When Groucho Marx wondered if a joke was too sophisticated, he would ask his brothers, Whatll this mean to the barber in Peru? The comedian wasnt referring to the South American nation: he meant Peru, Indianahis notion of Hick Town, U.S.A. But that Peru turned out to be a most inappropriate choice. Unbeknownst to Groucho, it was the birthplace of New York Citys most urbane resident: Cole Albert Porter.
Born in 1891, Cole Porter was the only surviving child of pharmacist Samuel Porter and Catherine Kate Cole. The family never worried about making ends meet. Coles maternal grandfather, real-estate speculator and businessman James Omar Cole, was the wealthiest man in Indiana, and his imperious manner showed it. Little Cole, cosseted from birth, flourished in a home dominated by his humorless grandfather and his ambitious mother. His father seems mostly a cipher in his life.
Kate made sure her son had every advantage available to a small-town child, including music lessons. The instruction wasnt wasted: by six, the little southpaw could play complicated piano and violin solos; by ten, he wrote the music and lyrics of his first number, Song of the Birds. Mama, convinced she had produced a wunderkind, arranged for Cole to play piano and violin concerts in and around Peru. She lopped a year off his age to make him seem even more prodigious to credulous Hoosiers.
Her aspirations exacted a high price. Cole became withdrawn and unpopular. Other children didnt mix much with Cole, recalled a neighbor. His mother dressed him up like Lord Fauntleroy and other children made fun of him. Cole was very shy as a boy. Ironically, by the time the boy had overcome his shyness and learned to entertain an audience, it became clear that he didnt possess the right stuff for Carnegie Hall. As the ovations ebbedthere were other, more gifted young musicians in Indianadoting Kate at last conceded that her son would have to pursue another line of work.
In the early twentieth century, the wealthy sent their sons east to be educated, and soon after his 14th birthday in 1905, the slender, undersize Porter enrolled in elite Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. The schools dean, a Dr. Abercrombie, was famous for his aphorisms: Democracy is not a leveling down, but a leveling up, for example, and A gentleman never eats. He breakfasts, he lunches, he dines, but he never eats. Abercrombie, familiar with grand opera and the popular songs of the day, taught Porter an important music lesson. Words and music, he advised, must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one.
The formerly shy boy also began to exhibit a powerful charm. In his senior year, Porter chastely courted Beulah Mae Singer, who remembered him years later as attractive, even though he wasnt what you could call handsome. In fact, he moved like a frisky monkey and looked like a solemn bullfrog with slightly buggy eyes, she recalled. But Porter captured her heart by sheer force of personality.
That force remained with him when he entered Yale in 1910. At first, some of his classmates found him off-putting. Gerald Murphy, later a friend of F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the subject of the bestselling Living Well Is the Best Revenge, remembered meeting the new Eli. Sitting at the piano was a little boy from Peru, Indiana, in a checkered suit and a salmon tie, looking just like a Westerner dressed up for the East. Porter did not fit easily into the social mold of a Yale man, Murphy dryly added. But Murphy soon found himself won over by the pianist, as was almost everyone who met him. Porters seemingly limitless verve was the source of his charm. I am the most enthusiastic person in the world, he liked to say. I like everything as long as its different. By different, he meant new, offbeat, freshand a sexual preference that diverged from the classic image of the Yale man.
Coles Yale years were musical. He sang in the Whiffenpoofs, led the glee club, created class musicals, and came up with rallying cries for the football team. Two of his cheerleading exhortationsBingo Eli Yale and Bulldog (Bulldog! Bow wow wow!)are sung to this day. He also penned in 1913 the first of his list songs. As I Love You presented a lovers past conquests and present darling:
In his senior year, Porter toured America with the glee club, and his original songsalmost all of them funnywon rave reviews. A Cincinnati paper wrote: Cole Porter appeared in the program but once, but when the audience had him there they wouldnt let him go until his stock of 10 or 12 encores was exhausted. Serious music and rah-rah songs were all very well, but it was humor that won the big applause, Porter now realized. Comedy, almost unknown in his stern childhood home in Peru, was the most desirable asset an entertainer could possess. Be a clown, he later observed: All the world loves a clown./ Show em tricks, tell em jokes/ And youll only stop with top folks.
