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Cole Porter

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I get a kick out of you: Cole Porter

Cole Porter, composer and songwriter

Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter. Born to a wealthy family in Indiana, he defied the wishes of his domineering grandfather and took up music as a profession. Classically trained, he was drawn towards musical theatre.  After a slow start, he began to achieve success in the 1920’s, and by the 1930’s he was one of the major songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Unlike most successful Broadway composers, Porter wrote both the lyrics and the music for his songs.

After a serious horseback riding accident in 1937, Porter was left disabled and in constant pain, but he continued to work. His shows of the early 1940’s did not contain the lasting hits of his best work of the 1920’s and 30’s, but in 1948 he made a triumphant comeback with his most successful musicalKiss Me, Kate. It won the first Tony Award for best musical.

Porter’s other musicals include Fifty Million FrenchmenDuBarry Was a LadyAnything Goes and Can-Can. His numerous hit songs include “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Well, Did You Evah!” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “You’re the Top.” He also composed scores for films from the 1930s to the 1950s, including Born to Dance (1936), which featured the songs “You’d Be So Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin;” Rosalie (1937), which featured “In the Still of the Night;” High Society (1956), which included “True Love;” and Les Girls (1957).

Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only child of a wealthy family.   His father, Samuel Fenwick Porter, was a druggist by trade.   His mother, Kate, was the indulged daughter of James Omar “J. O.” Cole, “the richest man in Indiana”, a coal and timber speculator who dominated the family.   J. O. Cole built the couple a home on his Peru-area property, known as Westleigh Farms.   After high school, Porter returned to the property only for occasional visits.   Porter’s strong-willed mother doted on him and began his musical training at an early age. He learned the violin at age six, the piano at eight and wrote his first operetta (with help from his mother) at ten. She falsified his recorded birth year, changing it from 1891 to 1893 to make him appear more precocious.   His father, who was a shy and unassertive man, played a lesser role in Porter’s upbringing, although as an amateur poet he may have influenced his son’s gifts for rhyme and meter.   Porter’s father also had musical talent as a vocalist and pianist, but the father-son relationship was not close.

Porter as a Yale College student

J. O. Cole wanted his grandson to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind, he sent him to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. Porter brought an upright piano with him to school and found that music, and his ability to entertain, made it easy for him to make friends.   Porter did well in school and rarely came home to visit.  He became class valedictorian and was rewarded by his grandfather with a tour of France, Switzerland and Germany.  Entering Yale University in 1909, Porter majored in English, minored in music, and also studied French.   He was a member of Scroll and KeyDelta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and participated in several music clubs. He was an original member of the Whiffenpoofs a capella singing group and, in his senior year, he was elected president of the Yale Glee Club and was its principal soloist.

Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale, including student songs such as the football fight songs “Bulldog” and “Bingo Eli Yale” (aka “Bingo, That’s The Lingo!”) that are still played at Yale today.   During college, Porter became acquainted with New York City’s vibrant nightlife, taking the the train to New York City to enjoy dinner, theater, and a night on the town with his classmates, before returning to New Haven, Connecticut, early in the morning.   He also wrote musical comedy scores for his fraternity, the Yale Dramat (the Yale dramatic society), and as a student at Harvard—Cora (1911); And the Villain Still Pursue Her (1912); The Pot of Gold (1912); The Kaleidoscope(1913); and Paranoia (1914)—which helped prepare him for a career as a Broadway and Hollywood composer and lyricist.   After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913, where he roomed with Dean Acheson, later U.S. Secretary of State.   He soon felt that he was not destined to be a lawyer, and, at the suggestion of the dean of the law school, Porter switched to Harvard’s music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon.   Kate Porter did not object to this move, but it was kept secret from J. O. Cole.

In 1915, Porter’s first song on Broadway, “Esmeralda”, appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a “patriotic comic opera” modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, with a book by T. Lawrason Riggs, was a flop, closing after two weeks.   Porter spent the next year in New York City before going overseas during World War I.

Paris and marriage

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Porter moved to Paris to work with the Duryea Relief organization.   Some writers have been skeptical about Porter’s claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion, although the Legion itself lists Porter as one of its soldiers and displays his portrait at its museum in Aubagne.   By some accounts, he served in North Africa and was transferred to the French Officers School at Fontainebleau, teaching gunnery to American soldiers.   An obituary notice in The New York Times said that, while in the Legion, “he had a specially constructed portable piano made for him so that he could carry it on his back and entertain the troops in their bivouacs.”   Another account, given by Porter, is that he joined the recruiting department of the American Aviation Headquarters, but, according to his biographer Stephen Citron, there is no record of his joining this or any other branch of the forces.

Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs.”   In 1918, he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Louisville, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior.   She was beautiful and well-connected socially; the couple shared mutual interests, including a love of travel, and she became Porter’s confidant and companion. The couple married the following year. She was in no doubt about Porter’s homosexuality, but it was mutually advantageous for them to marry. For Linda it offered continued social status and a partner who was the antithesis of her abusive first husband.   For Porter, it brought a respectable heterosexual front in an era when homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged. They were, moreover, genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 19, 1919, until her death in 1954. Linda remained protective of her social position, and believing that classical music might be a more prestigious outlet than Broadway for her husband’s talents, she tried to use her connections to find him suitable teachers, including Igor Stravinsky, but was unsuccessful. Finally, Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d’Indy.   Meanwhile, Porter’s first big hit was the song “Old-Fashioned Garden” from the revue Hitchy-Koo in 1919.   In 1920, he contributed the music of several songs to the musical A Night Out.

Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, leased by Porter in the 1920’s

Marriage did not diminish Porter’s taste for extravagant luxury. The Porter home on the rue Monsieur near Les Invalides was a palatial house with platinum wallpaper and chairs upholstered in zebra skin.   In 1923, Porter came into an inheritance from his grandfather, and the Porters began living in rented palaces in Venice. He once hired the entire Ballets Russes to entertain his house guests, and for a party at Ca’ Rezzonico, which he rented for $4,000 a month ($55,000 in current value), he hired 50 gondoliers to act as footmen and had a troupe of tight-rope walkers perform in a blaze of lights.   In the midst of this extravagant lifestyle, Porter continued to write songs with encouragement from his wife.

Porter received few commissions for songs in the years immediately after his marriage. He had the occasional number interpolated into other writers’ revues in England and the U.S. For a C. B. Cochran show in 1921, he had two successes with the comedy numbers “The Blue Boy Blues” and “Olga, Come Back to the Volga.”   In 1923, in collaboration with Gerald Murphy, he composed a short ballet, originally titled Landed and then Within the Quota, satirically depicting the adventures of an immigrant to America who becomes a film star.   The work, written for the Swedish Ballet company, lasts about 16 minutes. It was orchestrated by Charles Koechlin and shared the same opening night as Milhaud‘s La création du monde.   Porter’s work was one of the earliest symphonic jazz-based compositions, predating George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue by four months, and well received by both French and American reviewers after its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in October 1923.   After a successful New York performance the following month, the Swedish Ballet company toured the work in the U.S., performing it 69 times. A year later the company disbanded, and the score was lost until it was reconstructed from Porter’s and Koechlin’s manuscripts between 1966 and 1990, with help from Milhaud among others.   Porter had less success with his work on Greenwich Village Follies (1924). He wrote most of the original score, but his songs were gradually dropped during the Broadway run, and by the time of the post-Broadway tour in 1925, all his numbers had been deleted.    Frustrated by the public response to most of his work, Porter nearly gave up songwriting as a career, although he continued to compose songs for friends and perform at private parties.

Broadway and West End success

Irène Bordoni, star of Porter’s Paris

At the age of 36, Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway in 1928 with the musical Paris, his first hit.   It was commissioned by E. Ray Goetz at the instigation of Goetz’s wife and the show’s star,Irène Bordoni.   She had wanted Rodgers and Hart to write the songs, but they were unavailable, and Porter’s agent persuaded Goetz to hire Porter instead.   In August 1928, Porter’s work on the show was interrupted by the death of his father. He hurried back to Indiana to comfort his mother before returning to work. The songs for the show included “Let’s Misbehave” and one of his best-known list songs, “Let’s Do It“, which was introduced by Bordoni and Arthur Margetson.   The show opened on Broadway on October 8, 1928. The Porters did not attend the first night because Porter was in Paris supervising another show for which he had been commissioned, La Revue, at a nightclub.   This was also a success, and, in Citron’s phrase, Porter was finally “accepted into the upper echelon of Broadway songwriters.”  Cochran now wanted more from Porter than isolated extra songs; he planned a West End extravaganza similar to Ziegfeld‘s shows, with a Porter score and a large international cast led by Jessie MatthewsSonnie Hale and Tilly Losch. The revue,Wake Up and Dream, ran for 263 performances in London, after which Cochran transferred it to New York in 1929. On Broadway, business was badly affected by the 1929 Wall Street crash, and the production ran for only 136 performances. From Porter’s point of view, it was nonetheless a success, as his song “What is This Thing Called Love?” became immensely popular.

