Salisbury House, 1935: Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, & Carl Weeks

On a January afternoon over eighty years ago, two celebrated American artists visited Des Moines as guests of Carl Weeks.

Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, increasingly famous for their Regionalist art, lectured at Hoyt Sherman Place as guests of the Des Moines Women’s Club in the winter of 1935. The Des Moines Register covered the event and noted that, “Appearing in a gray suit in need of pressing and assuming a nonchalant, slouchy stance with hands in trouser pockets, Benton…launched into a detailed explanation of the development of art through the various ages.”

Carl_Grant_Thomas_smaller
A newspaper clipping from The Des Moines Register picturing Thomas H. Benton seated in the middle with Grant Wood on the left and Carl Weeks on the right.

Next, the artists motored several blocks to Salisbury House. Carl Weeks, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton were photographed together in the Library at Salisbury House. All three appeared to be having a grand time!

We can’t say for certain if Wood and Hart Benton stayed the night at Salisbury House (it seems likely.) However, we do feel confident that Carl and Edith would have entertained their guests in fine style.

The Weekses acquired a Benton painting while they lived at Salisbury House. This work was later gifted to the family of Hud Weeks, Carl’s third son. To the best of our knowledge, the Weeks family did not own an original Grant Wood painting…but they’ve got an amazing story!

Grapes of Wrath title page

The title page of a 1940 edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath published by the Limited Editions Club and illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton, Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

Main Street illustrated by Grant Wood

An illustration by Grant Wood from a 1937 edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street published by the Limited Editions Club, Salisbury House Permanent Collection.

 

Books illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood from the Salisbury House Permanent Collection can be seen on display in the Library during a regular guided tour of Salisbury House through January 28, 2018.

 

 

Satchmo at Salisbury House

Legends about Salisbury House abound. Lately, we’ve been thinking about one in particular: the oft-told story that Louis Armstrong, the giant of twentieth-century jazz, once stayed at Salisbury House after a 1949 performance in Des Moines. Satchmo is at the forefront of our minds these days, as this summer marks the return of a fan-favorite event at Salisbury House. Our Louis Armstrong birthday celebration is back!

picLouisBdayCake

http://louisarmstronghouse.org/news/article.php?Happy-Birthday-Louis-Armstrong-102

We have two days of festivities planned. The first, hosted by the Salisbury House Young Professionals, will take place on Saturday night (August 2). Young folks (21-35) who want to partake in A Hot Piece of Brass are welcome to attend. On Sunday (August 3), we’re throwing open the doors of Salisbury House to all visitors, and two bands will be playing on the south terrace throughout the afternoon. A $15 ticket gains you entrance to the House and to the entertainment for this Louis Armstrong Birthday Bash.

Aside from all the merriment, your correspondent wondered: how accurately can we trace the legend of Louis Armstrong’s visit to Salisbury House in 1949? To be sure, an abundance of anecdotal sources indicate that the jazz great visited and/or stayed at the Weekses’ home. However, can the story be confirmed via archival sources? Might a stray newspaper article or two trace Louis’ path from a gig in Iowa to the Great Hall of Salisbury House?

Certainly, Satchmo had a long history in the Hawkeye State. As early as the 1920s, he played in a band on a Mississippi riverboat with several ports of call in Iowa. The the steamers would turn around in Davenport to head back south, and Armstrong recalled playing a variety of Iowa towns during those days. It was also during this period of Armstrong’s life, according to some accounts, that he met Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary trumpeter from Davenport.

Armstrong continued to toured widely in the 1930s, and he also appeared in several films. By the 1940s, his touring dates continued to include Iowa.

On August 1, 1940, the northern Iowa Milford Mail  ran a piece about the performances slated for the upcoming Iowa State Fair. Louis Armstrong and his band, among other performers, were booked to play on August 28, 1940 as part of the fair’s “swing festival.”

Louis at State Fair 1940

Three years later, Armstrong performed at another Iowa landmark. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, hosted the “Trumpet King of Swing,” as reported in Mason City Globe-Gazette on July 24, 1943.

The Surf 1943

In addition to these well-known Iowa venues, Armstrong played smaller towns and concerts halls as well. In July 1949, the Waterloo Sunday Courier reported that the jazz legend was slated to play at the Marcon Ballroom, located just south of Iowa Falls.

Marcon IA perfomance 1949

So: the question remains. In the midst of Armstrong’s semi-regular visits around the the state, where did Salisbury House fit into this story? The (partial) answer appeared in a file saved in a Salisbury House staff computer folder.  According to this piece – which was likely printed in the Des Moines Register  – Armstrong and his band were invited to Salisbury House by Evert “Hud” Weeks, following a performance at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.

While this electronic clipping lacks any firm identifiers in terms of printing date or source, it does seem to settle the question. Yes! Louis Armstrong did, in fact, visit Salisbury House.

armstrong_cropped

Still, there’s more to the Louis Armstrong legend as it has come down to us over the years. Some folks say that the Weekses invited Armstrong to stay overnight at Salisbury House because racist policies at local hotels barred people of color. However, no archival source are currently at hand to prove this story. If this story was true, perhaps it would have been included in the above article as well.

Satchmo_Finland 1949Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, & Barney Bigard. Helinski, Finland, 1949.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong#mediaviewer/File:Satchmo_Messuhallissa.jpg

We do know that this 1949 visit to Des Moineis was not Satchmo’s last visit to the state. In 1954, for example, Armstrong played the Lake Robbins Ballroom in Woodward, Iowa. He then stayed the night at the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. The hotel, still in operation today, memorializes the musician’s visit in their Louis Armstrong Suite.

Louis Armstrong died in 1971, but his legacy remains strong today. We at Salisbury House are lucky enough to claim a connection to this American legend. Come out and celebrate with us this weekend!