Thursday, 4 November 2010

Lyrical Adroitness: The Cole Porter Songbook

Cole Porter
(Photo by Richard Avedon - September 13, 1950)
Image courtesy of:

Most gentlemen don't like love, they just like to kick it around.

Cole Porter was born to Kate Cole and Sam Porter - from whose combined surnames he derived his name - on June 9th, 1891, in Peru, a small town in Indiana. Although he studied both the violin and the piano, Cole preferred the piano, which he would play for two hours per day, to the harsh sounds of the violin. Musically, the biggest influence on Cole's early school life was Dr. Abercrombie, his teacher at Worcester Academy in 1905. It was Dr. Abercrombie who taught Cole about the relationship between words and meter. Cole later quoted from Ambercrombie's lessons: "Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one." (Citation courtesy of: J.X. Bell, Undated)


It was at Yale University that Cole's emerging, imaginative talent for composition became apparent in the football fight songs he wrote. At Yale, Cole composed several full productions per year in addition to individual songs for the Yale Dramatic Association and the Yale Glee Club. He wrote musical shows for student groups intended primarily for a Yale audience. It was during these formative experiences that Cole honed his plot productions and developed his songwriting wit - later to become the signature hallmarks of his professional musicals.
(Source: J.X. Bell, Undated)


The Yale musical productions were also to prove helpful in another way: Cole made important connections which he found advantageous to his career on Broadway. In total, by the time he graduated, Cole had written six full-scale productions and approximately 300 songs, all of which he left to Yale University. After Yale, Cole tried his hand at law at Harvard, at which he was not successful. In his second year at Harvard, Cole decided to switch from law school to the school of arts and sciences in order to pursue music. In 1914, however, he abandoned his Harvard studies altogether, moved to the Yale Club in New York in 1915, and began his professional music career. (Source: J.X. Bell, Undated; Robert F. Howe,, 2004)
Cole's first venture into musical theatre, See America First (1916), was not a success and the reviews were disparaging. It was described by the New York American as a "high-class college show played partly by professionals." The following summer, in 1917 while war was still ravaging most of Europe, Cole set out for Paris, where he carved himself a reputation of a wealthy American living in Paris. To the American press, he concocted stories about his time in France, claiming that he was working with the French Foreign Legion and the French army. Back in America, this supposed 'involvement' in the war effort on behalf of France garnered him a reputation as a war hero, an image of himself that he fostered for the rest of his life. (Source: J.X. Bell, Undated; Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


The parties during the Paris years were elaborate and fabulous, involving some of the social luminaries of the wealthy and political classes. His parties had a decidedly decadent allure to them involving gay and bisexual activity, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs.

It was in 1918 that Cole met an affluent, older American divorcee, also in Paris at that time, by the name of Linda Lee Thomas; by 1919,  the two had become close friends and they were regularly spending time together. Without the presence of family members, Linda and Cole married on December 19, 1919. Although not a conventional marriage by any means, it was more of an arrangement, a mutual understanding between two parties - having already been through an abusive marriage once before, Linda was not bothered by Cole's homosexuality - at least not in the early stages of their marriage (some say it made the prospect of a sexless marriage with Cole all the more palatable).

Just as his mother before her, Linda undoubtedly believed in Cole's musical talents and she was and would always remain one of Cole's staunchest supporters. They remained a married couple till Linda's death in 1954. Throughout this marriage of convenience (Cole recognised in Linda the sophistication and the means to social advancement, while Linda saw in Cole a portal to a seductive world of fame and show business) Cole carried on with his own extramarital affairs with men.
(Source: J.X. Bell, Undated; Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


In 1923, the Porters' finances were bolstered when Cole inherited, in cash, $1 Million upon his his grandfather's death. With money to spare, the Porters became a fixture on the international social circuit - London, New York, Paris and Venice - (in Paris, where the couple bought a spacious, lavishly decorated apartment, they simply became known as Les Colporteurs). Towards the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Cole's star was in ascendancy. He wrote several songs which became staples of the times and remain so to this day - "I Love Paris," "Let's Do It," "Love For Sale."  
(Source: Robert F. Howe,, 2004)

Robert Kimball, editor of The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, says, "He was very candid about love and sex in his lyrics and he went against the censorship of his day. He made it easier for other writers to follow suit."

