The Midwestern Roots of
Barbara Bel Geddes ("Miss Ellie")
By James Pylant
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Long before she was cast as “Miss Ellie,” the matriarch of the Ewing clan on the television series “Dallas,” actress Barbara Bel Geddes won critical acclaim for her work on stage and the silver screen. One of her most memorable roles was the 1948 movie, “I Remember Mama,” for which she received a nomination as Best Supporting Actress. When the gentle-voiced Bel Geddes started her acting career at age eighteen, she was no stranger to the theatre; her father was a well-known theatrical set designer. The daughter of Norman Bel Geddes and the former Helen Belle Sneider, Barbara Bel Geddes was born in New York City on 31 October 1922. Her parents wedded in Toledo, Ohio, on 19 March 1916.
A genealogist in search of the surname Bel Geddes before 1920 will find no such entries in U. S. census records, for the name did not yet exist. The intriguing last name came from the creative mind of the actress’s father, who was born Norman Melancton Geddes. The surname “Bel Geddes” is what one biographer described as “a theatrical flourish,” while another called it “an act of prehistoric feminism,” for the prefix “Bel,” was an abbreviation of his wife’s first name. Indeed, the 1920 federal census shows Norman Geddes, and his wife, Bel (both twenty-seven years-old) living in the Bronx. A Michigan native born to a Michigander father and an Ohioan mother, Norman Geddes’s occupation was given as an artist, and that he was employed at a theatre. Bel was born in Ohio. Her father was a native of New York, while her mother was born in Ohio. The couple shared their dwelling with three year-old Joaan, whose is mistakenly listed as their son, born in California. Daughter Joan was born in Los Angeles on 2 December 1916. After graduation from college in 1937, Joan worked in a four-year stint as a researcher and theatrical assistant for Norman Bel Geddes, Inc., a firm her father founded in 1930s with second wife, Frances Waite. Bel Geddes’s marriage to Frances Resor Waite occurred in Connecticut in March of 1933.
Before Barbara Bel Geddes’ first birthday, her father’s revolutionary vision as a set designer led to a pivotal collaboration with Max Rheinhardt in the theatrical production of “The Miracle.” He was also a director, producer and an author. And his design in the theatrical world extended beyond interiors, for he became a theatre architect and an industrial designer. The firm he founded employed more than one hundred people for General Motors exhibits at the 1939 New York World's Fair and later, military contracts and model photography during World War II. Bel Geddes’s obsession with design produced everything from cocktail shakers and cook stoves to radios and butcher scales. Perhaps one of his most fascinating designs was that of an aircraft which he proposed as the transatlantic airliner of 1940.
Bel Geddes studied at Ohio’s Cleveland School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He was born at Adrian, Michigan, on 27 April 1893. April of 1893 is also given as the month and year of birth for Norman M. Geddes, a seven year-old Michigan native, in the 1900 federal census of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He and three year-old Clifton D. Geddes, also born in Michigan, were listed as sons in the household of C. T. Geddes, a thirty-three year-old Pittsburgh stockbroker and New York native. He and his thirty-one year-old wife, Flora, an Ohio native, had been married eight years, and she had given birth to two children. Also living in that household were Mr. Geddes’s twenty year-old sister-in-law, Christa Yingling, born in January of 1880 in Ohio, and three servants: Lillian Wilcox, Mrs. Dora James, and E. H. Naghter. In 1906, Mr. Geddes relocated to Sylacauga, in Talladega County, Alabama, where he worked as an overseer. He died two years later of cardiac congestion on 22 June 1908 in Sylacauga. His death certificate gives a previous residenceAdrian, Michiganas his birthplace. However, an obituary in his wife’s hometown of Newcomerstown, Ohio, states that Clifton T. Geddes was born 14 July 1866 in Clifton Springs, New York. The same death date and place recorded on his Alabama death certificate also appears in his Ohio obituary. Survivors included his wife, the former Flora Luelle Yingling, and two sons, Norman Geddes (“here with Grandparents”) and Dudley Geddes (“with his mother at Ann Arbor, Michigan”). Clifton T. Geddes and Lulu Yingling had married in Tuscarawas County on 2 March 1892, and it appears she chose to return to that county to be near her family.
The 1910 census shows Lulu Geddes, a forty-one year-old widowed teacher, and sixteen year-old son Norman Geddes, rented a dwelling at 101 East Avenue in Goshen Township, in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Meanwhile, younger son Dudley C. Geddes, age twelve, is found in Oxford Township, same county, in the household of his grandparents, Malancthon Yingling, a sixty-four year-old grocer, and Cathrine, age sixty-one, born in Ohio to German parents. Both of Mr. Yingling’s parents were Maryland natives. The Yinglings had been married forty-three years, and she was the mother of five children, four of whom were living. Catharine Yingling died on 19 May 1910. Her death certificate states that she, a Newcomerstown housewife, died at age sixty-one years, six months and nine days. She was born in Ohio to Adam Haller and the former Catharine Mask.
Norman Melancton Bel Geddes died in New York on 9 May 1958. Within the last fourteen years of his life, he had married twice more; his third marriage was in New York City to Anne Howe Hilliard on 20 December 1944, and his fourth wedding was in Jamaica on 7 June 1953 to Edith Lutyens. A noted theatrical costume designer and producer, the Belgian-born Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes survived her husband by nearly fifty years. She died in New York at age ninety-five on 16 August 2002. Joan Bel Geddes, an author, married Barry Ulanov on 16 December 1939. They divorced in 1968.
Actress Barbara Bel Geddeslike her father and sisteris an author. She also inherited her father’s artistic ability, having illustrated children’s books and designed greeting cards. The award-winning actress married (1) Carl Schreuer on 24 January 1944, and they had one daughter, Susan Schreuer. They couple later divorced, and she married (2) Windsor Lewis on 15 April 1951. She and her second husband had one daughter, Betsy Lewis.
Barbara Bel Geddes died of lung cancer on 8 August 2005 at her home in Northeast Harbor, Maine. The actress was eighty-two.