Stories about Cole Porter’s life are often as creative as the songs he wrote. When he enrolled in prep school at the age of 14, his mother told the school that he was 12, perhaps to make him seem more precocious, as his biographer Charles Schwartz suggests. Fictions such as this followed Porter throughout his life. Most notorious, perhaps, was his claim that he served in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. Porter did spend part of the war in Paris—entertaining friends, writing songs, and working for a relief agency. According to Schwartz, no evidence places him near any military engagements.
Hollywood did little to dispel the Porter myths; Night and Day, a popular 1946 film biography starring Cary Grant as Porter, was, in the words of Schwartz, “a tissue of fabrications neatly wrapped in technicolor and Hollywood gloss and lavishly bound together by a bejeweled string of over a dozen Porter classics.” Porter found the fabrication amusing. “Considering the numerous fibs about himself that Cole had foisted on an unsuspecting public for decades,” allowed Schwartz, “one could hardly expect a Hollywood film biography to come any closer to the truth.”
It is clearly no fiction, however, that Cole Porter was one of the most influential and popular of American songwriters. He composed dozens of musical scores for the stage and screen, and his lyrics are considered the height of wit and finesse. Attested Didier Deutch of Pulse!, he “set new standards of invention and craftsmanship and forever changed popular songwriting.” He brought innovation and creativity to popular music, which had long been marked by formulas, and gave musical audiences something new as well. “At their best, Cole’s songs blended fresh, witty, urbane lyrics and highly singable melodies into a sparkling, irresistible combination. Cole’s lyrics in particular were models of ingenuity and sophistication. They ... helped to spell the downfall of the mundane June-moon-croon approach that had been prevalent in popular music for so long. Once the public had gotten to appreciate the special brand of genius that set Cole’s lyrics apart from those of his competition, it was largely unwilling to settle for the prosaic any longer.”
Although Porter spent his life in the world’s most glamorous cities, he was born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891. His father was a druggist, but his mother was the daughter of a self-made millionaire, and the young man grew up in luxury. His very indulgent mother saw to it that he was raised with social graces and refinement, which necessitated violin and piano lessons. She encouraged
For the Record…
Born Cole Albert Porter, June 9, 1891, in Peru, IN; died of pneumonia, October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, CA; buried in Peru, IN; son of Sam (a druggist) and Kate Cole Porter; married Linda Lee Thomas, 1919 (died May 20, 1954). Education: Studied music at Marion Conservatory, Worcester Academy, 1905-09, and Yale University, 1909-13; studied law and music at Harvard University, 1913-15; attended Schola Cantorum, Paris, 1920.
Composed music as a child; wrote songs for amateur shows in high school and college; first songs performed on Broadway in Hands Up, 1915; composed first Broadway score, See America First, 1916; began writing for films, 1929.
Awards: Honorary doctorate from Williams College, 1955; honorary doctor of humane letters from Yale University, 1960.
him to compose, self-publishing “Bobolink Waltz,” which Porter wrote when he was 11. As a teenager, he was sent to the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts where he wrote songs for amateur shows. He continued to do so as a student at Yale University, where he wrote songs for the dramatic club, sang with and conducted the glee club, and—as a cheerleader—wrote football songs. Porter graduated from Yale in 1913 and, at his grandfather’s insistence, enrolled in Harvard University’s law school. Hardly interested in the law, Porter switched during his second year to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in order to study music. But this lasted only as long as law school had.
Though not studying music, Porter nevertheless continued to produce music, as well as spend his time with a very elite social set. Through friends he built contacts with a number of people connected to the theater and launched his career on Broadway. Still, the appearance of his songs on the professional stage was hardly auspicious. In 1915 and 1916 he contributed songs to two Broadway shows, Hands Up and Miss Information, and wrote another, See America First The shows were all failures.
As the United States entered World War I, Porter left for France and continued to lead the high life to which he had become accustomed in the United States. On December 18, 1919, he solidified his place in the social world by marrying Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy divorcée. Throughout their marriage, Porter and his wife enjoyed an emotionally strong relationship, though pla-tonic, as Porter was gay. Living off their formidable combined incomes, they traveled in the loftiest social circles, building a reputation for fashionable parties across Europe.