Likewise, Stephen Citron, the music historian, tends to agree: "The other great composers didn't have the depth of imagination in terms of music. Porter's musical execution was so avant garde that it's still fresh... He wrote lyrics about love and romance, but he also wrote about homosexuality, cocaine, brutality, gigolos - subjects that were défendu at the time, but things that we talk about all the time today. That's why audiences today still find excitement and newness in Porter's work." Perhaps this is why with each new interpretation and rendition of Cole's songs by successive generations of artists, his songs lend themselves to modern ears, garnering admirers from today's audiences.
(Cited from: Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


Increasingly, Cole Porter's hits established his reputation as an acclaimed lyricist of some renown. These included: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935) and Red, Hot, and Blue! (1936). Linda Porter developed the habit of holding a dinner party for each opening night in New York, where the Porters maintained adjacent apartments on the 41st-floor of the Waldorf-Astoria. Linda also established another premiere night tradition: she presented Cole with a custom-made new cigarette case on which  was inscribed each  production's name and date. Her devotion (and pride) in her husband's career was evident in another, more intimate form: Linda kept a scrapbook in which she assembled  review clippings, photos, ticket stubs and theatre programs (currently housed at Yale University). (Source: Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


In 1935, Cole and Linda embarked on to a new venture: Hollywood. But though Cole worked on films based on his Broadway musical productions, he also gathered round him a homosexual coterie from which Linda felt herself excluded; his lifestyle, she felt, jeopardized his Hollywood career. In 1937, having failed to convince Cole to leave Hollywood behind, Linda left for their Paris apartment and, for the first time, contemplated divorce. Cole hurried after her. In the autumn of 1937, Cole sailed back to New York - alone.

While visiting a friend's farm on Long Island shortly after his return, Cole went horseback riding. The horse he was riding fell and landed on him, crushing both his legs. Upon hearing of Cole's accident, Linda rushed to his side. After a couple of medical consultations, both of whom recommended amputation of the right leg (and possibly the left), Linda (and Cole) refused the decision to amputate; his leg eventually healed. The riding accident brought the couple closer together than ever before and cemented their relationship. Linda had stood by her husband's side in his time of distress and, later on, when his wife fell ill with respiratory ailments, Cole would also stand by his wife in her time of distress. 
(Source: Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


There were numerous surgeries on his legs and much pain over the years due to the horse riding accident, but although at times the anguish caused him to fall into severe melancholy and become self-conscious about his legs, he never stopped writing some of his most timeless songs: Leave It To Me (1938), Kiss Me, Kate (1948 - based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and possibly Cole's most acclaimed musical) and Can-Can (1953).   

Linda decided to close their Paris apartment and move to the States permanently, where she bought herself a property in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and converted its carriage house into a work studio for Cole. By early 1949, however, Linda's health declined severely as she developed pleurisy. For health purposes, she retreated to Arizona while Cole resumed his work in Hollywood, traveling to frequently to Arizona to be with his wife. Linda recovered sufficiently enough to be able to return to the couple's Waldorf-Astoria suites, where she died in May of 1949. Cole was devastated. He decided to bury his wife in the Porter family plot in Peru, Indiana. (Source: Robert F. Howe,, 2004)


In 1958, Cole lost his right leg to bone disease, for which he had to have a prosthesis made. As people often do when faced with a life-altering circumstance over which they have no control of,  he became severely depressed; Cole turned to drugs and alcohol for self-medication. So intense was his depression and outlook on life, that in the six years which followed the operation, he wrote no new songs. After fracturing his hip and suffering from complications of a bladder infection and  pneumonia, Cole died on October 15th, 1964. Like his wife before him, he is buried in the Porter family plot in Peru, Indiana. It is alleged that he is buried between his mother, Kate, and wife, Linda.
(Source: Robert F. Howe,, 2004; J.X. Bell, Undated)







The above sixteen videos are all courtesy of: YouTube

Recommended readings:

Cole Porter: 100th Anniversary (1990), by Cole Porter: Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter (1992), by Cole Porter & Robert Kimball: Da Capo Press

Cole Porter (2000), by William McBrien: Random House of Canada

Hot 'n Cole: A Cole Porter Celebration (2000), by Cole Porter, David Armstrong, Mark Waldrop
& Bruce Coyle: Samuel French Inc.

Simply Porter: The Music of Cole Porter (2007), by Cole Porter & Dan Coates: Alfred Music Publishing

Cole Porter (2008), by Patrick O'Connor: Yale University Press

Cole Porter (2010), by Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome & John McBrewster: VDM Publishing House Ltd.

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