Cole Albert Porter was a songwriter and composer who took Broadway by storm. He crafted some of the most melodious and sophisticated music for the American theatre and became a standard for his urbane and witty lyrics.
Porter was born on the 9th of July, 1891 to Samuel Fenwick Porter and Kate Cole in Indiana. He was also the only surviving child of the Porters, one of the most prosperous families in the State. Samuel was a druggist while Kate was the daughter of timber and coal magnate, James Omar “J. O.” Cole. In his childhood, Porter took musical training on his mother’s insistence and was quite proficient in violin and piano. He even crafted his very first operetta at the mere age of ten. His father, although a talented pianist and singer himself, wasn’t close to Cole. However, one can assume he offered some level of influence on Cole’s gift for meter and rhyme.
James Omar “J. O.” Cole wanted his grandson to pursue law and admitted him to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. Cole Porter took his piano to school. He was a good student and was became quite famous for his musical prowess. He soon became class valedictorian and subsequently received a European tour as a reward from his wealthy grandfather. In 1909, he went to Yale and majored in English, with Music and French as his other subjects. He was a regular contributor for the “The Yale Record,” the campus humor magazine, and was also a member of a cappella singing group - the “Whiffenpoofs.” In his senior year, he became the soloist of the Yale Glee Club. He crafted more than 300 songs at the University, including football songs like “Bingo Eli Yale,” and “Bulldog” that are still part of the playlist.
He switched to music after joining Harvard, going against the wishes of his grandfather, and continued studying counterpoint and harmony alongside Pietro Yon. His time at Harvard and the Yale Dramatic Association prepared him for the music industry. He wrote several scores for musical comedies like “Paranoia,” “The Kaleidoscope,” “The Pot of Gold,” “And the Villain Still Pursued Her,” and “Cora” between 1910 to 1915. He soon took up music professionally and concentrated on the theatre. He slowly made his name in the Broadway circle in the mid-1920s and was a major player in the industry by 1930. He was unique in the sense that he wrote his own lyrics and music for his songs.
In 1915, Porter debuted on Broadway with “Esmeralda,” which was part of the revue “Hands Up.” His next two assignments were sadly a flop, lasting only a couple of weeks. As World War I broke out, Porter joined the Duryea Relief organization and went to Paris. He started leading a lavish lifestyle with extravagant and sexually explicit parties, which involved bisexual activities and over-usage of recreational drugs. In 1918, he met and fell in love with Linda Lee Thomas. The couple tied the knot within a year. Linda and Cole shared mutual interests, and their bond was advantageous for both parties. She was aware of Porter's homosexuality but also saw a partner who wasn’t abusive, unlike her first husband, and with whom she can continue venturing into the higher echelons of society. Cole could portray a heterosexual image in an era where LGBTQ wasn’t acknowledged publicly.
The couple was extremely protective of their social stature, with Linda encouraging her husband to pursue classical music as a more prestigious outlet. Soon, Porter joined the Schola Cantorum in Paris to further study counterpoint and orchestration. In 1919, Porter scored his first hit with “Old-Fashioned Garden,” a track from the revue “Hitchy-Koo.” In 1921, two more comedy numbers titled “Olga, Come Back to the Volga,” and “The Blue Boy Blues” became hits. Success was accompanied by extravagance - the Porter residence had platinum wallpapers and zebra-skinned chairs. In 1923, Cole further inherited a fortune from his grandfather and soon rented several palaces in Venice. He often hired entire Ballets Russes and scores of gondoliers to entertain his guests.
Next, Cole collaborated with Gerald Murphy on two short ballets titled “Within the Quota,” and “Landed.” They were satires that depicted the story of an immigrant who becomes a film star in America. Porter was also responsible for one of the earliest jazz-based symphonies, even predating George Gershwin. In 1923, it premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris to great applause. The ballets soon toured New York and America, performing more than 50 times. However, things turned sour as Porter became frustrated by the public response to his works. He even considered giving up songwriting.
In 1928, Cole reintroduced himself to the Broadway crowd with a musical titled “Paris,” which became an instant hit. E. Ray Goetz commissioned it to Porter after failing to get his initial targets. Porter’s show contained his most famous numbers - “Let's Do It,” and “Let's Misbehave” and premiered on Broadway in October 1928. The response was overwhelming, cementing Porter’s place on the pantheon of legendary Broadway songwriters. C. B. Cochran smelled blood, he demanded more from Porter, planning a West End extravaganza with an international cast and Porter at the helm. The resulting revue titled “Wake Up and Dream,” ran in London for a record of 263 shows. It was soon transferred to New York but the subsequent Wall Street crash limited the shows to 136. A number from the revue “What Is This Thing Called Love?” became extremely popular.
This new fame drew eyes in Hollywood, as Paramount Pictures were the first to table an offer for the movie “The Battle of Paris.” It turned out to be a dud, as Porter again concentrated on Broadway, crafting 28 numbers for “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” including - “The Tale of the Oyster,” “You’ve Got That Thing” and “You Do Something to Me.” It received mixed responses, some critics panning it while Irving Berlin, a fellow composer, and admirer of Porter, championing it by publishing a press advertisement. This somehow saved its reputation as it ran 254 times.
