Today we mark the death of the songwriter and bon vivant par excellence Cole Albert Porter. He was born on June 9, 1891, and died at the age of 73 on October 15, 1964: 54 years ago today.
We begin with what is, I think, is a great story.
In September of 1939, Igor Stravinsky travelled from his home in Paris to Cambridge Massachusetts, there to be the Norton professor at Harvard for the school year. By the time his residency ended in June of 1940, France was being overrun by the Nazis. Stravinsky and his wife Vera had a choice to make: go back to Europe and take their chances or stay in the United States where the Hollywood studios were begging Stravinsky to head west. Not a tough choice.
Stravinsky instantly became a Hollywood celebrity and his music a sought-after commodity. Disney used The Rite of Spring for the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. Barnum and Bailey’s circus commissioned Stravinsky to write a work for its dancing elephants. The producer-huckster Billy Rose commissioned a work called Scènes de ballet.
After the premiere of Scènes de ballet, Rose telegraphed Stravinsky:
“YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF YOU WOULD AUTHORIZE ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT [TO] RETOUCH ORCHESTRATION STOP BENNETT ORCHESTRATES EVEN THE WORKS OF COLE PORTER”
Stravinsky telegraphed back:
“SATISFIED WITH GREAT SUCCESS.”
Back, please, to the last line of Billy Rose’s telegram:
“BENNETT ORCHESTRATES EVEN THE WORKS OF COLE PORTER”
Clearly, Cole Porter was a big enough star in Rose’s estimation that by invoking him, not even Igor freaking-Stravinsky would be able to say “no” to having his orchestration “retouched”.
How “big” – how “popular” – was Cole Porter in his day? Who should we compare him to today?
Let’s step back for a moment before we answer that question.
Porter’s first big hit was a Broadway musical entitled Paris, which opened in 1928 when Porter was 37. (The show featured one of Porter’s greatest songs, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”.) His last musical show was entitled Aladdin. Based on a book by S.J. Perelman, it was produced in 1958.
In that 30-year career, Porter wrote the words and the music to hundreds of songs. By my informal count, at least 35 of them are masterpieces of the genre, among the greatest songs of the so-called “Great American Songbook”: that canon of enduring popular American “standards” created between the 19-teens and 1950s for musical revues, Broadway theater, and Hollywood musicals.
The principal composers of the ”Great American Songbook” are Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Harold Arlen and – yes – Cole Porter. (An interesting commentary on the nature of the American entertainment business during the first half of the twentieth century: excepting Cole Porter, all of these songwriters were immigrant Jews or the children/grandchildren of immigrant Jews.)
Who, then, constitute today’s equivalent of these phenomenally talented songwriters? Who has been working and producing continuously for the last 20 or 30 years at the highest level, creating songs of the highest artistic merit that are also, in their way, representative of our culture and consciousness? Off the top of my head, I would suggest Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young.
To the point: Cole Porter was big, and deservedly so. His songs – suave, cultured, wry and über-literate – captured the tuxedoed, urban-sophisticate spirit (“anothuh mahtini, my dear?”) of so much escapist theater and cinema of the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in Peru, Indiana, Porter grew up in wealth and luxury, the sole heir to a huge fortune. (His maternal grandfather, James Omar Cole, was called “the richest man in Indiana.”) Porter attended the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts and then Yale University, where his instincts as a party animal and his bottomless wallet made him a most popular man on campus and in New York City, where he’d entertain his classmates in restaurants, theaters, and
While at Yale, Porter wrote over 300 songs and whole musical comedies for his fraternity, and despite a brief stint at Harvard Law School at the behest of his wealthy grandfather, the theater remained his passion.
When the United States entered World War One in 1917, Porter moved to Paris, presumably to work for a relief organization. All sorts of stories have circulated about Porter’s wartime activities, including his claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion(!). But here’s what we know: the 26 year-old Porter set himself up in a luxury apartment in Paris where, we are told:
“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.”
Though a homosexual himself, on December 19, 1919 Porter married a rich, Louisville Kentucky-born divorcée named Linda Lee Thomas. She was eight years older than Porter and she had no doubts about his sexuality. Nevertheless, it was an excellent match: Cole gave Linda social status and security while Linda gave Cole a cover of heterosexuality. They were devoted to each other and remained married until her death in 1954.
Cole continued to write songs (some of which were finding their way into shows) even as he and Linda partied. In 1923 they rented a magnificent eighteenth century palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal called Ca’ Rezzonico for $4,000 a month (the equivalent of $58,349 today). Their parties were legendary. For one they hired out Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes to entertain their guests. At another they hired 50 gondoliers to act as footmen while a troupe of tightrope walkers lit from below by a huge bank of lights performed above the palazzo and its adjacent canals.
Porter’s wealth allowed him a freedom to dabble and write that the rest of us can only envy. Success finally came in 1928 and fame followed in the 1930s. His shows and movies were studded with great songs, including “Anything Goes”, “Begin the Beguine”, “Night and Day”, “In the Still of the Night”, “You’d Be So Easy to Love”, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, “I Get A Kick Out of You”, “Don’t Fence Me In”, “You’re the Top”, and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (or as Frank Sinatra sang it, “I’ve Got Choo Under My Skin”).
Success brought Porter back to the United States in 1934. He rented a six-bedroom apartment on the 33rd floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he lived in luxury for thirty years. Porter was in the habit of summering in California, and that is where he died – in Santa Monica – 54 years ago today. He is buried in Peru, Indiana, between his wife and his father in the family plot.
Post Script. As a public service, I’d just like to let you know that Porter’s apartment at the Waldorf – what is now referred to as the “Cole Porter Suite” – can be rented for $140,000 a month. (That works out to $4666.66 per day. I wonder if they would pro-rate the price for a February rental?).
Should someone out there decide to rent it, please invite me to a party. I’ll play the piano and mix the martinis!
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