5 Questions with Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, Author of The Man Who Designed the Future

We’re celebrating the release of The Man Who Designed the Future at City Lights Bookstore on Thursday, April 18th with Barbara Alexandra Szerlip!

The book is published by Melville House and examines the life of Norman Bel Geddes. Barbara answered our 5 questions. More about her, and her answers, below.

There will be a mint-condition Bel Geddes-designed Chrysler Airflow, courtesy of the Airflow Club of America, on view in Kerouac Alley during the event.

The Event: Thursday, April 18th at 7:00PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Man Who Designed the Future: Before there was Steve Jobs, there was Norman Bel Geddes. A ninth-grade dropout who found himself at the center of the worlds of industry, advertising, theater, and even gaming, Bel Geddes designed everything from the first all-weather stadium, to Manhattan’s most exclusive nightclub, to Futurama, the prescient 1939 exhibit that envisioned how America would look in the not-too-distant 60s.

In The Man Who Designed the Future, Barbara 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’ 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.

About Barbara Alexandra Szerlip: B. Alexandra Szerlip was 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.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip: During my senior year at university, I ended up living (long story) in a cottage on Kenneth Rexroth’s property in Santa Barbara. One day, an Italian television film crew arrived to interview him and its director, Claudio Savonnuzzi, took a shine to me. They were headed for S.F. to interview Lawrence Ferlinghetti and he invited me to join them. I had no interest in having a “dalliance” with chain-smoking Claudio, who was old enough to be my father.

The next morning, when Kenneth saw I was still there (the crew was gone), he was furious. This was a great opportunity, he growled. Savonuzzi would take me to Rome! The Piazza del Popolo! I’d MEET people! His anger confused me, but as I didn’t want him to think I
lacked moxie, I packed a small bag and headed for the airport.

I’d never been to San Francisco. The interview with Ferlinghetti, the next morning, took place at City Lights. I kept in the background as the crew did their job, but at one point, I said something or other (slight Italian accent, an attempt to fit in) and Lawrence, I remember, commented on how good my English was.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

BAS: There was one about the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and all their colorful adventures. I recall an argument about “inclusion,” which was why so many of them ended up in King Nebuchadnezzar’s name.

I recently read Cintra Wilson’s Fear and Clothing, which made me laugh out loud. She’s a mega-smart social anthropologist of fashion with a stiletto wit.

I’ve also acquired two fascinating, long-out-of-print books:

Acrobats and Mountebacks (published 1890, it’s filled with insider anecdotes about two Frenchmen who befriended the performers of itinerant circuses).

The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials (first published in 1906, it’s the true story of insects, pigs etc. brought to trial and excommunicated and/or publicly executed for various offenses over the course of several centuries).

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

BAS: Only three? Let me get back to you on that one.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

BAS: For Bel Geddes, it would probably have to be period music, following the story through the decades, 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. While writing the chapter on Rosamond Pinchot’s suicide, I kept hearing “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what
would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

BAS: I’d be tempted to open it on a Greek island (replete with gorgeous light and great food). People would come from far and wide, transported from the mainland on a charming little boat with the bookstore’s named beautifully hand-painted on its sides.

Join us on Thursday, April 18th at 7PM. Barbara will read from her new book The Man Who Designed the Future from the good people at Melville House. Get the book direct from Melville House or at your local independent bookseller.


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