Between, and for that matter, during parties, Porter continued to write songs and hone his style. His companions loved his work, even if Broadway audiences did not. He again attempted a formal study of music, briefly taking classes in orchestration and counterpoint at Paris’s Schola Cantorum. He contributed songs to Hitchy-koo of 1919, a Broadway revue, and though the show was a flop, one of Porter’s songs, “Old-fashioned Garden,” became a hit. The tune was highly sentimental, nothing like the polished, clever treasures with which he entertained his friends and for which he would later become famous. Nonetheless, the public loved “Garden” and bought the sheet music in droves. Porter contributed to more revues, had some work performed on the London stage, and even composed a ballet, Within the Quota. Though well received by some, none of these efforts were hits. In 1924 he wrote for another Broadway revue, The Greenwich Village Follies. This time the show was a hit—but none of his songs were.
Finally, with 1928’s Paris, Porter landed a hit song in a show that was also a hit. That triumph, titled “Let’s Do It,” was characteristic of the style that had been delighting his friends for years—intelligent, urbane, and highly suggestive of the sexual. “Let’s Do It” was also the first of Porter’s “list,” or “catalogue,” songs—inventions that boasted a litany of comparisons and examples, dropping famous names and events, drawing from high and popular culture. This time, Porter did not have to wait a decade for another hit; following Paris were the very successful Wake Up and Dream and Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Whereas at one time Porter’s songs may have been too cosmopolitan for Broadway audiences, by then, noted Philip Furia, author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, popular taste had begun to change. This was due in part to the success of songwriting teams more in Porter’s vein—Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and George and Ira Gershwin. In this more accepting climate, the list of Cole Porter hits grew: “Love for Sale,” “Night and Day,” “Anything Goes,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “It’s De-lovely” were only a few.
As Porter’s popularity expanded, so did his reputation as a jet setter. He exuded the privilege into which he was born, and The Economist observed that he “sometimes gave the impression that to write a hit tune was an enjoyable sort of slumming.” He made songwriting seem like a game—overhearing a comment or phrase he would cry “Title!” and promptly build a song. But, as the New Yorker’s Ethan Mordden explained, behind this dandy was a diligent artist: “Unseen, however, Porter was the craftsman, as painstaking as the dogged [Oscar] Hammerstein, and yet as natural, born to it, as the explosive George Gershwin.”
For many, Porter was far ahead of his time. He was fearless of taboo subjects, and sex was one of his favorites. He could be highly romantic and also wickedly smutty, taking on love with sincerity but also with satire, cynicism, and double entendres. And his music often drew as much praise as his lyrics. In Mordden’s estimation, he was a musician “with a compellingly idiosyncratic style.” The music was characterized by the minor key and an essential rhythm that made his compositions so natural for dance bands. Together, the music and lyrics were an often unbeatable team. “The exact nature of those songs was unprecedented,” declared Chicago Tribune contributor Howard Reich. “Never before had lyrics been put together with such cleverness, economy and poetry.... But that’s only half the story, for Porter’s music is unique: the insinuating, chromatic half-steps of his melodies; the erotic, Latin undercurrents of his rhythms; the bittersweet harmonies, every chord sharpened with passing dissonance—these, too, make Porter’s song unforgettable.”
In spite of his success, Porter was often concerned that his songs were too sophisticated for popular taste. He was shaken when his show Nymph Errant flopped in London in 1933. As Mordden made clear, Porter believed Nymph Errant was his best work. With his next show he decided to write songs that would appeal to a broader audience. The resulting score was Anything Goes, a Broadway sensation that produced five hit songs—“Anything Goes,” “All Through the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top.” Mordden demonstrated that Anything Goes was not a drastic compromise; although the score was not as “suave” as that of Gay Divorce, a previous show, or as “brilliant” as Nymph Errant, “it conveys all the Porter ’things’—the romance and the drollery, the respect for the famous and the adoration of the beautiful.”
Characteristic of Porter’s uneven career, his next show, Jubilee, was a flop. Buoyed by the success of Anything Goes, he had plunged back into his more cultured fare, but by Mordden’s reckoning, he dove too deep. Despite the fact that two songs from the score—“Just One of Those Things” and “Begin the Beguine”—eventually became celebrated, there were no immediate hits, Jubilee closed early, and Porter and his backers lost a great deal of money. Porter remarked at the time, as quoted by Mordden, “Polished, urbane, and adult play-writing in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury.” Badly rattled by this latest setback, he once again focused on lyrics that would be more accessible to audiences. As with Anything Goes, the songwriter was able to find a middle ground. “Porter was not so much writing down to his audience as writing tricky music that did its best to sound easy, and also deemphasizing the world of gigolos and cocottes and royal families,” illuminated Mordden.
