“I didn’t see much of my father, but I absolutely adored him,” declares Barbara Bel Geddes dutifully—and quite truthfully—toward the tail end of The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America.
That may seem a rather lofty subtitle, but B. Alexandra Szerlip, Bel Geddes’ obsessively thorough biographer, makes a strong case that America when he died “was almost unrecognizable from the one he’d been born into. He could rightfully take credit for having put a hand to that vast difference.”
A soaring imagination produced innovations in far-flung fields of endeavor. He designed planes, trains, and automobiles, even highways. Also, ships, stoves, kitchen scales, refrigerators, opera houses, burlesque houses, nightclubs, skyscrapers, cocktail shakers, fountain pens, shaving brushes, furniture, garters, typewriters, fly swatters, and all-weather stadiums.
Happily, he loved theatre and worked both sides of the footlights, redesigning auditoriums and creating artistic stage lighting with different intensities, colors, angles and shadows that pulled the audience into the action.
Playbill Vault lists him with 35 Broadway credits in roles ranging from scenic designer to director to costume designer to producer to lighting designer. He designed 200 productions—most notably, converting a 1924 theatre into a medieval cathedral for Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle and turning an orchestra pit into an East River swimming hole in Sidney Kingsley’s 1935 Dead End.
In cahoots with George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky, he created a ballet with 50 elephants for Ringling Bros. For the movie cameras, he reenacted the Trojan War, with insects for Greeks. His Futurama exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair featured a bird’s eye view of a metropolis in 1960.
He created, clashed, or crossed paths with all kinds of titans: Reinhardt, Amelia Earhart, Belasco, the Gershwins, Frank Lloyd Wright, DeMille (“Never have I seen a man with so pre-eminent a position splash so fondly about in mediocrity, and, like a child building a sand castle, so serenely convinced that he was producing works of art”), Einstein, Sonja Henie, Anaïs Nin, Chaplin, and the Algonquin Round Table crew.
Yet his own name—despite the above—isn’t known much. Actually, it wasn’t even his name. He was born Norman Melancton Geddes and took Bel from his first wife, Helen Belle Schneider, when they were collaborating on articles about art. She was the first of his four wives, all of whom complained of a certain lack of attention. Inventing the 20th-century seems to have left little time for anything else.