He Blew Off My Childhood, Then Became the Best Dad – Saul Bellow’s Son on His Famous FatherJuliane Hiam
Daniel Bellow, covered from head to toe in the pure, white dust of porcelain imported from England, welcomed me into his 19th-century carriage barn studio for an interview. He offered a chair but clearly does not have time to sit himself. “Is it okay if I move heavy equipment while we talk?” he says, chuckling, so as he chats, he works.
To an opening break-the-ice sort of question — “Would you talk a little about how you became a potter?” — Bellow grins and then says, “Okay, but if I’m going to tell the story, I have to start at the beginning.”
Bellow clearly lives life as if he were the protagonist in an epic story, and he tells the tale with humor, tension, and characters with great things at stake. The almost idyllic resolution to the story, at least up to the present time, brings him to where he is standing: in the middle of a busy, successful pottery studio.
The story of his life and career comes tumbling out of his mouth as if he’s told it a thousand times before.
“I grew up in New York City. When I became a teenager, I was shipped off to boarding school for my own good’ and went to Northfield Mount Hermon School. In my very first week there, I wandered into the ceramics studio. There was a hippie guy making these unbelievable pots out of stoneware with a semi-circle of 16-year-old girls around him. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be him.”
With that, Bellow bursts out laughing.
“Honestly, this is a craft that is not easy to learn. You have to really want it bad. I teach high school students now, and every year there’s one kid who really wants it bad. In 1980, I was that kid. I holed up in the ceramics studio and I learned. I became that rock star potter in high school that girls wanted to stop by and watch work.”
When he grew up, Bellow became a journalist and as he talks about it, he becomes fiery, falling into the cadence of a news-hungry and idealistic reporter. He talks about the many newspapers he worked at, sometimes as a freelancer, sometimes as staff reporter, and sometimes as editor. But then came a moment in his life that changed everything.
“9/11 happened, and my friend Danny Pearl got killed in Pakistan. Danny never got to see his kid. We had worked together at age 24 at The Berkshire Eagle. I thought: Danny had the career as a journalist that I had always wanted, and look where that got him. I realized that life’s too short not to do what you really want to be doing, so we came back here, my wife Heather and our two kids and two dogs, and I started Daniel Bellow Pottery. After all those years, I went back to making pots.”
Once a rock star potter, always a rock star potter.
Bellow and his wife have two children: Stella and Ben. Ben, having just gotten home from school for the day, wandered in and out of the studio during the interview. His dad, without missing a beat with either his work or this interview, instructed Ben on what to find for a snack in the kitchen in the main house.
Through the multi-tasking, I pushed on and changed subjects, turning toward Bellow’s own father.
“Okay, so I guess you want me to talk about my dad,” he says. For the first time, he takes a seat in a chair.
“My dad was a great dad once I became an adult. He was the novelist Saul Bellow. He was a funny and very original man. He was the most brilliant person I have ever met. When I was young, I figured that when I went out in the world and met other famous people in his company, other artists or high-powered officials, that someone would be as cool as he, but nobody was.
“He blew off my childhood,” Bellow says with zero rancor, “but once I got to be a grown-up, he actually became the best dad I could have wanted. He genuinely liked me and was interested in me and what I did.”
With that, Bellow pops out of the chair and launches right back into the work of his pottery.
“As far as being a dad myself? I try to give my kids a lot of love, a lot of support, make them feel good about themselves. I want them to have as much fun as they can while they’re kids and also to know that nothing is impossible. Look at me, I did an impossible thing: I became a working potter.”
Images were provided by Ben Garver, photo editor at the Berkshire Eagle.