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Porter, Cole

Category: Musician or composer

 

Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter. 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.  Porter wrote the lyrics, as well as the music, for his songs.  His body of work includes well over 1,400 songs and around 40 musicals and shows.

Some are one-offs which continue to astonish listeners today. For example, in Miss Otis Regrets (1934) we are told by a servant of a polite society lady how her employer was seduced and abandoned. In just a few lines of lyrics, we learn that Miss Otis hunted down and shot her seducer, was arrested, taken from the jail by a mob, and lynched. The servant conveys Miss Otis's final, polite, apologetic words to her friends: "Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today." There is not another song like it.

His numerous hit songs include "Night and Day", "Begin the Beguine", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Well, Did You Evah!", "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 song "You'd Be So Easy to Love"; Rosalie (1937), which featured "In the Still of the Night"; High Society (1956), which included "True Love"; and Les Girls (1957).

He received numerous tributes and awards, too many to list, but perhaps his most telling tribute is that his songs are still being sung and interpreted by modern groups as diverse as U2 and Simply Red, and by singers like Annie Lennox, Rod Stewart, K D Lang and David Byrne.  We have featured some of these interpretations in the observations [by linking them to youtube videos] in order to show how his songs somehow invite fresh interpretations, because they are so timeless.

From whence cometh the inspiration?

Porter was not religious or spiritually minded, but he was inspired and thus we might ask the question, where did this inspiration come from?  And it is a curious mix of inherited genes, overload activities and suppression activities – the latter principally based on love and friendship, the former including addiction to doctor prescribed narcotics. 

Suppression - Inherited genes

painting

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. But his musical ability came from his father, a shy and unassertive man, an amateur poet, a vocalist and pianist.

Cole Porter was gay and left handed, a fairly potent combination at the best of times.  Because he was left handed, according to one source “he found it awkward to write down music on staff paper and worked out a solution by turning the paper at a right angle, so that the staff lines were vertical”. [Incidentally as a left hander myself I find this difficult to believe, but the fact he was a left hander is not disputed].

Overload - Making love, lust and excess

One of his principal sources of inspiration in his early years was his sexual relationships with men.  Cole Porter appears to have been inspired by passion, extremes of emotion, not necessarily love as such, but physical attraction and excess.  Overload in extremes.

From - Gay Influence [Gay & Bisexual Men of Importance]

During WWI, Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with a little of everything sprinkled in for good measure – much gay and bisexual activity, cross-dressing, international musicians, Italian nobility, and a large surplus of recreational drugs……………..

 

What needs to be stressed here however, is that Cole Porter did not confine his extreme activities to sex, he threw the same enthusiasm of excess into everything, including entertaining:

From - Gay Influence [Gay & Bisexual Men of Importance]
Soon after their marriage, Linda bought a much larger Parisian residence in 1920 at 13, rue Monsieur, a street just one block long, not far from Les Invalides and the Rodin Museum (and purchased for more than $10 million in today’s money). The rear garden backed up to the house of Nancy Mitford, the British novelist, biographer and socialite ……Linda’s house in Paris was so large that they rented a suite of rooms to Howard Sturges, a close friend of Linda’s who became Cole’s dearest life-long friend. ……. Sturges, a witty, old-money Boston socialite, was a trained violinist who kept a pet bear and walked a pig on a leash through the streets of Paris. I’m not making this up.
The Porters were peripatetic to the extreme. They always travelled with an entourage of servants and friends, usually picking up the tab for their guests, and quickly became acquainted with Egypt, Monte Carlo, Italy, London, Biarritz, Spain and New York. To say that the Porters lived large is understatement.

In 1923, Porter came into an inheritance from his grandfather, and the Porters began living in rented palaces in Venice. He hired the entire Ballets Russes to entertain his house guests, and for a party at Ca' Rezzonico, 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, but it has to be said with not much success.

 

Porter received few commissions for songs in these years or the years immediately after his marriage, during this time of excess. He had the occasional number interpolated into other writers' revues in Britain and the U.S.  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, it was well received by both French and American critics, not a good sign, it sunk without trace.  His songs were gradually dropped from Greenwich Village Follies (1924), during the Broadway run, and by the time of the post-Broadway tour in 1925, all his numbers had been deleted.  Porter nearly gave up song writing as a career.  But this time of excess did give him material to work with, experiences he could use.

Suppression - Love and friendship

Linda

Cole suffered none of the angst and loneliness with which Aaron Copland was tormented.  As a consequence his songs were jolly, boisterous, provocative and melodious with none of the disharmony that Copland used to convey the agony he was in.  And the reason is that he found love, companionship and friendship with Linda Lee Thomas (November 17, 1883 – May 20, 1954).

In 1918, Porter met Linda, 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 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.