The popularity of Porter’s broader works versus the tepid reception of his more rarif ied offerings was not the only inconsistency of the songwriter’s career; many critics have been perplexed by what author Furia called Porter’s “ongoing stylistic schizophrenia.” Critics marveled that while producing some of the most clever popular music in existence, he would also write love songs that were highly sentimental and melodramatic. And this tendency did not seem to be related to his desire to pull back from songs that were too sophisticated. According to Furia, he “actually aspired to write romantic schmaltz” and created “some of the worst lyrics—melodramatic, histrionic, banal—of the age.” Porter biographer Schwartz wondered why someone “normally considered the personification of worldliness, savoir faire, and even cynicism,” who wrote “such refreshingly cool and sophisticated gems as ’Let’s Do It,’ ’You’re the Top,’ and ’Anything Goes,’” could also create “mawkish, heart-on-the sleeve tunes like ’Old-fashioned Garden,’ ’Hot-House Rose,’ and ’Let’s Be Buddies.’”
In fact, many of the songs that make Porter’s critics wince were his most popular. For instance, referring to “Begin the Beguine,” one of the most famous of Porter’s oeuvre, American Popular Song author Alec Wilder muttered, “Along about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title, End the Beguine.” The numbers Porter wrote for Hollywood tended to be particularly maudlin; given the size and diversity of Hollywood’s audience, Porter’s bent toward the sophisticated was even less acceptable there than it was on Broadway. Furthermore, as Furia reported, Louis B. Mayer, the powerful head of MGM studios, loved the overemotional songs—even crying when he first heard “In the Still of the Night”—and steered Porter away from “high-brow” music. Critics felt the title song of the MGM film Rosalie reached new depths of mush—though stories imply that this gushing may have been deliberate; according to Wilder, one account suggested that after the film’s producer had rejected several versions, Porter wrote the final one in a rage. Another tale has “Rosalie” written on a bet that Porter could make the producer accept the worst that he could create. “No matter,” Wilder concluded, “It was a big hit, and one of the worst songs Porter ever wrote, both words and music. It has nothing to recommend it.
In 1937 Porter was involved in a devastating accident: Riding with friends on Long Island, his horse reared and fell, crushing both of Porter’s legs. Porter later joked, according to Schwartz, that as he waited for help, he took out his notebook and penned the lyrics for “At Long Last Love.” Albeit jocular, he was badly injured. He suffered through dozens of operations, his right leg was eventually amputated near the hip, and as Porter’s surgeon told Wilder, the songwriter was in enough pain to cause “virtual sleeplessness” for years.
In spite of his injury, Porter remained a prolific songwriter. By 1944 he had produced scores for five smash Broadway hits— DuBarry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, Let’s Face it, Something for the Boys, and Mexican Hayride. He also wrote for a number of Hollywood musicals. But many felt the quality of his songs had deteriorated. According to Schwartz, after Something for the Boys appeared, one critic sniffed, “Mr. Porter isn’t the composer he once was,” and another stated, “Cole Porter’s last few shows have been most disappointing and this one perhaps most of all.” The productions were successful, though few of the songs contained therein become popular. While some critics believed that he was just “written out,” Wilder attributes the decline to Porter’s accident, noting that the line of creativity is very clear, markedly at 1937.
But Porter’s creativity had certainly not disappeared altogether. In 1948 he came back as strong as ever with Kiss Me, Kate, which Deane Root and Gerald Bordman in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music called his masterpiece, and which Wilder considered perhaps his finest score. Inspired by what would become a lasting trend in musicals, whereby songs were carefully integrated into plot and character, Porter decided to try the method himself. Kate, a musical based on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, was a huge success and generated a string of hits including “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” and “Too Darn Hot.”
Nonetheless, it appeared that Kate was an exception in the latter part of Porter’s career. Again buoyed by success, he wrote his next score, Out of This World. Although the New Yorker’s Mordden considered the show Porter’s highest achievement, other critics disagreed. In fact, there were a number of problems with the production, and the show was a failure. After this, Porter returned to more accessible scores, laboring more often in film than theater.
After the riding accident, Porter became increasingly irritable and prone to depression. His wife’s health began to fail as well; her death in 1954 from emphysema was a sizeable blow. Afterward, he become a semi-recluse and, according to the Tribune’s Reich, “a broken spirit.” He continued to see friends and received a number of tributes, including honorary degrees from Williams College and Yale University, but wrote little. He died of pneumonia on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California, and was buried back home in Peru, Indiana.
