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Wednesday June 24, 2009

LIVES LIVED

Wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, writer, inveterate New Yorker. Born Oct. 27, 1915, in New York. Died March 26 in Montreal of pneumonia, aged 93.

Betty Sulla could have made a career out of writing, had she not fallen in love with a Canadian from Montreal, moved north from her beloved New York and started a family. Consider her first-prize-winning submission in her 80s to a Montreal newspaper's contest on what to call an unmarried couple travelling together: "horneymoon."

Then there was the missive she sent after a Butterball turkey she'd roasted turned out to be dry. "The breast should have looked like Sophia Loren's but after being cooked, it resembled Twiggy's," she wrote. A few days later, the doorbell rang and right there on the front stoop was a representative of the company holding a huge, plump bird. He said the staff laughed so hard after reading the letter they had it framed and put it up in the company's offices.

Betty was a striver, in your face, generous and always impeccably made up, often in the mink coat she so loved to wear in the middle of Montreal winters, and sometimes even in the spring and fall. She grew up in Brooklyn in a lower-middle-class family, the daughter of Irving, a peddler and sometimes wrestler, and Tillie, a homemaker. She loved the city with a passion, its buildings, museums, energy and sense of community, but she said goodbye after meeting Montrealer Phil Sulla during a vacation in Miami Beach. They married in 1946 and settled in his hometown.

Betty grew to love Montreal, too, for it made her feel like she was living in Paris. She took the bus over Mount Royal to have a café au lait and croissant on chic Laurier Avenue, and she kept fit by walking to buy the family's groceries.

Phil owned a taxi business and Betty proved an invaluable asset, with training as a legal secretary and the ability to type - what seemed to her children, Bobby and Rosalie - a million words a minute. Later, when Phil moved into real estate, Betty was by his side.

Betty was a caretaker born and bred, always there for her children, her mother, who came to live with them in 1964 after Irving died, and Phil, who was blind for the last six years of his life. When Phil died in 1994 of heart failure, Betty began a new chapter, travelling to New York for the first time in 30 years, showing her daughter sights from her childhood and marvelling at how much the city had changed.

Betty survived breast cancer - twice - and she never forgot to apply her lipstick because she lived by the maxim that one should always put forth the best face possible. She had an eye for the men, complimenting her male caregivers at the seniors' residence and nursing home on their muscles and good looks. Despite her own failing health, she wanted to make others feel good.

Rosalie Sulla Fagen is Betty's daughter.

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