A woman of many incarnations
Dana Szeflan Bell, wife, mother, fashion designer, holocaust survivor
By Carmen J. Michaud
Photography by James St Laurent
First published October 26, 2019
When I was a teenager, we often babysat for neighbours. And we often invited our friends, one or two, to come along. My friend Helen was sitting for a woman on her street and asked me to come over and watch TV. I met Helen at her home and walked to the neighbour’s home. We rang the bell and were buzzed in.
The door at the top of the stairs opened and a wonderful woman with a bright smile welcomed us. She had long wavy hair. Auburn but richer, redder. And large green eyes. She was wearing an olive v-neck sweater and dark chocolate peg leg pants. Rita Hayworth in Mary Tyler Moore’s clothing. Dana!
We met her son, Barry. Her daughter Gay was at a friend’s for the night. A few years later I went to see The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and there was Barry! He was Bernie, The Bar Mitzvah Boy. For a long time this was included in my “brushes with celebrity” anecdotes. There had been an earlier one with the Andrew Sisters but that’s for another day.
Dana is a woman of many incarnations. She is a survivor, in more ways than one.
I would see Dana from time to time over the years.
Downtown at the most crowded discos, she was often with radio personality and Montreal master-of-ceremonies Douglas Leopold. And she always looked spectacular. Ensembles that were “ben flyé”. And that hair! And she was usually laughing.
I would meet her son from time to time over the years. Barry is the poster boy for gentlemanly demeanour. Kind, polite, respectful and, also, quick to laugh.
I remember when I first saw her with Bill who would become her husband of 47 years now. A modern painting by the Pre-Raphaelites. Her delicate white skin and ginger locks. His dark and sturdy good looks.
Dana is a woman of many incarnations. She is a survivor, in more ways than one.
. . . . .
When we met you were a woman in a difficult marriage, finding your way. Tell us a bit about the challenges of being single, with young children, in a time of discos, “free love”… a time of change.
I was in a very bad marriage, and forced to live with my in-laws who were not nice to me. Long story. I couldn’t stay in the house when I left because it was his parent’s house and I was the one to leave. The worst is that I had to leave my children. I could not drag them around with me when I stayed in friends’ basements, etc. I saw them every day. It was like living through the war again. Then I got a small student’s apartment and was on my own which was much better. My children could come and sleep over. A very long story, eventually Bill and I got together. There were many issues and problems. I was working again and we began to breathe again… but the first five years were very difficult.
And your young son Barry was featured in the film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This was in 1973 and the film was shot on the streets of the Plateau. Was he doing a lot of acting, or was it a casting call that just worked out?
Barry is a natural. He and his sister, Gay, had been taking acting lessons at the Children’s Theatre School, under the direction of Miss Davies and Miss Walters, on Girouard. Barry had done a few commercials. It was Gay who really wanted to act as a career. We all went to the casting call. Barry auditioned and they hired him on the spot. It was the time of his Bar Mitzvah also and they had considered filming his Bar Mitzvah for the scene but logistics won out.
During this time you launched a design line. What gave you the idea?
In those days of living on my own, I was modelling and I was often in the back office where the clothes were being made and my bosses appreciated my input. I also used to make my own clothes and women would stop me and ask where I got them. When I said I made them myself, they wanted me to make clothes for them. That is how I started. I then decided to do a line. It was difficult since I had no money, but I managed. I worked hard.
My clothes were unique since I used vintage dresses, and cut them up to make a collage of one fabric. It was really creating art and they were all one of a kind. Iona (Monahan of the Montreal Gazette) took an interest in my fashions and began to feature me in the newspaper. She gave me a full front page of the Fashion section once. (I have a copy.) I did not sew all the clothes. I had a cottage trade of a few women sewing. I designed the clothes. I know how to sew. It was just too much to do it all.
Who were your customers? And you presented your line around Montreal?
My customers were beautiful women. One day I was having lunch with Douglas at the Ritz Garden and two beautiful young women walked in wearing my designs. It made me feel so good. I had an actress who used to fly in from Hollywood to buy my clothes. I wish I remembered her name.
I did fashion shows at clubs like 1234, and at the Four Seasons Hotel. I also did private showings.
Why do you think you were able to get the attention of the public to your line? You had pieces about your line in the Montreal Gazette, Toronto magazines and the New York Times. Do you think it is still possible for an independent to launch, or was it “right place, right time”?
I wouldn’t attempt to launch a line at this time. It was difficult even then for me. I didn’t have the finances. I was given a few opportunities to design in New York but that was not doable. I worked hard. I sold my designs first to Holt Renfrew. The buyer, Myrtle Neal, was very interested in my designs and thought they could be showcased at Holts. They were going to do a big event for me and do all the windows with my clothes but when they got my clothes, they put them on those awful old mannequins. I was not happy and decided to take my clothes back. When Ms. Neal called to ask what the problem was, I explained. She told me I was the first retailer to cancel with Holts. I said I was not a retailer. I was an artist and my clothes were wearable art.