Yet the end of Porter’s life was hardly the end of his prominence; many of his songs became standards, performed by artists as disparate as cabaret singer Michael Feinstein and proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop. 1991, the year of Porter’s centennial, brought a number of honors and celebrations, including a first-class stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Beginning in the late 1980s, the record industry mounted an enormous celebration, releasing several tribute albums and reissues of earlier recordings. These included recordings by rock artists gathered for Chrysalis’s 1990 AIDS charity project Red, Hot + Blue, which comprised a double album, television special, and long-form video. Though the combination of Porter and contemporary pop stars Sinead O’Connor, U2, Fine Young Cannibals, and Neneh Cherry may have seemed strange, Mordden found the gambit worked because the artists actually share a great deal, including “an openness in dealing with sex, a distaste for anything remotely religious or sanctimonious, a rebelliousness—even the air of autobiography in his lyrics.”
While critics have continued to qualify their esteem for Porter’s work, they almost universally marvel at the heights he reached. As Wilder affirmed, “No one can deny that Porter added a certain theatrical elegance, as well as interest and sophistication, wit, and musical complexity to the popular song form. And for this we are deeply indebted.” Since his death, Porter’s failures have receded while his perennially acclaimed work has ably endured. Perhaps Red, Hot & Rich! author David Grafton best explained the reason: “Cole’s treasury will live as long as anyone wants to listen to songs bearing a witty, sophisticated touch. Or songs that have a raucous joy. Or a haunting and voluptuous surrender. Cole Porter without question is an acquired taste, but then so are caviar and champagne.”
See America First, 1916.
Hitchy-koo of 1919 (includes “Old-fashioned Garden”), 1919.
Within the Quota (ballet), 1923.
The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924, 1924.
Paris (includes “Let’s Do It”), 1928.
Wake Up and Dream, 1929.
Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1929.
The New Yorkers (includes “Love for Sale”), 1930.
Gay Divorce (includes “Night and Day”), 1932.
Nymph Errant, 1933.
Jubilee (includes “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things”), 1935.
Anything Goes (includes “Anything Goes,” “All Through the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top”), 1936.
Red, Hot and Blue (includes “It’s De-lovely”), 1936.
You Never Know (includes “At Long Last Love”), 1938.
Leave It to Me!, 1938.
DuBarry Was a Lady, 1939.
Panama Hattie, 1940.
Let’s Face It, 1941.
Something for the Boys, 1943.
Mexican Hayride, 1944.
Seven Lively Arts, 1944.
Around the World in Eighty Days, 1946.
Kiss Me, Kate (includes “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” “Wunderbar,” “So in Love,” and “Too Darn Hot”), 1948.
Out of This World, 1950.
Silk Stockings, 1955.
Born to Dance, 1936.
Rosalie (includes “In the Still of the Night” and “Rosalie”), 1937.
Broadway Melody of 1940, 1940.
You’ll Never Get Rich, 1941.
Something to Shout About, 1942.
Hollywood Canteen, 1944.
Night and Day, 1946.
The Pirate, 1948.
Adam’s Rib, 1949.
High Society, 1956.
Les Girls, 1957.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, Verve, 1956, reissued, 1984.
Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter, Atlantic, 1971.
Cole Porter Songbook, RCA, 1988.
Red, Hot + Blue, Chrysalis, 1990.
Cole Porter: A Centennial Celebration, RCA, 1991.
I Get a Kick Out of You: The Cole Porter Songbook, Vol 2, Verve Polygram, 1991.
Cole Porter, Overtures and Ballet Music: Within the Quota, EMI/Angel, 1991.
Cole Porter Centennial Gala Concert: Recorded Live in London, Teldec, 1991.
Fifty Million Frenchmen, New World Records, 1991.
Porter/Hyman: All Through the Night, MusicMasters, 1991.
Anything Goes: The Cole Porter Songbook: Instrumentals, Verve/Polygram, 1992.
You’re the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s, Indiana Historical Society and Koch International Classics, 1992.
From This Moment On: The Songs of Cole Porter, The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1992.
Kiss Me, Kate, Angel/Broadway, 1993.
Anything Goes 1989 London Cast Recording, First Night/Koch, 1993.
Ella Loves Cole, Atlantic.
Capitol Sings Cole Porter, Capitol.
Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Cole Porter, Capitol.
The Book of Days, 1987, Pierian, 1986.
Grafton, David, Red, Hot& Rich!: An Oral History of Cole Porter, Stein & Day, 1987.
Green, Stanley, Encyclopedia of the Musical Theater, Da Capo, 1976.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume 3, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.
Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter, A Biography, Dial, 1977.
Wilder, Alec, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1987; May 5, 1991.
Economist, June 15, 1991.
National Review, December 2, 1991.
New Yorker, October 28, 1991.
Pulse!, October 1992;
November 1992. Rolling Stone, October 18, 1990.
