Grant Wood Comes to Book Club
January 24, 2014 2 Comments
It began at book club.
The Salisbury House Young Professionals routinely hosts this event every couple of months. Literature collected by Carl and Edith Weeks, still housed in the magnificent library today, provide inspiration for the books chosen for discussion. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920) was the pick for January 2014. The selection was particularly apt, as the Weekses purchased several Lewis works over the years, including the 1937 Limited Editions Club publication of Main Street illustrated by Grant Wood.
Following a rousing discussion of both Lewis’ and Wood’s work in Main Street, your correspondent wondered: how else did Wood’s life and work intersect with the story of the Weeks family?
What we found is pretty cool.
First, the Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of Main Street is itself a treasure. Even if one picked up the book without noticing the Wood references on the cover and frontispiece, his familiar style is immediately apparent in the illustrations. Wood’s signature appears in the book as well.
This edition of Main Street, published in 1937, appeared at a time when Wood was increasingly well-known in the national art scene. His first one-man exhibitions took place two years earlier, in Chicago during February and March of 1935, followed by his Feragil Gallery show in New York.
Prior to the opening of the Chicago exhibit, however, Wood attended a January 1935 lecture in Iowa City by fellow regional artist Thomas Hart Benton (R. Tripp Evans’ Grant Wood: A Life details both the visit and the interaction between the two artists). The two men then traveled to Des Moines where they jointly addressed the Des Moines Women’s Club.
Wood spoke first, followed by Benton. A Des Moines Register reporter covering the lecture remarked upon both men’s appearance. “The soft speech of Wood clashes obviously with the vigorous and rough, though exact, words of Benton,” wrote Register journalist Gordon Gammack. “The latter, as he did Saturday, is the kind of person who can turn abruptly to a lady who has interrupted him and say ‘damn it…’ without being impolite.”
It must have been an entertaining evening.
The Register also included a photograph of Benton, Wood, and the man whose hospitality they had both enjoyed earlier that afternoon: Carl Weeks. A photograph (grainy and unfocused, sadly) of the three men accompanied the article. Benton was seated, with Wood and Weeks flanking his right and left.
It’s not clear whether or not Woods and Weeks had met before January 1935. Thomas Hart Benton and Carl Weeks, though, knew each other. One of Carl’s grandsons, Cooper Weeks – who himself lived in the same neighborhood as the Bentons in Kansas City and knew them well – remembered hearing his grandfather talk about Benton, and vice versa. Cooper recalled that Benton credited Carl with one of the first big sales of his career, a $500 purchase of an early Benton work that remains in Cooper’s family today.
As for Grant Wood and Carl Weeks, we do know that they kept in touch for a time. Not long after this Des Moines rendezvous, Wood traveled to Chicago for the opening of his first significant one-man exhibition at Lakeside Press Galleries. Our records indicate that Carl visited him in the Windy City. Indeed, their meeting occurred in the midst of a critical moment in Wood’s life: his courtship of and marriage to Sara Sherman Maxon.
An onionskin copy of correspondence from Weeks to Woods, pictured below, was dated March 11, 1935. Nine days earlier, as Evans’ biography recounts, “Wood’s neighbors read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancee was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance.”
Weeks’ letter also reflects the surprise commonly elicited by news of the marriage (though he includes none of the misgivings typical among many of Woods’ close friends upon hearing of the nuptials).
To have been a fly on the wall when Carl Weeks “butt[ed] in on something” between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon!
Wood and Weeks remained friendly in the months following his marriage to Sara. Another letter from Carl to Grant in May of 1935 suggests that the two planned, at some point, to meet again.
“Taliesin” almost certainly referred to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous property in Wisconsin. Did Weeks and Wood ever visit Wright’s estate together? Unfortunately, the answer to that question continues to elude us. Still, the confluence in the lives of Carl Weeks and Grant Wood, occurring as it did in the spring and summer of 1935, provides a window into a deeply consequential time in Wood’s life.
The union between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon was not destined for “great happiness,” as Carl wished for them. Their fraught marriage ended in 1939. Indeed, Wood famously enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara.
Salisbury House’s Grant Wood-related objects have stories to tell, like so many of our museum’s treasures. Our collections provide avenues for explorations of Picasso, The Book of Mormon, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and many, many more.
Our next book club, which will be held in March, focuses on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Is there a connection, one may well wonder, between Salisbury House’s holdings and this master of twentieth-century letters?
Yes. D.H. Lawrence is coming to book club.