NOVEMBER 22, 1965 – Sara Lownds (b. October 25, 1939 as Shirley Marlin Noznisky in Wilmington, Delaware) married Bob Dylan under an oak tree on a judge’s lawn on Mineola, Long Island, New York in a secret ceremony during a break in his tour. She was 7 months pregnant with their son and future film director Jesse Dylan.
According to Dylan biographer Howard Sounes, the only other participants were Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and a maid of honor for Sara. Some of Dylan’s friends (including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) claim that, in conversation immediately after the event, Dylan denied that he was married. Journalist Nora Ephron first made the news public in the New York Post in February 1966 with the headline “Hush! Bob Dylan is wed.” Sara also had a friend named Sally Buchler, who went on to marry Grossman. Bob and Sara were guests at the wedding in November 1964.
Lownds and Dylan first became romantically involved sometime in late 1964, and soon afterwards moved into separate rooms in New York’s Hotel Chelsea to be near one another. Dylan biographer Robert Shelton, who knew Bob and Sara in the mid-1960s, writes that Sara “had a Romany spirit, seeming to be wise beyond her years, knowledgeable about magic, folklore and traditional wisdom.”
Author David Hajdu described her as “well read, a good conversationalist and better listener, resourceful, a fast study, and good hearted. She impressed some people as shy and quiet, others as supremely confident; either way, she appeared to do only what she felt needed to be done.”
Bob and Sara had three more children; Anna, Samuel and singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan. Bob also adopted Maria, Sara’s daughter from her first marriage to magazine photographer Hans Lownds, who persuaded her to change her name to Sara because his first wife named Shirley had left him and he did not want to be reminded of that.
During these years of domestic stability, Sara and Bob lived in Woodstock in upstate New York. In 1973, Bob and Sara Dylan sold their Woodstock home and purchased a modest property on the Point Dume peninsula, north of Malibu, California. They commenced constructing a large home on this site, and the subsequent re-modelling of the house occupied the next two years. Sounes writes that during this period, tensions began to appear in their marriage. The Dylans still retained a house in Manhattan. In April 1974, Dylan began to take art classes with artist Norman Raeben in New York. Dylan would later say in an interview that the art lessons caused problems in his marriage: “I went home after that first day and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.”
Notwithstanding these tensions, Sara accompanied Bob Dylan on much of the first stage of the Rolling Thunder Revue, from October to December 1975. The Revue formed the backdrop to the shooting of the film “Renaldo and Clara”. Sara appeared in many scenes in this semi-improvised movie that Dylan directed, playing Clara to Dylan’s Renaldo. Joan Baez, a former lover of Dylan, was also a featured performer on the Revue and appeared in the film as The Woman In White. In one scene, Baez asks Dylan, “What would’ve happened if we ever got married, Bob?” Dylan replies, “I married the woman I love.” Sounes suggests that the film may have been in part Dylan’s tribute to his wife, since his film production company, Lombard Street Films, was named after the street in Wilmington where Sara was born.
Sara Dylan is said to have inspired several songs by Dylan, and two have been directly linked to her. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the only song on the fourth side of the 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde”, was described by critic Robert Shelton as “virtually a wedding song for the former Sara Shirley N. Lownds.”
In “Sara,” from the 1976 album “Desire”, Dylan calls her a “radiant jewel, mystical wife.” Shelton writes that with this song, “Dylan seems to be making an unabashed confessional to his wife. A plea for forgiveness and understanding.” Noting the autobiographical reference in the song to “drinkin’ white rum in a Portugal bar” Shelton connects this line with a trip Dylan made to Portugal with Sara in 1965. In “Sara,” Dylan seems to acknowledge his wife as the inspiration for “Sad Eyed Lady”:
“I can still hear the sound of the Methodist bells…
I had taken the cure and had just gotten through…
staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel…
writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you…”
Jacques Levy, who co-wrote many songs on “Desire”, recalled how Dylan and Sara were estranged when he recorded this song in July 1975: “Sara happened to visit the studio that evening and Dylan “sang ‘Sara’ to his wife as she watched from the other side of the glass… It was extraordinary. You could have heard a pin drop. She was absolutely stunned by it.”
The songs on Dylan’s 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” have been described by several of Dylan’s biographers and critics as arising from the tension as his marriage to Sara was collapsing. The album was recorded soon after the couple’s initial separation. Dylan biographers Robert Shelton and Clinton Heylin have cautioned against interpreting the album as naked autobiography, arguing that “Blood On The Tracks” works on many levels—musical, spiritual, poetic—as well as a personal confession. Dylan himself denied at the time of the album’s release that “Blood on the Tracks” was autobiographical, but Jakob Dylan has said, “When I’m listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ I’m grooving along just like you. But when I’m listening to ‘Blood On The Tracks’, that’s about my parents.”
Sara filed for divorce on March 1, 1977, and the separation became final in June. During the divorce proceedings, Sara was represented by attorney Marvin Mitchelson. Mitchelson has estimated that the settlement agreed was worth about $36 million to Sara and included “half the royalties from the songs written during their marriage.”[ Michael Gray has written: “A condition of the settlement was that Sara would remain silent about her life with Dylan. She has done so.”
Heylin has quoted Steven Soles saying that, in 1977, Dylan came over unannounced to his apartment and played him ten or twelve songs that were “very dark, very intense” dealing with his bitterness over the divorce. Soles adds that none of these songs was ever recorded.
By some reports Dylan and Sara remained friends after the acrimony of the divorce subsided, and Clinton Heylin writes that the photo of Dylan on a hillside in Jerusalem, which appeared on the inner sleeve of the 1983 album “Infidels”, was taken by Sara.
Discussing his parents’ marriage, Jakob Dylan said in 2005: “My father said it himself in an interview many years ago: ‘Husband and wife failed, but mother and father didn’t.’ My ethics are high because my parents did a great job.”
In addition to “Blonde on Blonde”, “Blood on the Tracks,” and “Desire”, some critics have suggested Sara Dylan was the inspiration for other works. Both Clinton Heylin and Andy Gill have connected Sara to “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” recorded in January 1965. Gill writes that this song expresses admiration for Sara’s “Zen-like equanimity: unlike most of the women he met, she wasn’t out to impress him or interrogate him about his lyrics.” Heylin credits Sara Dylan as the inspiration for “She Belongs to Me,” also recorded in January 1965 for the album “Bringing It All Back Home”.