The Story of Sherwood Anderson and Valenti Angelo

By Ray Lewis White

On March 11, 1932, Sherwood Anderson, fifty-five, left his rented room in Marion, Virginia, to begin another of the lecture tours by which he supported himself whenever his writings failed to sustain his modest needs. The author of Winesburg, Ohio (1919), The Triumph of the Egg (1921), and Horses and Men (1923) was still famous enough to draw to his lectures sufficient paying listeners to keep his tours profitable to himself and to his lecture agent; but Anderson dreaded the fatigue of extended train travel and the difficulty of lecturing enthusiastically before social clubs (especially women’s clubs) and academic audiences unresponsive to his increasingly revolutionary political concerns as the Great Depression of 1929 more and more seriously devastated America’s economically disadvantaged.

Having earlier in 1932 lectured in New York City and in Washington, D.C., Anderson on this western tour would travel thousands of miles and lecture in several cities, among them Detroit, Chicago, Evansville, Urbana, Tucson, Los Angeles, Portland, and Salt Lake City. Occasionally he would lecture more than once in a city; and in Los Angeles he would lecture to several groups, often speaking more than once each day. Then, defeated by his overwork in Los Angeles and depressed by his dislike of that plastic and meretricious city, Anderson on April 9 made his way north to San Francisco.

Sherwood Anderson’s 1932 stay in San Francisco, from April 9 through May 14, would prove to be among the happiest experiences of his life, for in San Francisco Anderson found a beautiful and exotic city, he met people friendly to the arts and to individualism tempered by social concern, and he found reunion with his fiancee and renewal of their secret love. For since 1929 Sherwood Anderson, yet legally tied to his third wife, had been in love with another woman — with a career social worker for the YWCA, a woman from a prominent family in Marion, Virginia, one who had returned the older writer’s love and had led him into sharing through his speeches and writings the radical economic concerns that she held. But, because Eleanor Copenhaver’s demanding research work in San Francisco for the YWCA involved a survey of the employed and unemployed working women of the area and because the YWCA was, despite its economic liberalism, a morally conservative organization, Eleanor had to be discreet in her travels and her meetings with Sherwood, for her employers could fire her for such immoral conduct as having an affair with a married man who was several years her senior and considered by the public to be religiously questionable and politically extremist.
In San Francisco, while Eleanor Copenhaver worked at her labor statistics, Sherwood Anderson enjoyed wandering over the lovely city and the Bay area; and he enjoyed meeting liberal writers, lawyers, newspaper editors, artists, and Bohemians. But his closest friendship in San Francisco developed with the booksellers and fine printers Leon Gelber and Theodore M. Lilienthal, who had in 1925 as The Lantern Press published Anderson’s small book The Modern Writer; and on April 25, 1932, Gelber and Lilienthal introduced Anderson to a young book illustrator and designer whom Anderson, always eager to meet young artists whose work and manner pleased him, cultivated over the rest of his stay in San Francisco.

The young artist whom Anderson met was Valenti Angelo, who at their first meeting told Anderson his life-story — of birth in 1896 in Tuscany; of his father’s disappearance to hunt for wealth in Brazil; of his sudden reappearance with money to bring his family to America in 1905; of their settling in Antioch, California, a town where young Valenti, though quite poor, became enamored of beautiful books and fine printing; of his onerous work in various factories in California; of his move to San Francisco to work in hotels and bakeries while absorbing the culture of the city; of his establishing a studio where he could learn to paint; and of his need to support himself through photo-engraving and, eventually, book design. In 1926, Angelo had met and begun working for Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, printers of fine books in San Francisco; and over the next six years the artist had designed for the Grabhorn brothers more than forty books and many broadsides and ephemera; and it was toward the end of his Grabhorn Press period that Angelo met and came to be influenced by Sherwood Anderson.

So much impressed was Anderson with the personality and art of Angelo that the writer at first introduction bought from the young man a painting of a factory workman with wife and child and a distant factory, a painting that Anderson liked so much that he placed it before him in his San Francisco hotel room while he began writing a lengthy attack on fellow writers and other artists blind to economic injustice and political repression.

So much did Sherwood Anderson, repeatedly visiting Valenti Angelo to admire his work, come to enjoy the art pieces on view that he commissioned the young artist to attempt in a medium new to him — in terra-cotta — a bust of Eleanor Copenhaver, his beloved, a busy woman who was yet able to find time in her work and her affair with Anderson to pose, reluctantly, several times at the Valenti home, where she, a modest woman who preferred to work for the disadvantaged more than to indulge herself in any attention to her appearance, was understandably nervous about sessions with the sculptor and his family and friends, a sculptor who time and again had to rework his model busts to capture her evanescent beauty . . . all the while the watching Sherwood Anderson longed to dip his own hands into the clay to sculpt the head and shoulders of his lover.