Yet if Cole Porter became a joke teller, he was a sophisticated one. Throughout his Yale years, he kept scribbling in notebooks, now in his alma maters custody. One entry examined Lord Byron, whose libertine life and poetic license Porter clearly admired. He was free to change his mood, wrote Porter, from flippancy to poetry, from beauty to obscenity. Porters music would soon cover a comparably expansive range of human emotions, always with Byrons urbanity and often with his flamboyant, daredevil rhymes.
The wildly successful Yale Glee Club tour introduced Porters dual performing persona: a vaudevillian who could bring down the house, and an elegant who could amuse because he wanted to, not because he had to. Ever afterward he described himself as a cross between Eddie Cantor and the Duke of Windsor.
After graduation, Porter, at his fathers urging, entered Harvard Law School. A fellow student recalled the epochal day the professor called on Porter to discuss a landmark case. Porter obviously hadnt prepared. The prof leaned over his desk and very superciliously said, Mr. Porter, why dont you learn to play the fiddle? and Cole Porter got up, walked out of the class and never went back to Harvard Law School. He didnt walk far, however: he transferred to Harvards School of Music. Looking back, Porter observed that if older and wiser men hadnt been so sure I would never become a judge in lawI might never have become such a good judge in other things.
By 1915, Porters mother, acknowledging that he would never have his name engraved on a legal firms letterhead, urged him to try his hand at songwriting. Promptly exchanging New England for New York, he managed to sell a few numbers for a Junior League show. He enthusiastically wrote home: Tell granddad [that producer] Lew Fields gave me $50 for each song I sold him, and four cents on each copy.
The following year, Porter found a backer for his Broadway debut, See America First. What would be a long love affair between Cole Porter and New York City got off to a rocky start: See America Firsta derivative, Gilbert & Sullivanstyle musical comedy, according to Robert Kimball, who has reconstructed the work from fragments and scattered reportsflopped ignominiously. Savaged by critics, the show closed after 15 performances, mortifying Porter. As they dismantled the scenery and trucked it out of the stage alley, he later recalled, I honestly believed I was disgraced for the rest of my life.
By then, the guns of August had fired, and World War I provided Porter with an excuse to leave town. Porter encouraged the legend that he had joined the French Foreign Legion during the war. In truth, he worked for an American relief organization, visited towns ravaged by the Germans, and eventually joined the American Expeditionary Forces, quartered in Paris (though he saw no battle).
After the armistice, Porter stayed on in the City of Light, taking an occasional class in composition, writing an occasional ballad, amusing acquaintances and friends with occasional performances, and moving with the haute monde. Novelist Michael Arlen, another expatriate, wrote a caricature of Porter in 1919. Every morning at half-past seven Cole Porter leaps lightly out of bed and having said his prayers, arranges himself in a riding habit. Then, having written a song or two, he will appear at the stroke of half-past twelve at the Ritz, where leaning in a manly way on the bar, he will say Champagne cocktail, please. Had a marvelous ride this morning. That statement gives him strength and confidence on which to suffer this, our life, until ten minutes past three in the afternoon when he will fall into a childlike sleep.
Porter was adrift. But the same year Arlen poked fun at him, Porter met someone who would change his life forever and help him find direction: Linda Lee Thomas, an affluent divorcée several years his senior. Within three months, they announced their engagement. Distant relatives and acquaintances beamed on this union of wealth and wit. Insiders scratched their heads: they knew that Porter was homosexual. He had kept his liaisons secret at Yale, but several undergrads knew the nature of his friendship with Monty Woolley, a drama instructor and later a celebrated character actor. During Porters senior year, the two men would cruise together, picking up sailors. According to one story, a seaman spotted them in their car and inquired, Are you guys fags? Replied Woolley, Now that the preliminaries are over, why dont you get in and we can discuss the financial details.
