We know the word “de-lovely” from a Cole Porter song and the title of a 2004 biopic of the legendary composer-lyricist.
In case you’ve ever wondered how it originated, THE LETTERS OF COLE PORTER will inform you.
In a missive to Variety editor Abel Green on May 25, 1945, Porter wrote of the time he, his wife Linda and Monty (THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) Wooley were approaching Rio de Janeiro at dawn.
“As we stood on the bow of the boat,” wrote Porter, “my exclamation was ‘It’s delightful!’ My wife followed with ‘It’s delicious!’ And Monty, in his happy state, cried ‘It’s de-lovely!’”
That’s just one of the smile-inducing moments in THE LETTERS OF COLE PORTER. The 662-page tome is another amazing accomplishment from musical theater savant extraordinaire Dominic McHugh. This time he’s collaborated with Cliff Eisen, who gets top billing.
Yet to both editors we must say “You’re the Top.”
Granted, the book includes plenty of Porter’s thank-you notes that don’t say much. Most begin “I can’t tell you …” before expressing gratitude or delight.
In contrast, we see how brave Porter was after the 1937 horse-riding accident that left his legs shattered, resulting in nearly two dozen operations and an eventual amputation. Most of his letters minimize what happened.
Best of all, this Man of Letters had plenty to relate about his musicals. Much correspondence went to Sam Stark, a jewelry dealer. Yet the many letters sent to him show that he was one of Porter’s favorite people.
Discovering that Porter signed his contract to do KISS ME, KATE on March 29, 1948 astonishes, for a mere 248 days later, the show opened in Philadelphia.
Bella Spewack had started the book without her husband and frequent collaborator Sam. He apparently made so many worthy suggestions that Porter insisted he get credit.
And Mr. Spewack took it.
Early contenders to play Lilli Vanessi included Marion Bell, whom you can hear on the BRIGADOON cast album; Carol Bruce (DO I HEAR A WALTZ?) and Ruth Warrick (IRENE). “But,” wrote Porter to Bella, “this Morison girl is the one.” Indeed, Patricia was.
Deciding on Fred Graham was harder. “There isn’t even an applicant,” he wrote Bella fewer than six months before the tryout. Luckily, Alfred Drake was found, and the cast album shows that he and Morison were certainly up to the task.
KISS ME, KATE was a smash; when it closed, only four book musicals had ever run longer. So for his next musical – the playfully mythological OUT OF THIS WORLD – he wrote to Stark “We are not interested in any new backers. We feel the backers of KMK should be given first chance and they are all fighting to get in.”
Oh, the best-laid plans of mice and musicals! Although Brooks Atkinson – the all-important reviewer for the Times — stated that
“Some of Mr. Porter’s songs are among the finest he has written and he has the singers who can do justice to them” (which the cast album proves), he also noted that “Although it is difficult to make sex a tiresome subject, OUT OF THIS WORLD has very nearly succeeded.”
Matters went wrong right from the start. Porter wrote to David Wayne in hopes that the actor would play the male lead. As saddened as he was when Wayne didn’t, he wrote to Stark that “I am brokenhearted” that Carol Channing opted to do GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES instead.
He then told Stark that he wasn’t happy with Dwight Taylor’s libretto and that Comden and Green would come in to fix it.
On a personal level, seldom does Porter confess his
homosexuality. In many more letters, he demonstrates that he and his wife Linda were very much in love – in their fashion, in their way. They lived on separate floors at the Waldorf and in separate rooms while traveling.
Yet we see how deep Linda’s love was when writing Porter in early 1949. After she’d heard Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza do selections from SOUTH PACIFIC on a radio show, she wrote “My goodness! How can either music or lyrics compare with yours?”
Porter gets in some drama criticism. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, he wrote to Bella Spewack, was “so ugly to look at.” (Perhaps, but have you ever heard its magnificent score?)
We see how many projects Porter turned down: MY SISTER EILEEN. (which became WONDERFUL TOWN and THE CAPTAIN’S PARADISE. (OH CAPTAIN!) as well as CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS, SEVENTH HEAVEN, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and TOVARICH, all of which reached Broadway with their original titles – and without Porter.
Considering that of those MY SISTER EILEEN was the only hit, Porter’s batting average on what to musicalize was pretty high. However, he may have made a mistake in 1953 when an on-the-rise choreographer wanted to direct and choreograph a revival of ANYTHING GOES. Wrote Porter to his lawyer, “I don’t believe any dance director is capable of directing a whole show, especially after my fatal experience with Agnes de Mille.”
So it didn’t happen, and that director-choreographer – Jerome Robbins – had to wait a year to direct, when he steered THE PAJAMA GAME to Tony-winning success. After he was signed for SILK STOCKINGS, Porter wrote to him to say “I can’t tell you how happy I am about this.”
(Yeah, but for how long? The editors tell us “Robbins was replaced.”)
Porter was born into money and remained a plutocrat all his life – and yet dozens of letters indicate that he was always worried that he wouldn’t have enough. To put that in perspective: when he heard that acquaintances had recently received a six-figure inheritance, he wrote to Stark “Who can live on a hundred grand?”
An inflation calculator reports that 100K then is $1,145,157 in today’s money. Most could get by with that, no?
Success allows elbow-rubbing with celebrities. Thus a letter to Noel Coward starts “Dear Noely.” (This was even before Coward wrote some lyrics for Porter’s “Siberia” in SILK STOCKINGS.) Many letters were exchanged between Porter and Irving Berlin. “‘Homework’ is delightful and unadulterated Berlin,” Porter wrote when he heard the score to MISS LIBERTY; “Anything I can do, you can do better,” Berlin wrote him after seeing KISS ME, KATE.
(On a less lofty note, Porter in a letter to Moss Hart mentions that Louella Parsons’ facelift was “a very bad job.”)
The editors also quote articles of the day. One from the Times has Porter calling distinguished critic George Jean Nathan “my good friend” before revealing his real opinion: Nathan was ill-equipped to judge music, he felt, adding “He knows it’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ only when he sees people standing up.”
There are letters from Madeline P. Smith, Porter’s private secretary from 1947 until his death. Before OUT OF THIS WORLD went to Philadelphia, she gave the Barclay Hotel a list of the twelve items Porter had to have: one pound of butter, two loaves of bread — and twenty-four cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
(Did Porter anticipate that the show’s problems would drive him to drink?)
One of Smith’s letters is the book’s final one. Eight days after Porter died on Oct. 15, 1964, she wrote his friend Jean Howard to say that for Porter, who’d been inactive for six years, that “the leg amputation was really the beginning of the end.”
Of Cole Porter’s life, yes; of his music, no. And now, thanks to Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, his letters live on, too.