Composer and Lyricist. Nationality: American. Born: Peru, Indiana, 9 June 1891. Education: Studied piano and violin as a child; attended Worcester Academy, Massachusetts, 1905–09; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1909–13, B.A. 1913; Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1913–14, and Harvard Graduate School, 1914–15; also studied orchestration and counterpoint with d'Indy, 1920. Family: Married Linda Lee, 1919 (died 1954). Career: 1916—first Broadway show (composer and lyricist); worked with Duryea Relief Party in France during World War I; 1929—wrote songs for film The Battle of Paris; later musicals filmed (without Porter's participation) include Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1931, The Gay Divorcee, 1934, Anything Goes, 1936, Panama Hattie, 1942, DuBarry Was a Lady, 1943, Let's Face It, 1943, Kiss Me Kate, 1953, and Can-Can, 1959; 1936—first film score for Born to Dance; 1937—riding accident, resulting in amputation of leg. Died: Of pneumonia, in Santa Monica, California, 15 October 1964.
Films as Composer and Lyricist:
The Battle of Paris (Florey) (songs)
Born to Dance (Del Ruth)
Rosalie (Van Dyke)
Broadway Melody of 1940 (Taurog)
You'll Never Get Rich (Lanfield)
Something to Shout About (Ratoff)
The Pirate (Minnelli)
High Society (Walters); Les Girls (Cukor); Silk Stockings (Mamoulian)
By PORTER: books—
The Cole Porter Song Book, edited by Robert Kimball, New York, 1959.
Cole, edited by Robert Kimball, New York, 1971.
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball, New York, 1972.
The Unpublished Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball, New York, 1975.
The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball, New York, 1983.
On PORTER: books—
Ewen, David, The Cole Porter Story, New York, 1965.
Hubler, Richard G., The Cole Porter Story, Cleveland, Ohio, 1965.
Eells, George, The Life That Late He Led: A Biography of Cole Porter, New York, 1967.
Kimball, Robert, and Brendan Gill, Cole, New York, 1971.
Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter, New York, 1977.
Citron, Stephen, Noel and Cole: The Sophisticates, New York, 1993.
Morella, Joe, Genius and Lust: The Creative and Sexual Lives of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, New York, 1995.
Cuellar, Carol, editor, Porter on Broadway, Miami, 1995.
Kimball, Robert, You're Sensational: Cole Porter in the 20s, 40s & 50s, Bloomington, 1999.
Prince, Pamela, editor, You're the Top: A Song by Cole Porter, New York, 1999.
On PORTER: articles—
Nolan, J. E., "Films on TV," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1973.
Hemming, Roy, in The Melody Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals, New York, 1986.
Custen, G. F., "Night and Day: Cole Porter, Warner Bros., and the Re-creation of a Life," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 19, no. 2–3, 1992.
Gill, Brendan, "Deluxe Delights," The New Yorker, vol. 69, 31 May 1993.
Forte, Allen, "Secrets of Melody: Line and Design in the Songs of Cole Porter," Musical Quarterly, vol. 77, Winter 1993.
Clark, Robert S., "You're the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s," in Hudson Review, Winter 1993.
"The Secret Life of a Music Man," in Maclean's, 19 October 1998.
Schleifer, Ronald, "'What Is This Thing Called Love?': Cole Porter and the Rhythms of Desire," in Criticism, Winter 1999.
* * *
Urbane, witty, incisive, and, sometimes, sentimental, Cole Porter's music brought a true sophistication to the Hollywood movie musical. Versatile as well as stylish, he provided tailor-made material for a wide range of talents, from Fred Astaire to Ethel Merman to Bing Crosby.
Porter was born on a farm near the town of Peru, Indiana. Heir to a large fortune, he studied at Yale and entered Harvard Law School which he soon abandoned for music. Porter was equally talented as a composer and a lyricist, allowing him to work alone. He struggled to establish himself in the New York theater during the 1920s, finally breaking through in 1929 with his score for Fifty Million Frenchmen. The 1930s followed with an indefatigable series of distinctive scores and hit tunes.
His first few adaptations on film were less remarkable. His songs "They All Fall in Love" and "Here Comes the Bandwagon" were included in an early talking picture, The Battle of Paris; Warners' screen version of Fifty Million Frenchmen did not use Porter's lyrics, and his music was reduced to background instrumentals. Porter's score for The Gay Divorce, retitled The Gay Divorcee, did not fare much better; only "Night and Day" survived from the original.