Nevertheless, the marriage took. Lindas first husband, Edward Thomas, had abused her. (An automobile enthusiast, notes biographer William McBrien, Thomas had the distinction of being the first American to kill someone in an automobile accident.) Linda wanted no part of marriage as she had known it. As long as her second husband kept his trysts private and emotionally uninvolving, she was willing to look the other way. For his part, Porter tried never to embarrass his chic, blue-blooded wifethough he stepped over the line more than once. Of greater importance to Linda and to Cole was his songwriter vocation. Would he recover from his Broadway failure or would he go on squandering his life in Europes spas and boîtes, just another bon vivant?
He certainly would have the means to squander his life away. On a visit to Manhattan in 1923, Porter learned that his wealthy grandfather had just died, at 94. I was not mentioned in Grandfathers will, Porter later noted. But he left my mother over two million dollars and she generously gave me half of itwith the remark that she wanted me to feel completely independent. A few years later, the will gave Porters mother $2 million more, and she again gave her only son half.
Clearly, Porter agreed with Somerset Maughams aperçu: Money is like a sixth sense, without which one cannot make use of the other five. He proceeded to live a luxurious, but not totally indulgent, life. While he partied in Europe, he continued to learn his craft, and he entertained musicians others would not. Impresario Boris Kochno-Diaghilev grumbled to a friend: The whole of Venice is up in arms against Cole Porter because of his jazz and his Negroes. They are teaching the Charleston on the Lido Beach! Its dreadful!
With his wifes encouragement, Porter gradually edged back into show business, writing songs that announced the arrival of a new and formidable talent. Indeed, one song caught the spirit of Noel Cowards bittersweet plays so well that Noel flattered Cole by writing a parody, gently poking fun at their shared homosexuality. The Porter version:
Werent we fools to lose each other?
The Coward sendup:
Werent we fools to lose each other?
New York audiences got an inkling of the Cole to come in Paris, a lighthearted revue that opened in 1928 at Irving Berlins Music Box Theater and featured a throwaway number called Lets Do It. With this list song, Porter made double entendre an art all his own:
Romantic sponges, they say, do it
But it was with the 1929 opening of Fifty Million Frenchmen at the Lyric Theater that Porter really arrived. Not all the reviews were positivethe Crash had just occurred, and many found insouciance unseemly. Even so, two endorsements generated long lines at the box office: The words and music leap lightfooted from Cole PorterNew York Times; The best musical comedy I have seen in yearsIrving Berlin.
The musicals freewheeling plot about an American in Paris proved as insubstantial as a soap bubble. One song, however, became a classic. Years before, the impresario Billy Rose had studied the lyrics of popular songs and found that the oo soundas in June, moon, and spoonshowed up in more than half the hits. Inspired, he concocted the novelty number Barney Google, with the goo-googoogly Eyes and saw it rise to the top of the charts in 1923. The lesson wasnt lost on Porter. But his song You Do Something to Me demonstrates the difference between the shrewd craftsman and the authentic poet. For Porter did more than repeat an agreeable sound; he made it an incantation in E flat:
Let me live neath your spell
Porter wrapped the words in a seductive tune that never wearies listeners. Such elusive, unforgettable melodies would be a hallmark of his style.
