By Daniel Frezza
When asked once if his songs would last, Cole Porter answered: “I never gave it a thought. . . . My enjoyment was in writing them” (Eells, George, The Life that Late He Led—A Biography of Cole Porter [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967] 305).
Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891, the son of Samuel Porter, a pharmacist who married the daughter of millionaire, James Omar Cole. Kate Porter and her father had competing ambitions for her son. Kate made sure he acquired social skills, including piano lessons and regular visits to Chicago for theatre- and opera-going. After grammar school, at Kate’s insistence, the young Cole attended Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. Her father paid for Porter’s education, expecting that his grandson would go into business or law. Kate had encouraged him to write songs, and he had a piano at Worcester where he often played and sang to his classmates. After graduating from Worcester, Porter entered Yale. There his composing flourished. He wrote and performed in shows for his fraternity and the Yale Dramatic Association. He estimated that in his four years there he wrote 300 songs (Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter [New York: Dial Press, 1977] 23). To please his grandfather, Porter entered Harvard Law School. He continued writing shows for Yale and after a year switched to studying music. About a year later he moved to New York.
Through his social contacts he met a producer and agent who placed several of his songs in musicals by Romberg and Kern. He had three shows produced between 1916 and 1922. None were memorable. When Richard Rodgers first heard Porter play some of his songs, he asked why he wasn’t writing for Broadway and was embarrassed to learn that two of Porter’s shows had made it to Broadway (McBrien, William [New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1999] 105). See America First had had fifteen performances; Hitchy-Koo of 1919, fifty-six performances; and Hitchy-Koo of 1922 closed in Philadelphia tryout (Schwartz, 274–76). Something of the dilettante clung for a time. A friend said that “he so feared failure that he pretended in the 1920s to be a playboy who incidentally wrote songs” (McBrien, 96). The second strong woman in Porter’s life helped change that.
Porter met wealthy divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, in Paris in 1918 and quickly became attracted. They had mutual friends, common interests, and a shared social position. She responded to his talent, charm, and irreverence; he to her looks, sophistication, and maturity (she was almost eight years older). They married in 1919. Given Linda’s worldliness, she must have been aware of Porter’s homosexuality but was willing to accept him on those terms. Linda’s first husband had been abusive, and Porter presented no threat to her on that count.
At Linda’s encouragement, Porter resumed music studies (briefly) and composed the jazz ballet, Within the Quota—his only extended orchestral work. She invited several famous authors to write an opera libretto for Porter to set to music, but got no takers. Porter finally established himself as a Broadway composer in 1928, with Paris. The New Yorker magazine reviewer wrote: “No one else now writing words and music knows so exactly the delicate balance between sense, rhyme, and tune” (McBrien, 120–121). An even bigger success wasFifty Million Frenchmen (1929). In 1931 the film version was released. Thereafter all of Porter’s Broadway hits were made into films.
Porter wrote “Night and Day” for Fred Astaire, who starred in Gay Divorce (1932) and in the 1934 film (retitled The Gay Divorcee). Porter didn’t at first recognize it as a potential hit, but it became one of ASCAP’s top ten money makers of all times (McBrien, 146). He commented in 1930, “Nobody can predict which tune will catch on with the public and which will not. . . . All a composer can do is write the melodies as he feels them and then hope for the best” (McBrien, 127).
It was Porter’s practice to tailor songs to a performer’s vocal range and style. For Anything Goes (1934), he identified Ethel Merman’s strongest notes and, since he wrote his own lyrics, made the key words in her songs coincide with those notes (Merman, Ethel and Eells, George, Merman [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978] 136). When a star had difficulty with a song, Porter usually replaced it with another. Occasionally he stood his ground. Nelson Eddy was uncomfortable with “In the Still of the Night” (for the film Rosalie).Confident that MGM head, Louis B. Mayer, would love it, Porter played it for him. The song stayed (Schwartz, 177).
Finding the Hollywood lifestyle and weather appealing, from 1935 on Porter divided his year between New York and Hollywood. Linda tolerated Hollywood for his sake. Gradually, work and socializing came between them, and Porter became less discreet about his sexual attachments. When he broke a promise to reform, Linda left for Paris (Schwartz, 176). She returned later that year (1937) immediately after Porter shattered both legs in a horse-back riding accident. Linda persuaded the doctors not to amputate though the prognosis was bleak, involving multiple operations with no guarantee of success and the prospect of chronic pain, which, indeed, Porter endured for the rest of his life (Schwartz, 179).
Porter soon resumed his customary work and social life, even visiting Machu Picchu on horseback. Between December 1939 and January 1944 he turned out five Broadway shows plus film scores (Schwartz, 195). The shows (among them DuBarry Was a Lady and Panama Hattie, both starring Merman) were successes, though critics’ complaints that Porter’s inspiration wasn’t up to its former level made him fear he had written himself out (Eells, p. 206–7). When playwright Bella Spewack approached Porter to write the score for Kiss Me, Kate(1948), he turned it down, feeling that his style wasn’t suited to a Shakespeare-based show. Spewack eventually convinced him, and the result was his biggest hit (1,077 performances) both at home and throughout Europe. It was considered “the perfect musical”—until, as Porter quipped, “along came a little thing called South Pacific” (Eells, 255). Depression over poor reviews for Can-Can (1953) was tempered somewhat by its box office success.
After years of suffering from emphysema, Linda died in 1954. Though often separated by illness and work, Linda and Cole were close, and her death affected him deeply. Fighting loneliness, he filled his days with work and socializing. Silk Stockings (1955) earned both good reviews and large audiences, but it was his final Broadway show; pain and poor health caused depression and eroded his inspiration. Aladdin (1958), written for television, was his final show. He hardly noticed its poor reception because chronic bone inflammation finally necessitated amputating his right leg. From then on until his death in 1964, he was frequently hospitalized. Nevertheless, he maintained much of his former routine, alternating living in New York and Hollywood, giving small elegant dinner parties, keeping up with professional interests. But he was often despondent. To cheer him up, his secretary played recordings of his shows. When the music ended, he would shake his head and say “How did I ever do it?” (Eells, 319). Partial answers include hard work, love of word play, willingness to revise—plus some special magic. Critic Walter Clemons wrote: “In a way no other songwriter of the period quite did, Porter created a world. . . . And it was a sexy place to be invited” (McBrien, 172).