It was not until Porter actually moved to Hollywood in 1935 to write a complete score for Born to Dance that he became significantly involved in writing for motion pictures. From then until his death in 1964, Porter continued to divide his time between New York and Los Angeles, spending four to six months each year on the west coast.
Porter began his Hollywood career in earnest at MGM, and although he worked for several important studios, MGM's lavish budgets and tasteful pictures gave Porter's music and lyrics their proper setting. Likewise, Louis B. Mayer provided Porter with a working relationship which respected the composer's talent and sensibilities.
Some of the films containing Porter's songs have faded in relative obscurity, such as Born to Dance or Rosalie, but the melodies in them ("I've Got You under My Skin" and "In the Still of the Night") continue to be as fresh and provocative as when they first appeared. And while the censorship which prevailed in Hollywood during Porter's lifetime frequently forced changes in his original lyrics, they seemed to survive the limitations, to emerge equally biting and remarkably clever.
Porter's cinematic successes and failures proved unpredictable. "Don't Fence Me In," an unpretentious cowboy song which was introduced by Roy Rogers in Hollywood Canteen, sold millions of copies, while the film version of Kiss Me Kate, Porter's longestrunning broadway show, was a disappointment at the box office.
Porter's music also inspired several classic dance sequences—particularly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' "Night and Day" (The Gay Divorcee); Astaire and Eleanor Powell in "Begin the Beguine" (Broadway Melody of 1940); and Gene Kelly's tour de force "The Pirate Ballet" (The Pirate).
Throughout his life, Porter promoted entertaining stories of his heroic days in the French Foreign Legion and of his carefree life on the Riviera, which were as much fiction as fact. So, in 1945 when Warner Bros. produced a film biography of Porter's life which indulged in more than the usual literary license, Porter could hardly complain. Censorship prevented the studio from addressing his homosexuality, so it compensated by overly romanticizing his marriage to the society beauty Linda Lee. The casting of Cary Grant as Porter and the inclusion of an impressive collection of 14 of his already famous songs helped make the film a box-office success. Originally, the producer intended to cast various celebrities performing the numbers they made famous, but, in the end, only Monty Woolley (Porter's close friend) and Mary Martin, recreating "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," were engaged to play themselves.
The composer projected two distinct images to the public—Cole Porter the glamourous, naughty bon vivant, and Cole Porter the diligent, prolific worker. Whatever engaged him, Porter seemed to attack it with an unquenchable zest for living. In the fall of 1937, however, his life dramatically changed when a fall from a horse crushed both legs, resulting in over thirty operations, and the eventual amputation of his right leg. Although his career was fully resumed by the end of 1938, Porter suffered intense pain the remainder of his life. Bouts of depression became so severe that he underwent electroshock therapy. Still, his music continued to express unmistakable vitality and vigor.
—Joanne L. Yeck
American composer Cole Porter wrote songs—both words and music—for more than thirty stage and film musicals. His best work set standards of sophistication (appealing to good taste) and wit seldom matched in the popular musical theater.
Early life and education
Cole Albert Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891, the son of a pharmacist. His mother was determined that her only son become a creative artist, while his wealthy Midwestern pioneer (someone who settles new land) grandfather was determined that he enter business or farming. Cole's mother's influence proved stronger, and Porter received considerable musical training as a child. He began playing violin and piano at age six. He learned circus acrobatics watching the Hagenbeck and Wallace circus, which spent its winters nearby. By 1901 he had composed a one-song "operetta" (a short opera) entitled The Song of the Birds, and a piano piece, "The Bobolink Waltz," which his mother published in Chicago, Illinois.
Porter attended Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, where he composed the class song of 1909. At Yale (1909–1913) he wrote music and collaborated (worked with others) on lyrics for the scores of several amateur shows presented by his fraternity (social club at colleges and universities) and the Yale Dramatic Association.
Porter then entered Harvard Law School. Almost at once, however, he changed his course of study to music. Before leaving Harvard he collaborated on a comic operetta, See America First (1916), which became his first show produced on Broadway. It was a complete disaster.
Becomes a success
In 1917 Porter was in France, and for some months during 1918 and 1919 he served in the French Foreign Legion. After this he studied composition (music writing) briefly with the composer Vincent d'Indy in Paris, France. Returning to New York, he contributed songs to the Broadway production Hitchy-Koo of 1919, his first success. Also in 1919 he married the wealthy socialite (someone who keeps company with well-respected people) Linda Lee Thomas. The Porters began a lifetime of traveling on a grand scale and became famous for their lavish parties and the circle of celebrities in which they moved.