After Fifty Million Frenchmen came a flood of shows and songs that definitively established Porters reputation as a musical genius. The time was right for his brand of urbane intelligence. This was an era of smartening up, not dumbing down. In Manhattan, The New Yorker and Time were invigorating journalism with what H. L. Mencken called the American Language. As if to defy the Depression, newspapers put a premium on cleverness, challenging readers with ballades and triolets, rhyming versions of operas, travelogues in verse. Cosmopolitans thirsted for culture; they wanted to know more tomorrow than they did yesterday. It was a time when the skyline of New York was the national expression of optimismwhen the breadlines lengthened, but musicals were elegant; when booze was forbidden, hence twice as intoxicating; when the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center were going up and everyone felt the way Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway did when they drove from Manhattan and Nick observed: The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
To produce great popular art, you need a gifted artist, a receptive audience, and a high state of civilization. Cole Porters New York had all three. In his words and music, Porter distilled the citys striving spirit and its collective intelligence. As John Updike explains: Wit of a particularly literary sort lay behind Cole Porters sophisticated references and outrageous rhymestrickery/ liquor we, throws a/ sub rosa, presto/ West, oh, Siena/ then a. His listeners hung onto every syllable.
But there was something else they hung onto, too, something darker and more provocative. In The New Yorkers, Porter dared to write a hit song about a prostitute in the clinical manner of a naturalistic novel. One can visualize the world-weary demimondaine, several steps ahead of her client, her seamed stockings illuminated by a bare light bulb:
When the only sound in the empty street
Porter balanced the dark Love for Sale with a song that indulgently celebrated the city of skyscrapers and speakeasies, quarts and all.
I like the city air, I like to drink of it,
Theater people now realized that the amusing little chap at the keyboard was no dilettante; Cole Porter was changing the course of American popular song. Take, as another example, Night and Day, introduced in 1932 by the young Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorceegay, in those benighted days, meaning blithe. The melody, as fellow songwriter Alec Wilder remarked, is so beautifully fashioned it may, indeed, have been preceded by a blueprint. The words expressed a carnality rarely found in serious odes of the period, let alone in popular song. Ring Lardner, a close student of popular culture, wrote that with Night and Day Mr. Porter makes a monkey of his contemporaries, and he does it with one couplet
Night and day under the hide of me
Admiration didnt stop Lardner from crafting several parodies, including Night and day under the bark of me/ Theres an, Oh, such a mob of microbes making a park of me and Night and day under my tegument/ Theres a voice telling me, Im he, the good little egg you meant. Porter himself must have been pleased with the song: he wore a pair of cufflinks with the moon enameled on one side, the sun on the othernight and day.
Following The Gay Divorcee, Porter outdid himselfand every other Broadway composerin the 1933 Broadway smash Anything Goes. The title song alone would have reinforced his reputation as the sexiest composer alive:
Good authors too who once knew better words
Porter explored other uncharted territory in his lyrics. Ticket holders at the Alvin Theater had barely settled into their seats when the previously verboten subject of drug use came up in a song:
Some get a kick from cocaine.
Porters innovations were formal too. Audacious internal rhymes became a signature: Flying on high with some guy in the sky is my i-dea of nothing to do. His use of triplets dazzled audiences then as they do today: I used to fall/ In love with all/ Those boys who maul/ Refined ladies/ But now I tell/ Each young gazelle/ To go to hell/ I mean Hades. So does his use of cadence: Like the drip, drip, drip of the raindrops when the summer shower is through / So a voice within me keeps repeating, YouYouYou, and caesura, lines dictated by the natural rhythm of the language: Most gentlemen dont like love, they just like to kick it around/ Most gentlemen dont like love, cause most gentlemen cant be profound. Perhaps the ultimate salute came not from audiences but anthologists: The Oxford Book of American Light Verse placed his works, sans music, alongside that of such masters as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Ogden Nash.
The nadir of the Depression, 1933, was a peak year in Porters career; it was also when he and Linda, after years of exile in Europe, set down deep roots in New York City, moving lock, stock, dachshund, cat, and two grand pianos into the 41st floor of the Waldorf Towers, their Gotham address for the rest of their lives. (When the dog and cat eventually died, the Porters replaced them with a pair of new felines: one named Anything; the other, Goes.) Ensconced at the Waldorf, Porter worked every day for hours; then he would present himself to the public as a bon vivant, regularly attending Manhattan society soirees and high-toned entertainments. The image he conveyed was of a man who could effortlessly dash off all 108 measures of Begin the Beguine between cocktail parties.