Not only did Anderson enjoy the admiration that he as a famous writer received from Valenti Angelo, but he strongly encouraged the young artist to devote himself, while still living by designing expensive books for buyers with rich tastes, to painting the subjects that he knew best and should most sympathize with — the workers in American factories who were more worthy of attention, Anderson believed, than landscapes or portraits or abstract designs. Whether Angelo had already by the spring of 1932 decided to leave book design to concentrate on his painting is unclear; but, already concerned with painting the factory workers and their families among whom he had lived, Angelo took Sherwood Anderson’s advice and followed that advice after Anderson had to leave San Francisco, on May 15, 1932, with the bust of Eleanor Copenhaver yet to be finished and fired and shipped to her family home in Marion, Virginia.

Although Valenti Angelo shipped to the east on May 31, 1932, what he called his terra-cotta “portrait” of Eleanor, the work for some reason did not reach Anderson and the Copenhaver family in Virginia until August 14, a delay which caused anxiety to the young sculptor who was still following in San Francisco Sherwood Anderson’s advice to paint mostly factory scenes. Impressed with the finished bust except for some details of the mouth, Anderson inexcusably did not acknowledge receipt of the package from San Francisco until October 4, several weeks after Angelo had nerved himself to ask the busy writer to contribute a statement of appreciation for the catalog of an exhibit of the painter’s work, an exhibit to be held in the Vickery Atkins and Torrey gallery in San Francisco. With less grace than could be desired, Anderson on October 21 responded to photographs of several Angelo paintings sent to him by Leon Gelber; and the letter that Anderson mailed to Gelber became, if belatedly, the introduction for the Angelo exhibit, mounted from November 14 through December 3:

A Letter From Sherwood Anderson

I hear that Valenti Angelo is to have an exhibition of paintings and drawings in San Francisco and I am writing this letter to say how much I admire the man and his work.

I was in San Francisco last year and for some weeks lived there, putting the finishing touches on a novel, and it was at that time that I first saw Angelo’s work. I have very little money but immediately bought one of his paintings and carried it off to my room. It stayed with me while I worked there and I brought it home to hang over my desk. I found the painting very warm & living and as the months passed it has grown more alive. It represents very perfectly what good painting means to me. Valenti Angelo has been touched and moved by men at work. These builders & miners & makers he sees with his painter’s eyes, connecting them with skies and hills and trees. There is surely here a connection — man and nature — man in the modern world we are making.

To get back the dignity of our living again. This man Valenti creating that in paint. Valenti’s painting got me and, as you know, I did try to express my appreciation and my belief in the only sensible direct way we can express it now — by immediately buying one of his paintings.

I think there is power of feeling in these paintings & that the power goes out of them into a room and returns into them. I think we Americans need this kind of painting and this kind of painter. I think we need such paintings in our houses. I do. They are reaching for some lost dignity in man and, in reaching, help bring it back.

Sherwood Anderson

In generous response to Sherwood Anderson’s exhibit tribute, Valenti Angelo mailed the author, with his appreciation and compliments, The Girl with the Bird, a painting of a girl holding a canary, a picture that Anderson had earlier suggested be called, after one of his own stories, The Triumph of the Egg. Then, after several months of no correspondence with Anderson, Angelo on September 23, 1933, mailed the writer a catalog of his second exhibition in San Francisco, with the statement that he had in his painting turned substantially away from “industrial subjects” — the kind of subjects that Anderson had in the past spring so strongly encouraged the painter to devote himself to.

It is possible that Sherwood Anderson and Valenti Angelo met again, after San Francisco, for Angelo moved himself and his family to New York City late in 1933; and Sherwood Anderson and his new wife, Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, visited and worked in that city; but there are no records of a continuing friendship between the mutually admired and admiring artist and writer. Though intense, their fine association centered on a happy month in San Francisco in the spring of 1932.

Yet Valenti Angelo did maintain until his death in 1982 a good memory of Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson. When Angelo learned in 1975 of the forming of the Sherwood Anderson Society, he wrote Eleanor from his home back in San Francisco that “Sherwood should be remembered among the greats of America” and that “I often think of our meeting and the modeling of your portrait. That was a long, long time ago. . . .”