‘I also used to make my own clothes and women would stop me and ask where I got them. When I said I made them myself, they wanted me to make clothes for them. That is how I started. I then decided to do a line. It was difficult since I had no money, but I managed. I worked hard.’
Then a friend suggested I show my line to Eaton’s. Eaton’s, at the time, had two great designer boutiques. I called the buyer, Maria Balla. She came to see my clothes and immediately wanted them. They were put into the “Ensemble Shop” with all the top designers like Chanel and Balmain. They had a fashion show to introduce my clothes, and when I came home there was a beautiful flower arrangement waiting for me, thanking me, from the buyers of Eaton’s. That was class!
A funny story… one day Maria called me and told me that there had been a robbery at the boutique and only my fashions were stolen. That was a compliment.
You were good friends with Douglas Leopold. He was well known for his radio show on CKMF and helping Regine open her disco. He also produced fashion shows. How was the private Douglas different from the public Douglas?
Douglas and I were very close. We spoke to each other every day and saw one another almost as much. I would go to fashion shows with him, and many other cultural, and entertainment events. He invited me to join him and I loved being with him. I loved his loft on Queen Street here in Montreal where he had so many parties. And The Limelight, of course, where we would dress up and go with many friends. I could go on and on.
Douglas had another side to him. A serious side. We would have very in-depth conversations about many issues. When he moved to Los Angeles, he always stayed with us when he returned to Montreal. And when our house was being renovated, we stayed at his apartment at the Trafalgar and it’s amazing view of the city from the bath.
He appeared to be happy-go-lucky celebrity to the public, which he was, but he had that other side to him. He could be quietly walking on the street with you and someone would shout out “Coco!” or “Douglas” and his smile would appear and he was on. People loved him, both the French and English public. I experienced so many wonderful things with him I could actually write a book about our friendship.
You met Bill Bell when? And did you know immediately that here was your match?
I met Bill in 1970 when I enrolled in an art class at the Sadie Bronfman Centre with Mervin Dews. We sat near each other, and became friends. We would have coffee breaks together with another friend Nancy, and that was it. The next year I registered for another art class for life drawing with Roselyn Schwartzman. I had not seen Bill for the whole year. When I came into the new class, I was pleased to see Nancy there. A few minutes later, Bill walked in. We refreshed our friendship. Both Bill and I were in unhappy marriages. We began to confide in one another and the rest is history. We definitely were meant for each other.
And what have you learned from each other?
What we learned with each other is that, no matter how difficult it is to start a new life with no money, to work hard and push through. We learned that if it is the right relationship and it’s real love, you can overcome anything. And we overcame a lot. And we are still madly in love in our 80s.
You published your memoirs about your time during the war, Danusia. Now you speak, primarily, to children about the Holocaust. What gave you the impetus to speak and relive those times?
I began to speak to students, from Grade school to University, because I felt it was very important especially with the rise of anti-Semitism around the world and so much hate and evil happening. Author Elie Wiesel said, “Speak to the young. Don’t waste your time on the adults. The young are our future.”
I knew there was a program at the Holocaust Memorial Centre so I called and became a speaker. I give my testimony either at the Holocaust Memorial Centre or at their schools. I have been a keynote speaker at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and I take part in the Holocaust Remembrance Day every year where I speak to students of every denomination. This event is very well attended. Survivors come from all over Canada and representatives of the government attend as well. It is well organized.
‘I began to speak to students, from Grade school to University, because I felt it was very important especially with the rise of anti-Semitism around the world and so much hate and evil happening.’
– Dana Szeflan Bell
Even though it is not easy for me to relive my experience, each time I speak I feel it is so important for me, as a survivor, to tell my story. Soon there will be no survivors. We are aging. We are the last survivors. I have been interviewed a few times and my talks are available on the Internet.
Bill and I have sent teachers to Israel to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where they are given an intensive two-week course on teaching the Holocaust to their students. These teachers, mostly Christian, come back changed. They get an experience for life. All of them fall in love with Israel. They then go on to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to their students and other teachers.
At the end of your talk you speak of the phrase in Hebrew Tikkun olam, “To Heal the World”, and how parents must teach children to love, not hate. In this age of social media, and trolls, and (bought and paid for) misinformation, do you think it’s possible for parents to influence their children to choose empathy and sympathy?
You also speak of angels. You do believe in angels?
I believe in angels. If not for angels I would not have survived. I always felt their presence.
And then the Proustian Questionnaire…
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Peace on Earth.
What is your greatest fear?
On what occasion do you lie?
When I don’t want to hurt someone.
What are your favourite qualities in a man?
What are your favourite qualities in a woman?
Who is your hero of fiction?
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
What is your current state of mind?
Some days I’m happy, some days I’m sad.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
What is your most treasured possession?
Dana Szeflan Bell at the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony, April 28, 2015.
Images of Dana Szeflan Bell by James St Laurent
Carmen J. Michaud likes to write (and paint) and is majoring in Curiosity.