Cole Porter

Composer of dozens of works for the American musical theatre, and of hundreds of standards now canonized in what is termed the “Great American Songbook,” Cole Porter (b. Peru, IN, June 9, 1891; d. Santa Monica, CA, October 15, 1964) is treasured for his verbal sophistication, ribaldry, and complexity as much as for his exceptional musical gifts. Among his best-known shows are Anything Goes (1934), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Can-Can (1953), Silk Stockings (1954), and High Society (1955), and among his wide-ranging songs are “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and Yale’s “Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow, wow, wow!” Cole Porter was one of the few popular composers of his generation for whom music and lyrics were one and inseparable, springing from his fertile genius hand in hand. J.O. Cole, the maternal grandfather of Cole Albert Porter, was the richest man in Indiana, a self-made coal and timber speculator who dominated the family of his daughter Kate. Cole’s father, Sam Porter, was a self-effacing pharmacist. An only child, Cole began music lessons under his mother’s watchful eye, studying the violin at the age of six and the piano at eight, practicing two hours a day. At ten he was writing an operetta, and soon his mother was having his works printed and sent to friends and family, with the date of his birth adjusted by two years or so to make him seem even more precocious. Still, grandfather Cole insisted the boy was to be a lawyer, and so he was sent to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. Graduating as class valedictorian in 1909, Porter entered Yale University. There he was extremely active musically and extremely popular socially, president of the Glee Club, a member of the Whiffenpoofs and Scroll-and-Key, voted “most entertaining” by his classmates, and still finding time to write 300 songs before graduation. In 1913 Porter went as planned to Harvard Law School (he roomed with Dean Acheson) but did not live up to expectations. He transferred briefly to the School of Arts and Sciences, but soon left for New York City to start a career in music. For a few years he continued to turn out musicals for performing groups at Yale. His first song to make it to Broadway, “Esmeralda,” was in the revue Hands Up in 1915, and he followed this modest success with a full-length show, See America First (1916). It closed after two weeks. Porter decided he could write songs just as well, and would feel a lot less depressed, in Paris. A charter member of the “lost generation,” Porter was living the good life, traveling through Europe, socializing with artists and expatriate intellectuals, when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Porter let it be known – and there is still some controversy about whether it is true – that he joined the French Foreign Legion and served in North Africa entertaining the troops. In fact he did receive a Croix de guerre from the French government, and the Museum of the Foreign Legion in Aubagne proudly displays his portrait to this day. Headquartered in a sumptuous Paris apartment with a closet full of miscellaneous military uniforms to suit his moods, Porter continued, between glitzy parties and desultory studies at the Schola Cantorum, to send witty songs to his agents in New York. Some of them showed up on Broadway in Hitchy-Koo of 1919, without making much of a stir. It would be another five years before Porter would be heard from again. In 1918, Cole Porter met Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy divorcée eight years his senior, who became his best friend and whom he married the next year. She had no illusions about his sexuality – he was known to have had many liaisons, of long and short duration, with men – and the arrangement suited them both well. It lasted, despite a separation of a few years in the 1930s, for thirty-four years, until her death. Her only pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The couple returned to New York in the ‘twenties, and some Porter songs surfaced in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1924, but it was some years before Cole Porter became a household name. His first big hit was “Let’s Do It,” from the 1928 musical Paris, followed by “You Do Something To Me” from the similarly Gallic-flavored Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) and “What Is This Thing Called Love” from Wake Up and Dream (1930). The stage was set for Porter’s most successful decade. The revue The New Yorkers (1930) offered up “Love For Sale,” a streetwalker’s lament viewed at the time as too risqué to be broadcast on the radio. Then Fred Astaire’s last stage show, Gay Divorce (1932) (the title of the 1934 film version was changed to The Gay Divorcée), featured what would become Porter’s signature tune, “Night and Day.” In 1934, the smash hit starring Ethel Merman, Anything Goes, poured out “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night,” and the consummate Porter “list” song – with double-entendre – “You’re the Top.” More great songs from lesser ’30s hits were “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Just One of Those Things,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “In the Still of the Night. Cole Porter musicals transferred nicely to film, and it was not long before the composer himself was resident in Hollywood. Anything Goes, again starring Merman as Reno Sweeney, was filmed in 1936, as was Born to Dance; Rosalie followed the next year. Porter continued to throw lavish parties and boast of celebrity friends like Elsa Maxwell, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Fanny Brice and Igor Stravinsky. Suddenly in October 1937 Cole Porter’s life was changed by a riding accident that left him crippled and in pain for the rest of his life. His horse slipped and fell, rolling its half-ton weight over Porter’s legs. According to his own account, he composed some of the lyrics to “At Long Last Love” while waiting several hours for medical attention. Doctors judged that his legs might both have to be amputated, but Porter staunchly refused. He underwent thirty-four surgeries over the next twenty years, and was even given electro-shock therapy. The main problem was not simply the compound fractures he had suffered, but a bacterial infection in the bones that would not allow them to heal. His wife Linda ended their separation and returned to his side. Despite constant pain and confinement to a wheelchair, in the next years Porter produced an average of two musicals annually: Leave It to Me! (1938) introduced Mary Martin and her signature song “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”; DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Let’s Face It! (1941), Something for the Boys (1943), and Mexican Hayride (1944) followed in rapid succession. In Hollywood Porter turned out scores for two Fred Astaire movies (Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich 1941). In 1945 a movie of Cole Porter’s life – thoroughly romanticized and sanitized –, Night and Day, starred Cary Grant as the composer and Alexis Smith as Linda. Then two flops, Seven Lively Arts (1944) and Around The World (1946), convinced some critics that Porter’s genius was waning. But his greatest triumph, Kiss Me, Kate (1948), was yet to come: the incomparable score (“Wunderbar,” “So In Love,” “We Open in Venice,” “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “I Hate Men,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “From This Moment On”) won four Tony Awards® for Porter, and a Best Musical for the production. Porter had three more major hits in the 1950s, Can-Can (1952), (“C’est Magnifique,” “It’s All Right with Me”), Silk Stockings (1955), (“All of You”), and the film High Society (1956) (“True Love”) with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. But the pain in his legs and the depression it brought about were catching up with him. His adored mother passed away in 1952; Linda died of emphysema two years later. He grew increasingly dependent upon alcohol and narcotics, which led to ulcers and partial removal of his stomach. Finally in 1958 his right leg had to be amputated, at which point he declared himself “half a man” and never wrote another song. He went into seclusion and suffered alone from bouts of pneumonia, bladder infections, and kidney stones before he died in California in 1964 of kidney failure. Cole Porter is buried in his home town, Peru, Indiana, between his wife and his father. A biography by William McBrien was published by Vintage Books in 1998, and another film biography only a little more faithful to the facts than Night and Day, De-Lovely, with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, came out in 2004.