Porter contributed songs to various stage shows and films and in 1923 composed a ballet, Within the Quota, which was performed in Paris and New York. Songs such as "Let's Do It" (1928), "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1929), "You Do Something to Me" (1929), and "Love for Sale" (1930) established him as a creator of worldly, witty, occasionally risqué (off-color) lyrics with unusual melodic lines to match.
In the 1930s and 1940s Porter provided full scores for a number of bright Broadway and Hollywood productions, among them Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935), Rosalie (1937), Panama Hattie (1940), and Kiss Me Kate (1948). These scores and others of the period abound with his characteristic songs: "Night and Day," "I Get a Kick out of You," "You're the Top," "Anything Goes," "Begin the Beguine," "Just One of Those Things," "Don't Fence Me In," "In the Still of the Night," and "So in Love."
Serious injuries from a riding accident in 1937 plagued Porter for the remainder of his life. A series of operations led to the amputation (cutting off) of his right leg in 1958. In his last years he produced one big Broadway success (Can-Can; 1953). Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California.
Porter's songs show an elegance of expression (wording) and a cool detachment that are a perfect example of the kind of sophistication unique to the 1930s. He was also a truly talented creator of original melodies. Like George Gershwin (1898–1937), he frequently disregarded the accepted formulas of the conventional popular song and turned out pieces of charm and distinction.
For More Information
Grafton, David. Red, Hot & Rich!: An Oral History of Cole Porter. New York: Stein and Day, 1987.
Howard, Jean. Travels with Cole Porter. New York: Abrams, 1991.
McBrien, William. Cole Porter: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
PORTER, Cole (b. 9 June 1891; d. 15 October 1964), songwriter.
Cole Albert Porter grew up a child of wealth and privilege in Peru, Indiana. He studied piano and violin at an early age, developing a rudimentary proficiency on both instruments, and began composing pieces and songs at about age ten. His parents encouraged his artistic interests, though they hoped that their only surviving child would enter law.
He attended Worcester Academy (1905–1909) and Yale University (1909–1913), where he majored in English and minored in music and where he wrote the lyrics and music for numerous songs for college shows and football games. After one year at Harvard Law School (1913–1914), he decided on a career in musical theater, studying music at Harvard University and then in New York. In 1916, he launched his first Broadway show, See America First. The following year, he went abroad to aid the war effort, and he remained in Europe—mostly in
Paris and Venice—for much of the next two decades. Singing his own sophisticated and witty songs at the piano, he quickly became the toast of European society. He pursued his musical studies at the Schola Cantorum (1920–1922) and wrote a ballet with Gerald Murphy for the Swedish Ballet, Within the Quota (1923; orchestrated by Charles Koechlin).
From homes on both sides of the Atlantic, he became the lyricist-composer of a number of successful Broadway musical comedies, including Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The Gay Divorce (1932), and Anything Goes (1934). He also had success in Hollywood, where he kept yet another home, composing the music for Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937). With these scores, all of which yielded hit standards, Porter established himself as a master of the genre, a worthy successor to Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Audiences and critics especially admired the smart topical references and risqué humor of his lyrics and the sensuous harmonies and ambitious forms of his music.
In 1937, Porter broke both legs in a riding accident and for the rest of life endured numerous operations and much pain. He nonetheless continued to produce successful shows, including Panama Hattie (1940), Let's Face It (1941), and his masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate (1948). At the height of his fame, Hollywood released a film biography, Night and Day (1946), with Cary Grant playing the shorter and plainer Cole. However, in the course of the 1950s he became increasingly depressed, and after the amputation of a leg in 1958 he produced no new scores.
Porter was homosexual, and from his college days onward traveled in gay circles often in the company of such friends as Monty Woolley and Howard Sturges. In 1918, he married Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy divorcee fifteen years his senior. Although Cole and Linda were devoted to each other, the former pursued numerous homosexual affairs throughout his married years, including those with Ballets Russes regisseur Boris Kochno, architect Eddy Tauch, and sailor Ray Kelly. During his time in Hollywood, he also held "boy parties" with attractive young men lounging poolside. Thomas accepted her husband's homosexuality, and though Porter's promiscuity sometimes placed a strain on their relationship, they remained married until her death in 1954.
Porter's complex sexual life reflected itself in his lyrics, arguably the most erotic in the history of American musical comedy. Many of his best-known songs embrace such themes as romantic abandon, casual sex, unrequited love, and prostitution. He was a virtuoso of the double entendre and of the sexual metaphor: a lover, for example, is asked "to give my ship, / A maiden trip"; a patient finds that her doctor "murmured 'molto bella, ' / When I sat on his patella"; and a girl invites "a boy, some night, / To dine on my fine finnan haddie."