Next, Porter concentrated on stage shows. In 1932, he worked on “Gay Divorce,” which comprised his most famous song “Night and Day.” It ran for 248 performances after initial skepticism and broke even. RKO Pictures bought movie rights, which was titled “The Gay Divorcee.” In 1933, Porter followed up with “Nymph Errant” for the West End, which ran for 154 performances. The hit numbers include - “Solomon,” “The Physician,” and “Experiment.”
In 1934, he collaborated with Vinton Freedley on “Anything Goes” and produced arguably his greatest scores, with songs like “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The show ran 420 times in New York City and 261 times in London. It also kickstarted his collaboration with Ethel Merman, who was his personal favorite. They worked together on “Jubilee,” and “Red, Hot and Blue.” The former featured the songs “Just One of Those Things,” and “Begin the Beguine,” running for 169 performances. The latter included “Ridin’ High,” “Down in the Depths,” and “It's De-Lovely,” running 183 times.
Porter was also working actively in Hollywood, creating the scores for the movies “Born to Dance,” “Rosalie” and “Paree, Paree” during the mid-1930s. In 1937, tragedy struck as Porter met an accident at the Piping Rock Club in New York City. His horse fell on him and crushed his limbs, leaving him partially crippled for life. He spent the next years in a country home in Massachusetts working sparingly for Hollywood. In 1940, the musical “Panama Hattie” became his longest-running hit show, putting up 501 performances. In 1948, “Kiss Me, Kate” broke all his records, running 1077 times in New York City and 400 times in London. It also won a Tony Award for Best Musical with Porter becoming the best lyricist and composer. The featured songs were - “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “Too Darn Hot,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” and ‘We Open in Venice.”
In 1958, Porter’s injuries caused further damage as he developed ulcers on his right leg and had to be amputated. He lived his last years with an artificial limb, passing away on the 15th of October, 1964 from a kidney failure.
Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture
- In 1956, Ella Fitzgerald released her own renditions of Porter songs in an album titled “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.”
- In 1959, “Oscar Peterson Plays the Cole Porter Songbook” was released by Oscar Peterson comprising compositions by Porter.
- In 1965, Julie London released “All Through the Night: Julie London Sings the Choicest of Cole Porter.”
- In the same year, Judy Garland paid tribute to Porter by performing a medley of his compositions at the Academy Awards.
- In 1972, Ella Fitzgerald released her own tribute album titled “Ella Loves Cole.”
- In 1980, the musical “Happy New Year” featured Porter’s music. Also, the CBS television series “The Carol Burnett Show” paid their tribute to Porter through a humorous sketch.
- In 1990, Dionne Warwick recorded her album titled “Dionne Sings Cole Porter.”
- In 1990, a CD was released for the benefits of AIDS research featuring 20 of Cole Porter’s best numbers. Annie Lennox and U2 had performed for this.
- In the same year, a video containing interviews of various artists and archives of them performing Cole Porter's music was released to celebrate his 100th birth anniversary.
- In 1996, the legendary Frank Sinatra released his rendition of Porter songs titled “Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Cole Porter.”
- In 2004, Irwin Winkler’s movie “De-Lovely” portrayed Porter’s life, with Kevin Kline starring as the protagonist.
- In 2007, one of the brass stars on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” was dedicated to Porter.
- In 2010, Porter’s portrait was incorporated into the Governor of Indiana’s “Hoosier Heritage Gallery.”
- In 2011, the character of Cole Porter made an appearance in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris.”
- In 2014, a plaque was placed on the Legacy Walk in Chicago in honor of Cole Porter, the LGBTQ achiever.
- The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performed their rendition of Cole Porter’s music, including clips from his Hollywood ventures.
- The U.S. Postal Service released a commemorative postage stamp in honor of Porter’s birth anniversary.
- The Cole Porter Festival is an annual event held in Peru, Indiana - Porter’s hometown to foster art and music.
A Master Storyteller
Cole Porter was born into provincial affluence. He enjoyed the advantages that his contemporaries might dream of, but he chose the hard road at the end of it. Money doesn’t guarantee musical prowess, or success, let alone Broadway credentials. He certainly reversed the quintessential American Dream to an extent, which makes his story more interesting. He ventured into the supremely organized genre of popular songwriting and composition, a place where the facilities don’t allow easy entry of subversive emotions, but where the art is to make the subversive universal enough to eliminate the subtext altogether.
Porter’s gifts as a lyricist were legendary, and to the point that it may feel a tad impish to champion his composing skills more. However, it’s hard to ignore his overly-jazz themes equipped with an inherent thrust - a riddle for the swing lovers. Broadway and Hollywood were all about putting on a show, and his melodies swung themselves. Cole Porter measured success through the number of hits it offered - strictly economic. He had his own theories about how much time a song required to become a hit. In this regard, he was one-dimensional, focusing on the spectacular. However, he never used his shows to craft drama. His songs were his own avenue of storytelling, and he was a master of the game.
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