Dispatch from the Archives

I have now spent a grand total of 18 weeks combing through Norman Bel Geddes’s vast collection of papers, housed at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin. It’s probably fair to say that I know more about him, as a man, than anyone, even his family. How valid an accomplishment this is, how worthy an investment of time and resources, remains to be seen.


One of the great things about being at HRC (aside from balmy weather that allows for sleeveless dresses and bare legs in November), is that it’s a vast treasure chest of goodies (costumes from Gone With the Wind, James Joyce’s notebooks, Robert De Niro’s papers, and Norman Mailer’s. Black Minstrel artifacts. Harry Houdini’s “stuff”. And that’s just the tip of the tip of the iceberg), attracting scholars and researchers from all over the world. 


Every Wednesday morning, there’s a Scholar’s Coffee Break (free cake, bad coffee), a chance to mingle with your fellow research rats. The morning I met Iryna, a slender, whip-smart young Russian PhD based in the UK, it quickly occurred to me that I might have to strangle her in her sleep. (In which case I would surely be caught, arrested, so then how would I ever finish my book?) "What are you working on?“ she asked.


"Norman Bel Geddes.”


“Oh, so am I.” Big broad smile. “I'm thrilled to meet you!" 


I’m happy to report that her focus (reconstructing his un-produced theater sets) doesn’t impact on my project in the least. Our mutual interest in Norman, combined with a love of top-notch tequila (impossible to find in Scotland, apparently), led to the beginnings of a great friendship. Among other friendships.


My recent two month sojourn (Oct/Nov 2012) corresponded with a Bel Geddes retrospective and a three-day symposium packed with academics flown in from both coasts to speak on  Futurism (past, present and, ummmm, in the future). During one symposium talk, I experienced a truncated Andy Warhol moment—fifteen seconds of fame—when Yale professor and lauded science fiction novelist John Crowley announced to the auditorium that a "ground-breaking” article on Bel Geddes by Alexandra Szerlip, which he strongly encouraged everyone to read, had recently been published in the Believer! I’d never met the man. I almost fell off my chair.

And so, leaving out the details of various other adventures, it was a highly productive and gratifying stay.

—B. Alexandra Szerlip

You can read Alexandra’s “Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity,” about the fantastical miniatures and models of Norman Bel Geddes, in full at believermag.com.