Although the sexual chic and campy wit of Porter's lyrics plainly were related to his sexual orientation and experiences, he rarely referenced homosexual subjects as explicitly as in "I'm Unlucky at Gambling" from Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), in which the female character who takes a croupier to the movies discovers that "he liked John Gilbert too." Otherwise, Porter used such code words as "queen," as in a 1919 song in which the singer goes to the bar of Paris's Ritz Hotel to "see the kings / And let the queens see me."
Combined with exquisite harmonies, radiant melodies, and sprightly rhythms, such clever ribaldry became irresistibly infectious, and as one of America's most popular and beloved songwriters, Porter arguably did as much to shape his country's attitudes toward love and sex as perhaps anyone else of his time.
Kimball, Robert, ed.. Cole. Woodstock, N.Y: Overlook Press, 1971, 2000. Includes a biographical essay by Brendan Gill.
Schwartz, Charles. Cole Porter: A Biography. New York: Dial Press, 1977.
see alsomusic: broadway and musical theater.
Cole Albert Porter
Cole Albert Porter
American composer Cole Albert Porter (1891-1964) wrote songs (both words and music) for over 30 stage and film musicals. His best work set standards of sophistication and wit seldom matched in the popular musical theater.
Cole Porter was born in Peru, Ind., on June 9, 1891, the son of a pharmacist. His mother was as determined that her only son become a creative artist as his wealthy midwestern pioneer grandfather was that he enter business or farming. Kate Cole's influence proved stronger, and Porter received considerable musical training as a child. By 1901 he had composed a onesong "operetta" entitled The Song of the Birds; then he produced a piano piece, "The Bobolink Waltz, " which his mother published in Chicago.
Porter attended Worcester Academy, where he composed the class song of 1909. At Yale (1909-1913) he wrote music and collaborated on lyrics for the scores of several amateur shows presented by his fraternity and the Yale Dramatic Association. Porter then entered Harvard Law School; almost at once, however, he changed his course of study to music. Before leaving Harvard he collaborated on a comic operetta, See America First (1916), which became his first show produced on Broadway. It was a complete disaster.
In 1917 Porter was in France, and for some months during 1918-1919 he served in the French Foreign Legion. After this he studied composition briefly with the composer Vincent d'Indy in Paris. Returning to New York, he contributed songs to the Broadway production Hitchy-Koo of 1919, his first success, and married the wealthy socialite Linda Lee.
The Porters began a lifetime of traveling on a grand scale; they became famous for their lavish parties and the circle of celebrities in which they moved. Porter contributed songs to various stage shows and films and in 1923 composed a ballet, Within the Quota, which was performed in Paris and New York. Songs such as "Let's Do It" (1928), "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1929), "You Do Something to Me" (1929), and "Love for Sale" (1930) established him as a creator of worldly, witty, occasionally risqué lyrics with unusual melodic lines to match.
In the 1930s and 1940s Porter provided full scores for a number of bright Broadway and Hollywood productions, among them Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935), Rosalie (1937), Panama Hattie (1940), and Kiss Me Kate (1948). These scores and others of the period abound with his characteristic songs: "Night and Day, " "I Get a Kick out of You, " "You're the Top, " "Anything Goes, " "Begin the Beguine, " "Just One of Those Things, " "Don't Fence Me In, " "In the Still of the Night, " and "So in Love."
Serious injuries in a riding accident in 1937 plagued Porter for the remainder of his life. A series of operations led, in 1958, to the amputation of his right leg. In his last years he produced one big Broadway success (Can-Can, 1953). He died on Oct. 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Porter's songs show an elegance of expression and a cool detachment that seem to epitomize a kind of sophistication peculiar to the 1930s. He was also an authentically talented creator of original melodies. Like George Gershwin, he frequently disregarded the accepted formulas of the conventional popular song (usually a rigid 32-measure framework) and turned out pieces of charm and distinction.
Porter's life and career are comprehensively covered in George Eell, The Life That Late He Led (1967); the author's acquaintance with Porter, his access to documents, private papers, and music manuscripts, and his sympathetic yet detached approach give the book an authoritative stamp. Robert Kimball, ed., Cole (1971), contains a biographical essay by Brendan Gill, a good selection of Porter's lyrics, and many interesting illustrations.
Citron, Stephen, Noel and Cole: the sophisticates, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Howard, Jean, Travels with Cole Porter, New York: Abrams, 1991.
Morella, Joe, Genius and lust: the creative and sexual lives of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1995.
Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter: a biography, New York: Da Capo Press, 1979, 1977. □