60 years of marriage is a milestone.
Some love stories are passion and flames. For others, a slow simmer that gets brighter with time. And for Mike and Donna Bell, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year, their love story is one of perseverance, strength and the ability to see the humor in the toughest of times. From the way he makes her laugh to the way she looks at him with a fond smile, it’s hard to miss the fact that they’ve both found ‘the one.’
The former owners of Mike Bell, Inc., a company based in Merchandise Mart that specializes in antiques and reproductions, the Bells say they’re grateful for a wonderful life. But few of us get through unscathed. And for Mr. and Mrs. Bell, those lessons came early in life.
La Vie Bohème
Donna Bell learned to be self-sufficient after losing her mother when she was only 9. Mike Bell was 19 when his father passed away, throwing him into an uncertain world of odd jobs to support himself and his mother.
So at a mere 21 years old, along with a partner, Mr. Bell opened an art gallery on Rush Street, La Boutique Fantasque, named after the ballet about a famous toymaker. It was a place where they threw parties for up-and-coming artists and a chance to nurture a love of art – making money was almost an afterthought. “We were living the life of La Bohème,” declares Mr. Bell grandly. “He means poor,” interjects his wife.
It was at one of the parties in 1953 that Mr. and Mrs. Bell met. She was a 23-year-old, self-described introvert who loved to draw. The gregarious 24-year-old boutique owner was instantly smitten. “He couldn’t resist,” recalls Mrs. Bell, laughing. “He was swept away although I don’t know why.”
The meetings were quickly followed by midnight conversations over coffee and scrambled eggs at a nearby café after Mr. Bell closed the gallery for the night. “I’d get up, go to work and be a wreck all day,” she recalls. “And then we’d do that every night all over again.”
The two dated for three months but that was enough time for Mr. Bell to know what he wanted. “He asked, ‘Do you think you could spend the rest of your life with me?’” says Mrs. Bell.
The Bells remember their wedding, clear as day. On August 5, 1953, they found themselves in the home of Judge Jacob Braude, who married them in a “short and sweet” ceremony at the Drake Towers.
He was in a suit, while she wore a simple white linen dress that she designed, with a matching jacket and gloves. The small party celebrated over lunch, champagne and wedding cake at Jacques Restaurant across the street. Their honeymoon was at a friend’s country house in Indiana where they fished and Mrs. Bell taught her new husband to bake an apple pie.
But two years into their marriage, just as they were settling into wedded bliss, Mr. Bell was drafted to Korea. To keep her mind off of his absence, Mrs. Bell says she “went to a lot of movies with girlfriends.”
“I was in the army for 1 year, 9 months and 26 days,” says Mr. Bell, grinning. “It’s like serving time: you know that you’re going to get out at a certain point and that’s it.”
When he returned, the two picked up where they left off, with Mr. Bell joining an interior-decorating firm on Chicago’s south side. After a brief
job stint in New York, the couple returned to Chicago and in 1961 opened Mike Bell, Inc. a company that specializes in antique accessories. The job required frequent traveling, with Mr. Bell flying to Europe for buying trips, leaving Mrs. Bell to hold down the fort. “I sometimes say we’ve been married for 60 years because I travelled a lot,” jokes Mr. Bell.
A Family of Two
But even as the Bells expanded their business to New York and Los Angeles, there was one thing that they felt was missing in their lives: children. Despite their best attempts, the Bells couldn’t have kids and even went so far as applying to adopt. “All of a sudden you’re pushing 40 and think, ‘Oh, what the hell. Let’s leave things the way they are,’” says Mr. Bell.
Together, they went on buying trips to Europe and holidays in the Caribbean. They often spent four days a week at a 30-acre farm in Michigan. Life in the city was filled with friends, most of whom were part of the city’s interior design community.
However, their idyllic life was shattered when Mr. Bell was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the fall of 2004. Weeks of radiation followed and in May 2005, doctors felt they had contained the situation, but the Bells weren’t quite in the clear just yet. In the fall of 2012, Mrs. Bell went to the hospital for a cough. Results showed that it was lung cancer.
She handled her diagnosis calmly as doctors decided to keep her under observation. But for Mr. Bell, it was a different story. “I was a wreck,” he confesses in a quiet voice. Doctors reacted swiftly, removing part of Mrs. Bell’s lung. Luckily, the treatment worked and no further treatment was necessary.
For the Bells, it was a second chance at life. Today, they spend their time in their lakeshore apartment or socialize with friends. Mrs. Bell paints; watercolors are her passion.
“We’ve been together for 60 years – that’s longer than some people have been alive,” he says. And according to Mr. Bell, romance looks a lot different after 60 years of marriage.
“The person you married in your 20s isn’t the same person you’re married to when you’re 60 or 70,” he explains. “I think it’s romantic when she clears the dishwasher!” Mrs. Bell adds that they never go to bed without saying goodnight. And, they still do date nights: dinner followed by a performance at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
When asked if she has any advice for newlyweds, Mrs. Bell takes a moment to ponder the question, then smiles and replies, “It’s all going to be okay.”
They both agree that they’ve lived a charmed life, surrounded by family, friends and a home filled with beautiful objects. But if there was one thing the Bells might have done differently, they would have loved to live somewhere different. “The south of France,” he says, dreamily. She nods her approval. With a twinkle in his eyes behind his tortoiseshell glasses, he grins. “But I don’t want to live too far away from Northwestern Memorial Hospital,” he quips. And with that, Mrs. Bell throws her head back and laughs.
John Reilly Photograph