The cultivated image of the songwriter as epicure proved so convincing that it even outlasted the annus horribilis of 1937. Cole and Linda werent getting along by now; she was in France, mulling over divorce. Cole was horseback riding with friends at an Oyster Bay estate, when his high-strung mount, frightened by something in the woods, reared abruptly and fell over on its rider. The accident so severely damaged Porters legs that doctors wanted to amputate them. Word of the catastrophe reached Linda; she sent a wire forbidding the drastic operation and hastened to her husbands bedside. Only her intervention kept the physicians from carrying out their plans. From then on, there was no more talk of divorce.
Years before, Porter had written Dont Fence Me In, about a cowpoke for whom freedom was oxygen:
I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences,
Hobbles: Noun. Devices used to slow down or restrain an animal. The dreaded restraintscrutches and caneswere what Porter would face from now on, and he knew it.
In excruciating pain, Porter could easily have forsaken songwriting at this point: he had money in overplus, Lindas renewed dedication, an aerie in the town he adored. Yet that wasnt Cole Porters way. He was a gentleman; gentlemen do not give in to affliction. A friend reported that during his convalescence Porter took some 14 different kinds of narcotics and hypnotics and sedatives daily. And there was great fear that when he did get out of the hospital hed have to go on a cure. Instead, he kicked his habits, including an almost hourly belladonna pill, and got back to work.
Porter refused to become an invalid, working his way around the apartment by hanging on to the furniture, employing two canes when he had to walk outside, or, in difficult moments, getting one of his brawny menservants to carry him from room to room. Dramatist Bella Spewak, working with Porter on a show called Leave It to Me during this convalescence, offers a vivid image of the songsmith. He was, she wrote, small, dapper, with black velvet eyes and a ready, winsome smile. The crippled composer rose with the aid of crutches to meet us, she recalled. I dont want to give the impression that he just tossed off songs like My Heart Belongs to Daddy, for we knew better, but he certainly gave us that impression. And the tossing off, he would have you believe, came between and during bouts of pain.
By 1939, Porter felt well enough to visit Hollywood for a while. To him, spending time in the movie colony was like living on the moon, but he needed a lunar break. Among a half-dozen songs he penned for the Fred Astaire movie Broadway Melody of 1940, Porter sent a fresh love letter to his favorite New York thoroughfare:
Glorify Sixth Avenue
Returned to Manhattan, Porter submitted to more agonizing operations on his mangled legsthere would be some 35 in alland continued writing for old Broadway. His range remained wide. He could turn out sophisticated patter to equal anything of Noel Cowards. Here he imagines a New Yorker sardonically addressing his weekend hostess:
Thank you a lot,
And he could be as simple and affecting as Irving Berlin:
Youd be so nice to come home to,
The trouble, though, was that Cole Porter had become incapable of turning out a trademark Cole Porter song, with its inimitable mix of eroticism and esprit. Perhaps it was the continual surgeries, friends theorized, or World War II, with its shift of public taste to big-band jazz and novelty numbers; or perhaps he had simply lost his focus along with his looks. For, having appeared so youthful for so long, Porter now seemed older than his years, more gnome than sprite.
Though he showed flashes of the old brilliance, fashionable opinion increasingly considered him obsolete, a back number from a bygone era. Thats exactly how Warner Brothers depicted him in its fatuous 1946 biopic Night and Day. Cary Grant played Cole in jaunty, straight-as-a-string mode, producing hit songs with the facility of a man jingling change in his pockets. The film even showed Porter in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion, as gritty and gung-ho as a poilu. Critics derided it mercilessly.
Porter could hardly take the blame for Night and Dayit was about him, after all, not by him. But you couldnt say the same of Around the World in 80 Days. In 1946, Orson Welles got it into his head that the Jules Verne novel would make a musical extravaganza. He approached Porter, who responded with surprising enthusiasm. He called Welless project the kind of thing one dreams about but never quite dares to attempt. I want to do something different. Different it was. But not one Porter song made the hit parade; today all are forgotten. The show closed after just 75 performances.
