again with harmony.’ i think dylan is good, and all.....but i swear EVERYBODY AT  COLUMBIA RECORDS (from the PRESIDENT on down) thinks bob dylan is the new GOD. they are dropping everything just to push his record...they think he’s going to be the new idol of the usa. no shit. they are putting his record out in 2 months. the fastest ever. the publicity men are going apeshit. he’ll be on tv, in magazines, etc, etc....oh well. you and i are the best actresses and literary geniuses of the 20th century and our talents are being wasted.”

She also noted her trepidations: “i don’t want to get sucked under by bob dylan and his fame. it really changes a person completely when they become well known by all and sundry. they develop this uncontrollable egomania. I can see it happening to bobby. and I’ve tried to tell him in so many ways, but it’s useless, it really is. he’s beginning to love me only in relation to himself, if that makes sense.” Frankly, it did not. I was dazzled by the glamour of it all. But I realized Suze felt conflicted. Near the end of the letter, she asked for help: ‘please comment or something. i am in need of advice, friendship, and all around shit. huh? when do you hit ny? let’s see if we can share an apt or a hotel room or something. i’m serious.” 

By the time I reached Manhattan just before Christmas, however, Suze had moved in with Dylan at 161 West Fourth Street. I was a regular visitor when not at college. On the evening of February 12, 1962, we were all watching a TV program about an impoverished, troubled black man in a Texas jail awaiting execution for murder. Before the broadcast ended, Bobby went over to the kitchen table and started writing “The Ballad of Donald White.” (His plaintive recording showed up on subsequent tapes but never on vinyl until a 1971 Broadside release, for which he used the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt.)

Just after his self-titled debut Columbia album was released in March 1962, I gave my copy to the Goddard entertainment committee. My hope was that the school would hire Dylan to perform. Still broke at that point, he and Suze were willing to come to Vermont for a mere $75, bus fare included. The committee declined, with one faculty member telling me: “We don’t think he has any talent.” Within a short time, of course, his talent would be appreciated by millions of people worldwide. Suze went to Italy for six months in June of 1962, studying art at the university in Perugia – part of her mother’s ultimately unsuccessful plan to sever ties with Bobby. In early January, I ran into Dylan leaving Gerde’s as I was arriving. “She’s back,” he told me, with his trademark giggle.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, 1963. 
On a 1963 concert handbill she sent to Vermont, Suze encouraged me to catch Bobby at Town Hall on April 12: “look for me....come backstage or something. we’ll probably be in boston (cafe yana) april 19-20 (definitely, not probably). so we’ll see you soon -- no? what are you doing with yourself? i am debating leaving the world.” In truth, Suze needed to leave West Fourth Street. She moved to Avenue B on the Lower East Side. That didn’t stop Bobby from inviting her to come with him to Washington. He was scheduled to sing at the August 28 rally where Martin Luther King would deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead, egalitarian Suze and I traveled to D.C. on an Actors Equity union bus. We sat in the crowd of 200,000 people around the Reflecting Pool rather than on the dais with Dylan. He had already been linked to Joan Baez, after their duets at that July’s Newport Folk Festival. Clearly bothered by the rumors, one day Suze told me Dylan “could never love anybody more famous than he is.” I assumed that was due to his “uncontrollable egomania” she had written about two years earlier.

The first of several breakups came in March 1964. Suze started seeing Albert, a leader in an organization that defied the government by sponsoring illegal trips to Cuba for Americans. While she was on a visit there in the summer, I sublet her Avenue B apartment. On the night of August 28th, just after Suze’s return, she and I were on opposite ends of the long railroad flat when the phone rang. We each picked up an extension. A man with a British accent asked, “Is Susie there?” When we both said yes simultaneously, he told us: “This is George. George Harrison.”

Although the Beatles were indeed in New York City to play at Forest Hills Stadium, was it really possible they would single us out from all the females in the world who dreamed of getting near them? Suze and I indicated skepticism, figuring this must be a practical joke by some friend teasing us about our passion for the Liverpool Lads. Before she left for Havana, we had sometimes danced the afternoon away in her living room to the strains of “Please, Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“No, it’s true,” the maybe-George reassured us. “We’re here at the Delmonico Hotel with Bobby Dylan. He told us to invite you over.”

