Monday, March 4, 2013

Cole Porter

Irving Berlin once wrote a letter to Cole Porter in which he inverted his own song lyrics. Berlin told his friend, `Anything I can do, you can do better.' Cole Porter, born in Indiana, schooled at Yale and Harvard, became one of America's most beloved composers and writers of popular song. Unlike many other Tin Pan Alley songwriters, the classically trained Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics.

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 1920s, and by the 1930s 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 1940s did not contain the lasting hits of his best work of the 1920s and 30s, but in 1948 he made a triumphant comeback with his most successful musical, Kiss Me, Kate. It won the first Tony Award for best musical.

Singer Susannah McCorkle once said "Cole Porter was the sexiest songwriter. And his songs are infused with this sexual passion and longing that no other great songwriter captured, which is one reason he's very close to my heart. It's like having a new love affair all over again to sing a Cole Porter song." I couldn't agree more.

Cole promoted the legend that he fought in World War I, however, there seems to be a lot of speculation about what Cole did during these years. It is fairly certain that he served as a part time volunteer behind the lines.  shortly thereafter, he met wealthy American socialite Linda Lee Thomas. The survivor of a physically abusive first marriage, Linda was happy to overlook Porter's sexuality in exchange for his witty companionship and a share in his glamorous life. He in turn found in Linda the sophisticated, protective life partner he needed, with a personal fortune even greater than his own. The Porters married in 1919, maintaining a joint social calendar but separate bedrooms. Although their union had its rocky moments and occasional break-ups, Cole and Linda remained, in their own way, devoted to each other. Linda's patience was extraordinary, and Cole knew how put that patience to the test.

After a brief, frustrating affair with ballet star Boris Kochno in 1925, Porter limited his sex life to emotionless encounters with sailors and prostitutes. He found that sex, like other pleasures, could be far less complicated when it was purchased. Porter's old friend Monty Woolley often joined him to cruise New York City's waterfront bars and bordellos. The male prostitutes and lower-class tricks they picked up in these places were not likely to talk and would not be believed if they did. The two friends were usually successful in their quests for fresh diversion, at least in part because of their boldness. One night, a young sailor they drove up to on the street asked outright, "Are you two c**ksuckers?" Wooley smiled and said, "Now that the preliminaries are over, why don't you get in and we can discuss the details?"

After Cole discovered the hedonistic lifestyle of Hollywood, his pool parties and gay escapades became so outrageous that Linda left him for several years. She returned when a horse riding accident shattered Cole's legs. In his later years, Porter had several relationships with handsome younger men, but none of these ever eclipsed his relationship with Linda. He limited his sexual encounters to young men who accepted payment in return for their silence. If they spiced things up with a little verbal abuse, Porter found it all the more diverting.

Porter became a center of the social whirl wherever he went, particularly among the homosexual elite. He was the only person who ever threatened director George Cukor's pre-eminence in Hollywood's gay circles. In George Cukor: A Double Life  (St. Martin's: NY, 1991 and is currently being reissued on March 22, 2013), biographer Patrick McGilligan writes that these competing world-class egos were called "the rival Queens of Hollywood," but concedes that "Porter's was perhaps the more privileged invitation."

While Cole kept his sex life a private matter, he had no qualms about using homosexual references in his work. But, as with almost everything else, he did it with singular style.
In the "coded" years, Cole amused himself by pitching his words on two levels, so that the "coach party" audience was content with the obvious, while the "in" group relished the real meaning.

- Graham Payne, My Life with Noel Coward
A classic example – Porter's lyric for "A Picture of Me Without You" from Jubilee (1935) includes "picture Central Park without a sailor." To the average audience member, this was a harmless line, but "in" group knew this referred to The Ramble, a heavily wooded section of the park where gays cruised willing straight men. When Linda died in 1954, much of the spark seemed to go out of Cole's life. He continued to have serious crushes, but illness made him a semi-recluse in the years leading up to his death in 1964.


silvereagle said...

From the play, The Gay Divorcee, "Night and Day I have you under my skin....." certainly takes on a new mental image now!!!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Very interesting.
Thanks for an entertaining bio on an entertaining man! I love his work.

Peace <3