A lesser talent would have called it quits, but Cole Porter wasnt finished yet. Late in 1947, two Broadway producers approached playwright Bella Spewak, looking for an experienced writer to modernize the Bards raucous comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Fondly remembering her earlier collaboration with Porter on Leave It to Me, she raised his name. The producers winced; the man may have been hot stuff in his time, but now he was washed up. She kept insisting that no one else had the gift for adapting the Bard to the modern idiom. Eventually, the producers gave in.
The rest is Broadway history. In Kiss Me Kate, Porters range really did seem Shakespearean. He wrote a ballad entirely in the subjunctive (Were Thine That Special Face), used Elizabethan inversions (Where Is the Life That Late I Led?), and fashioned refrains that became instant classics (Why Cant You Behave?; So in Love). Moreover, the specialty numbers werent just hilarious; they were profoundly literate. When poet W. H. Auden proclaimed Kiss Me Kate a greater work than Shrew, he had in mind songs like Brush Up Your Shakespeare:
With the wife of the British embessida
A Hollywood Reporter critic spoke for all his colleagues: King Cole has made a monkey out of the mourners. The champ is back again. Audiences agreed: Kate ran for more than 1,000 performances on the Main Stem and toured for the next decade. Saluted with a two-hour television special, Porter reflected, To a person who has talent, and is willing to work hard, Broadway is as friendly as Main Street in Peru, Indiana. Though Porters subsequent shows, Out of This World, Can-Can, and Silk Stockings, never quite equaled his greatest achievement, he kept at it, turning out melodies and rhymes that no one else could compose.
Perhaps Porter might have scaled the highest heights again, but in the mid-1950s, a series of catastrophes struck him. First came the death of Kate Cole, in 1952; two years later, he lost Linda. Ive had two great women in my life, he said shortly after Lindas death. My mother, who thought I had this talent, and my wife, who kept goading me along, in spite of the feeling that I couldnt appeal to the general public. In the end, the Porters arrangement was oddly but deeply affectionate: beyond all his walking instruments and aids, Linda had become his most reliable crutch.
In 1958, amputation was no longer avoidable. After visiting Porter, Noel Coward wrote a friend, It is a cruel decision to have to make and involves much sex vanity and many fears of being repellent. However, it is done at last and I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.
Coward couldnt have been more wrong. Porter lost the humor that had sustained him through the tribulations, began drinking hard, slid into melancholia, and never worked again. Every now and then he would dine with friends, but the conversation lacked spark and substance. It was sad seeing him so depressed, singer Ethel Merman said, knowing in your heart that he no longer wanted to live.
He did live on until 1964, when the combined effects of alcohol and pneumonia killed him. He died in Santa Monica, on another sojourn to the Coast. His body, flown back to Mount Hope Cemetery in Peru, Indiana, took its final resting place beside Lindas. The large and laudatory obituaries all observed that a giant had passed.
The greatest tribute, however, continues to come from Cole Porters hit-hungry audience. Almost four decades after his death, he remains one of the top three composers of American popular song (along with Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers). There is no statue of Cole Porter in his beloved New York, and no city site commemorates his achievement. Yet continual monuments keep his name before usonly three years ago, a widely praised revival of Kiss Me Kate had a successful run on Broadway, and more than 100 recordings of Porter songs are still in print, including Ella Fitzgeralds, Blossom Dearies, and Jerry Southerns definitive collections, and a best-selling tribute album, Red, Hot, & Blue, featuring U2, Iggy Pop, and other rock stars.
Should you doubt whether spirits haunt Manhattan, drop in to the Waldorfs Peacock Alley sometime, and listen to one of the performers playing Porters grand pianoa gift he bequeathed to the hotel. On a good night, you can imagine its original owner accompanying a chorus of fans as they sing their salute to the Master, from Anything Goes:
Youre the top!