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http://www.queensmuseum.org/events/book-launch-of-new-biography-of-norman-bel-geddes Book Launch of New Biography of Norman Bel Geddes With Author B. Alexandra Szerlip Apr 23 2017 2:00pm–4:00pm Join us for reading by the author B. Alexandra Szerlip followed by a discussion with Louise Weinberg, Registrar/Archives Manager and Curator at the Queens Museum. The event will conclude with a book sale and signing. Norman Bel Geddes was a ninth-grade dropout who found himself at the center of the worlds of industry, advertising, theater, and even gaming. He designed everything from the first all-weather stadium, to Manhattan’s most exclusive nightclub, to Futurama, the prescient 1939 World’s Fair exhibit that envisioned how America would look in the not-too-distant sixties. In The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth Century America, B. Alexandra Szerlip reveals precisely how central Bel Geddes was to the history of American innovation. He presided over a moment in which theater became immersive, function merged with form, and people became consumers. A polymath with humble Midwestern origins, Bel Geddes’s visionary career would launch him into social circles with the Algonquin roundtable members, stars of stage and screen, and titans of industry. Light on its feet but absolutely authoritative, this first major biography is a must for anyone who wants to know how America came to look the way it did. B. Alexandra Szerlip is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow, a Yaddo fellow, and runner-up for London’s Lothian Prize for a first biography-in progress. She has contributed to The Paris Review Daily and The Believer, among other publications, and has worked in professional theater, as a book editor, sculptor and graphic designer. Raised on the East Coast, she lives in San Francisco. Images: B. Alexandra Szerlip photo © Adam Keker, The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth Century America, courtesy of Melville House
At the graveside service, when I described my mother’s death to our relatives as, “It was great!” they looked askance. But anyone who’d spent 7 years visiting her Manhattan nursing home listening to the agonized screams echo down the halls knows exactly what I mean. The elderly residents scream for help, for the police, at each other, “Die already! What good are you? Nobody likes you!" as though begging to be freed from their torture of life. Mom died painlessly in 2013. She died peacefully. In her sleep. No shouting. No fear. Like I said, Great! At 95 with dementia, she did not recognize photos of her only husband, and had stopped speaking years ago. But she smiled when she saw me. Years back I got a MacBook app that looked and sounded like that 1970s cassette deck many of us remember even down to the wooden crate tape storage box. And I remembered a photo of mom on a 1939 NYWF bench. Legs crossed, smiling, single, the 22 yr old girl from Schuylkill County anthracite slag heaps visiting the ash heap now all the rage, smiling for her sister and the bulky camera. Brilliant assimilator of knowledge that I am, I thought, why not record mom’s recollections of the 1939 NYWF for my friends at PTU? Boy will they be impressed! My invite to the PTU Mansion is practically in the mailbox! So next rainy day when I rode the 1st Ave bus to her place uptown I slung the laptop over my shoulder. Eric had posted a series of beautiful color 1939 NYWF shots and I used them as prompts. Photos cued up? Hit the red Record button. “Mom, this is the Wonder Bread pavilion. See the colored balls? Like the package? Do you remember seeing that?” What was her response? “How much?” Yeah. That’s my mom! How much did I pay for the MacBook? Typical Catholic Great Depression survivor's question. A nickel for every time I heard that one. “Mom, this is the General Motors pavilion? Remember Futurama? The model cars?” No reaction. Finally, “You were so small. I used to let you run by yourself. Do you remember? You were lost.” She kept staring at me. I had to hold the MacBook screen in her face to get her to focus on the pictures. ”No. Mom, that was the 1964 NYWF.” But no matter what pavilion I showed her she had nothing to say about the 39 NYWF. Hit the Stop button. All I have is a solid hour's recording of me asking questions and her saying nothing of any historic value. I’ll never get invited to the PTU Mansion at this rate. You can walk everywhere in NYC. I always walked to her nursing home, but the laptop shoulder strap chaffed my clothing so I waited for another rainy day to carry it on the bus. Hit the Record button. “Mom? Remember this? Trylon. Perisphere." She seemed to genuinely try to make some connection with the images. But again after a few minutes of frustration and silence she piped up w the same refrain. She brightened and said, “Do you remember? You got lost? You were... little.” This reverie seemed to satisfy her. Gazing at me. Hit Stop. I wanted to pound my overpriced Merrell winter boot on her rolling meal tray like Kruschev at the UN. Nyet! Nyet! Wrong Fair! Okay. What she’s referring to is the time we got separated at the 1964 NYWF. Like hell I got “lost.” I remember it differently. It was up around the Boy Scouts area when I realized she had gone missing. So I did what I was taught and went to some official looking desk and articulated my situation that my mother had wandered off, and heard, “We have a little lost boy,” over the PA. Sure, they take her side! Next thing I know, zooming out of the crowd directly at me is my mother, pocketbooks, coats and what have you billowing around her. We kids are familiar with the common facial expressions of happiness and sadness but we never forget certain looks that reflect rare and serious emotions. Her face showed an amalgam of desperation, relief and exhaustion that I had never seen before. She scooped me up and cried as I lectured and reprimanded her. Anyway, back in the nursing home, this session with Mom gives my MacBook another blank memory sector. She’s filling my hard drive with nothing but lingering doubt over 45 year old parenting questions about how much freedom to give a 7 yr old. I stumble home, visions of the PTU Mansion receding in possibility. Next rainy day, to the nursing home with the laptop. Hit the Record button. Long story short, same deal. Maybe by now she’s a little impatient and hits her, “lost boy scenario,” sooner. “You would run all over!” Kinda like HAL in 2001 as its memory cells are removed, forgetting all but the song, "Daisy Bell, (Bicycle Built for Two.)” Stop. Well, three times is enough. I waited too long for my brainstorm to record Mom’s recollections of a huge World’s Fair on the eve of WWII. I’ll never night swim in the candlelit PTU Mansion Grotto. The Fair, surely the war, had to be the biggest event of the century, right? She has no comment? My antics as a kid must've driven her to distraction. Mom slipped further into silence as years passed until her Cheshire smile upon seeing me was all the reaction she gave. In a life that spanned that century from a clapboard coal shack with an outhouse on Turkey Row, PA, to a world of electricity, radio and television and MacBooks; disappearance of polio and iron lungs, appearance of indoor toilets, what memories reveal are character and what really matters. After all the 20th century showed my mother, what was important to her? I’m the luckiest son in the world.