Belle Owens’ apartment on University Avenue is filled with colorful Mylar balloons and birthday cards propped up on top of the coffee table. Owens says there are two big bags in the back room overflowing with more cards from past birthdays — which is not surprising given that she’s had 106 of them.
Born in 1908, Owens is thought to be one of Berkeley’s oldest residents. In honor of her 106th birthday, the city issued a proclamation honoring Owens, a former fashion consultant for prominent musicians and comedians, at its council meeting this week.
“That was just absolutely fabulous,” said Owens, sitting in her wheelchair in her living room a couple days after the event. “Everyone was just unbelievable. I really cried.”
The proclamation, read aloud by Councilman Jesse Arreguín, applauded her “very full, exciting, and successful life.”
“This is an amazing accomplishment,” said Arreguín, who represents Owens’ district.
Owens insists “it wasn’t that hard” to live for over a century, under 19 different U.S. presidents, and through two world wars, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and the advent of digital technology.
“My doctor says I’m OK,” Owens said at her Berkeley City Council celebration, flashing her new set of teeth. “There’s some days I wake up and I don’t feel like that. But I get over it.”
Owens lives with her caretaker at Helios Corner, an affordable housing complex for seniors. She talks every day to her neighbors and spends her time reading novels and the bible she’s had for decades.
“It seems like each day I get quieter and quieter,” said Owens. But she still has the energy to get together with her many friends — and now, the children and grandchildren of her old friends — around Berkeley.
“I go out sometimes with whoever comes and picks me up,” she said. “Whichever way they want to take me, that’s okay with me. I think it’s a wonderful city to live in.”
Owens was born in Carthage, Texas, where she graduated from high school and worked at a clothing store. When she moved to New York, she became one of the first black women to work at Neiman Marcus, where she fitted high-end clothing for clients. There she worked with designer Nettie Rosenstein, who was all the rage at the time, Owens said.
“It was kind of scary at first,” said Owens, who still wears stylish ensembles. “But it wasn’t hard, and I was accepted very, very well with every person I worked with.”
Living in Harlem with her husband and the first of her two sons in the late ’30s and early ’40s, Owens became the fashion advisor to some of the jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald.
Following several years in New York, Owens moved to Los Angeles, where she met and immediately charmed Bob Hope, who offered her a job as a wardrobe assistant to touring comedians.
Owens told him, “I have a high school education and mother’s wit.” Apparently impressed by her forthrightness, Hope put her on a plane to New York the next day, and she began traveling with the “Park Avenue Hillbilly” comedian Dorothy Shay.
“It got to be fun, traveling around,” Owens said. “I kept the girls’ clothes. I was their boss in a way. If we stopped in a city, I had to buy clothes, always had to sit right there with the designer. I knew what to put on her for a show.”
But Owens didn’t limit her impeccable fashion sense to her clients’ wardrobes.
“I couldn’t go any place without being dressed well,” she said. To this day she rarely does, though she’s traded in some of the designer wear for thrift store finds.
When she stopped working out of Los Angeles at age 75, Owens moved to Berkeley with her second husband.
Although she was born in the South over 50 years before the Civil Rights Act passed, and was a black woman working in a white-dominated fashion industry, Owens says she has been lucky enough to feel welcome everywhere she’s gone.
“I didn’t have no problems. It was bad but it didn’t really hit me,” she said.
When she was younger, Owens was not very interested in politics and she can’t remember the first time she voted. Now, though, she’ll proudly share that she’s a Democrat. Barack Obama is “smart and able to do what he’s doing,” she said.
A few years ago, Owens went through a rough time.
After her husband died, she had been living with her widowed sister. Then her sister and one of her sons died within three months of each other.
“I became lost,” she said. “Those were people I saw every day of my life.”
Owens moved into Helios Corner, where she easily settled into the friendly community. There are signs in the lobby announcing activities and 100th-birthday parties.
She felt strengthened and rejuvenated by her local friendships and by the relationships she had developed across the country while working on the road for most of her life. Her phone rings often and her grandchildren flew in from out of state for her celebration this week.
Speaking to the City Council, Owens said, “I’m happy. I had a good life. I like people. People like me.”
At her birthday party, a 10-year-old family friend approached Owens.
“He said, ‘Hey Belle, are you really 106? I’ve never seen a person so old,’” Owens recounted.
“And I said, ‘I haven’t either!’”
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