Porter’s new fame brought him offers from Hollywood, but as his score for Paramount‘s The Battle of Paris was undistinguished, and its star, Gertrude Lawrence, was miscast, the film was not a success.   Citron expresses the view that Porter was not interested in cinema and “noticeably wrote down for the movies.”   Still on a Gallic theme, Porter’s last Broadway show of the 1920s was Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), for which he wrote 28 numbers, including “You Do Something to Me“, “You’ve Got That Thing” and “The Tale of the Oyster.”   The show received mixed notices. One critic wrote, “the lyrics alone are enough to drive anyone but P.G. Wodehouse into retirement”, but others dismissed the songs as “pleasant” and “not an outstanding hit song in the show.”   As it was a lavish and expensive production, nothing less than full houses would suffice, and after only three weeks the producers announced that they would close it. Irving Berlin, who was an admirer and champion of Porter, took out a paid press advertisement calling the show “The best musical comedy I’ve heard in years…. One of the best collections of song numbers I have ever listened to”. This saved the show, which ran for 254 performances, considered a successful run at the time.

1940’s and postwar

Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich

Panama Hattie (1940) was Porter’s longest-running hit so far, running in New York for 501 performances, despite the absence of any enduring Porter songs.   It starred Merman, with Arthur Treacher and Betty HuttonLet’s Face It! (1941), starring Danny Kaye, had an even better run, with 547 performances in New York.   This, too, lacked any numbers that became standards, and Porter always counted it among his lesser efforts.   Something for the Boys (1943), starring Merman, ran for 422 performances, and Mexican Hayride (1944), starring Bobby Clark, with June Havoc, ran for 481 performances.  These shows, too, are short of Porter standards. The critics did not pull their punches; they complained about the lack of hit tunes and the generally low standard of Porter’s scores.   After two flops, Seven Lively Arts (1944) (which featured the standard “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”) and Around the World (1946), many thought that Porter’s best period was over.

Between Broadway musicals, Porter continued to write for Hollywood. His film scores of this period were You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) with Astaire and Rita HayworthSomething to Shout About (1943) with Don AmecheJanet Blair and William Gaxton, and Mississippi Belle (1943–44), which was abandoned before filming began.   He also cooperated in the making of the film Night and Day(1946), a largely fictional biography of Porter, with Cary Grant implausibly cast in the lead. The critics scoffed, but the film was a huge success, chiefly because of the wealth of vintage Porter numbers in it.   The success of the biopic contrasted severely with the failure of Vincente Minnelli‘s film The Pirate (1948), with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in which five new Porter songs received little attention.

From this low spot, Porter made a conspicuous comeback, in 1948, with Kiss Me, Kate. It was by far his most successful show, running for 1,077 performances in New York and 400 in London.   The production won the Tony Award for best musical (the first Tony awarded in that category), and Porter won for best composer and lyricist. The score includes “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Wunderbar”, “So In Love,” “We Open in Venice,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Always True to You (in My Fashion),” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

Porter began the 1950s with Out Of This World (1950), which had some good numbers but too much camp and vulgarity, and was not greatly successful. His next show, Can-Can (1952), featuring “C’est Magnifique” and “It’s All Right with Me,” was another hit, running for 892 performances.   Porter’s last original Broadway production, Silk Stockings (1955), featuring “All of You”, was also successful, with a run of 477 performances.   Porter wrote two more film scores and music for a television special before ending his Hollywood career. The film High Society (1956), starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, included Porter’s last major hit song, “True Love.”  The film was later adapted as a stage musical of the same name. Porter also wrote numbers for the film Les Girls (1957), which starred Gene Kelly. His final score was for a CBS television color special, Aladdin (1958).

Last years

Porter’s mother died in 1952, and his wife died from emphysema in 1954. By 1958, Porter’s injuries caused a series of ulcers on his right leg. After 34 operations, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb.   His friend Noël Coward visited him in the hospital and wrote in his diary, “The lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face…. I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.”   In fact, Porter never wrote another song after the amputation and spent the remaining six years of his life in relative seclusion, seeing only intimate friends.   He continued to live in the Waldorf Towers in New York in his memorabilia-filled apartment. On weekends he often visited an estate in the Berkshires, and he stayed in California during the summers.

Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 73. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana, between his wife and father, even though Porter was not close to his father.

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