The Village lost a life-long partisan and a true voice last Friday, with the passing of Susan Rotolo after a long illness, at home in her Noho loft and the arms of her husband of 40 years, Enzo Bartoccioli.
Suze Rotolo was a talented artist (the maker of artist books and delicate book-like objects), as well as an illustrator, a sometime activist, an erstwhile East Village Other slum goddess, a devoted wife, a proud mother, a poet’s muse, a good comrade, and late in her too-short life, a published author. She was intensely private but as the radiant young woman on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, she became a legendary figure and even a generational icon. Just writing that I can hear her annoyed chortle–although she did humorously allow, after years of dodging rabid Dylanologists, that she was some sort of “artifact.”
Growing up in Queens, a few years later than Suze and a few neighborhoods east of hers, I knew her name (although not how to correctly pronounce it) long before I met her, just a mom in the park. Our kids, Luca and Mara, went to the same Sullivan Street playgroup; our families were friendly, both in New York and on Cape Cod where, thanks to a network of her late parents’ leftwing associates, she and Enzo always managed to find the most amazing Wellfleet Woods cabins or ocean-overlooking shacks.
Susan, as we called her, was intensely loyal. She retained many childhood friends, even while guarding her personal life. She was a woman of strong opinions and fierce standards (a demanding connoisseur of inexpensive table wine, a cook whose pasta was never less than perfect). She had no use for religion and deeply appreciated political theater–not just Brecht but the Billionaires for Bush, with whom she was affiliated during the 2004 election. She had a healthy sense of the absurd. She listened to jazz on WKCR and was delighted by her son’s career as a musician and luthier. She thrived on spirited talk. (A sign pasted to her TV screen read “Conversation!”) She was, to the very end, a person of enormous cheer.
In her memoir, unavoidably titled A Freewheelin’ Time, Susan calls Dylan “the elephant in the room of my life” but the book (subtitled “A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” and prefaced with a Village street map) is essentially about her youth–how it felt to be a working-class red-diaper baby, the child of Italian-born anti-fascists living in Sunnyside Gardens, a teenager in love at the epicenter of the folk revival, an art student in Italy, a tourist of the revolution in Cuba, an off-off Broadway stagehand. The story is hers and so is the voice (no ghost writing allowed). She signs off with the words “we had something to say, not something to sell.”
Goodbye, Susan. Ave atque vale. Love, Jim