In the background we heard a voice, suspiciously like Ringo’s, yelling: “Bring girls!” 

Instead, a few minutes later Suze and I were driving uptown to Park Avenue at 59th Street with the four bemused male friends who happened to be with us that evening. One of them was Albert, wondering aloud how the kind of devotion demonstrated by Beatles fans could be harnessed for his political cause. Suze and I remained silent in our devotion to John, Paul, George and Ringo.

There were still hundreds of young people surrounding the Delmonico when we arrived at about midnight. Earlier in the day, thousands had assembled there, pushing, screaming and fainting. We snaked our way through the remaining crowd to the hotel entrance, where a line of policemen stood guard at the door. After some negotiations, they agreed to escort Suze as far as the registration desk in the lobby. Once there, she tried to convince the formidable clerk that we’d actually been invited.

“Why don’t you write them a letter, dearie?” suggested the woman, apparently wary of all the tricks a Beatles fan might try. With that, the cops quickly accompanied Suze back outside. But Albert had an idea. He called the Delmonico from a nearby phone booth and, in a reasonably authentic Irish brogue, told the switchboard operator he was a doctor: “I must speak with Mr. Robert Dylan immediately. His wife is about to have a baby.”

Albert specified the room number –  George had given it to us – and the operator put him through. When Bobby picked up the phone, Suze immediately got on the line. They argued for almost ten minutes. Afterwards, she said he had insisted that only females were welcome. Jealousy prevailed. With more integrity than I would ever have been able to muster when it came to meeting the Fab Four, Suze refused. It had to be all or nothing.
Suze in Vermont, 1994.
That’s the extraordinary person who just left us. Suze’s complicated and utterly wonderful husband is Enzo Bartoccioli, whom she met during that 1962 trip to Perugia. Married for more than four decades, they have a grown son named Luca. Theirs was the truly great love affair, compared to her frequently tormented days with Dylan.

Old folkie Suze adored jazz, her two “jazz boys” (cat brothers Thelonious Monk, a.k.a. Theo, and Coltrane), good movies, live theater, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, travel, conversation and progressive causes. She would dress in faux finery to join the Billionaires for Bush satirical protests before and after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Suze’s boundless creativity was remarkable, with exhibits and teaching assignments to prove it. She began to specialize in what’s called book art, which involves crafting books from scratch – in her case, miniature assemblages. They contained images, maybe some text, but often were more like collages or hanging mobiles. Paper was not necessarily a component, though she knew how to make her own. The intricate birthday and holiday greeting cards I got were always similarly clever. She wrote on her web site: “I think of my art works as reliquaries – repositories – for the ideas, obsessions, personal stories and philosophy of life that I have acquired over time.”
The Jazz Cats.
Over time, the letter-writing of our youth had given way to emails filled with outrage about current events, family news, discussions of favorite films, tales of feline shenanigans, bits of forwarded Internet humor and lots of silly stuff. Her recent response to a photo of my cat Isabella curled up inside a shoe box: “sweetums knows what it needs to be comfy and secure.” 

I hope my sweetums of a Suze is comfy and secure in the Great Beyond, with the knowledge that her existence on this planet had so much meaning.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


  1. I didn't know Suze in person, but after reading her marvelous book, I wrote her a "fan letter." I had sensed a kinship with her...and I told her of my own journey through Love, Activism and Creativity. We sent me a gracious "thank you" in her own sweet and personal hand. I shall always treasure it. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of this Creative Lady, Strong Spiritual Warrior, and Loving Muse.............

  2. Hi Susan
    Thanks so much for your touching words. Pals and memories soften the loss. Suze is missed down around here in Wellfleet where she and Enzo used to relax in a rickety old cottage above a kettle pond.

  3. What a great story about Suze rejecting a visitation with the Bealtes on principle!

    Susan, thank you very much for your reminiscences (I know you wrote this quite awhile ago but I'm just reading it now.)

  4. Thanks Susan! A friend just sent this to me -- I'd never seen it before. It's wonderful; it makes her come as alive as her autobiography does -- and it does the same for you.. I was the CIT staff when you were both there, so of course I remember...
    BE well. I hope you're still writing -- you do it so well!