 

Linda helped Cole's career.  She believed, for example, that classical music might be a more prestigious outlet than Broadway for her husband's talents, and tried to use her connections to find him suitable teachers, including Igor Stravinsky, but was unsuccessful.

But, Porter eventually did enroll at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d'Indy.  In the end it was Linda’s continued support and never say die attitude towards his music that ultimately gave him inspiration.

Linda and Cole Porter were genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 12th, 1919, until her death in 1954. 

Their marriage was without sex, but certainly not without love. They adored each other. Years later Linda miscarried, but it is not certain whether Cole was the father. Linda was known to have affairs of her own. “It’s all a cloud of ambiguity.”  As it should be.

 There were other sources of love and friendship too - Porter's little Dachshund became famous as his companion whilst he composed

Suppression – Reducing threats

The combined wealth of Linda and Cole Porter meant Cole had none of the insecurities that Aaron Copland had to endure.  Linda was ‘fabulously wealthy’ but then so was Cole.  Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only surviving child of a wealthy family. His father, Samuel Fenwick Porter, was a druggist by trade.  But 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. 

 

Linda was descended from the Paca family (one of whom was a signer of the Declaration of Independence) as well as from the Lees of Virginia.  As such they were of equal status with no suggestions on either side of gold digging, each could trust the other. 

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. But Porter brought an upright piano with him.  Entering Yale University in 1909, Porter majored in English, minored in music, and also studied French.  Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale.

at Yale

After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913 at the insistence of his grandfather. 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.  Like Aaron Copland, he was classically trained, but his whole personality was drawn towards musical theatre and he was able to pursue it because he financially independent enough to do so.

This financial security did not so much help his creativity as to help him pursue the career he really wanted and also to write songs that were light and buoyant, full of humour.  The contrast with Copland could not be greater.

Overload – Extreme pain, Drugs and pharmaceuticals

Before Cole married, he held and attended parties in which, as it is said above, he used ‘recreational drugs’.  The main drug used appears to have been the cocaine.  But by far his greatest drug use was prescribed by doctors and is a very very tragic story.

Medscape - Thursday, October 12, 2017; The Painful Life of Cole Porter - Howard Markel, MD, PhD

Porter's medical history, is scrupulously documented in the biography by William McBrien. After years of equestrian sportsmanship, in October of 1937, the composer's legs were crushed when his horse shied and rolled directly over them. The half-ton horse's fall delivered compound fractures to both of Porter's thighbones and provided the entryway for osteomyelitis, perhaps one of the most serious and difficult to treat infections known. Even today, as every doctor knows all too well, infections of the bones, which are slow to absorb even the most powerful of antibiotics, present a daunting challenge to treatment.

 

Over the next 2 decades, Porter underwent a series of excruciating operations on the bones and nerves of his legs. Determined not to let these injuries diminish his busy creative or social life, Porter continued full throttle as evidenced by the scores of photographs during this era depicting the formally attired composer being literally carried by his valet to social events and Broadway openings, not to mention producing a torrent of songs and musicals that remain standards of 20th century American theater, jazz, film, and popular music.

At the same time he wrote many of his best-known, confectionary musical masterpieces, Porter was undergoing a brutal medical regime that would stop most in their tracks. For example, writing in 1945 to the choreographer Nelson Barclift, Porter explained the details of his latest operation in which the surgeon had to rebreak the bones of his legs, remove the jagged ends, splice the Achilles' tendons, and remove 8 inches of his tibia bones to perform a bone graft over the fractured areas. Most vexing, however, was continued evidence of staphylococcal infection in the poorly healing bones and severe pain from scar tissue pressing on the nerves that made tortuous even something as light as the touch of a sheet.

 Photo by Don Hunstein Taken in 1958 during
the rehearsals for Alladin

Coincident to the opening of such Broadway hits as Kiss Me Kate (1948), Can-Can (1953), Silk Stockings (1955), and the remake of the 1939 motion picture, The Philadelphia Story, appropriately retitled High Society and starring Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Bing Crosby in 1956, Porter's physical condition plummeted. In 1958, after a valiant battle, the germs inhabiting his bone marrow won and Porter's right leg was amputated at mid-thigh. Although he was fitted for a prosthetic leg and underwent rigorous physical therapy, the man whose witty lyrics and melodies epitomized hope and joy had little to be hopeful about. Porter told many friends, after the amputation, "I am only half a man now."

In his last years, Porter confined his once glamorous nights and days to his apartment in the Waldorf Towers. The horrible pain he experienced in both of his severely damaged limbs led to an ever-increasing reliance on alcohol and narcotic painkillers.

Sadly, these problems, combined with the surgical removal of part of his stomach for gastric ulcers, bouts of pneumonia, bladder infections, kidney stones, and loneliness (his beloved Linda died in 1954), all led to overwhelming depression and debilitation.

When Porter died at the age of 73 in 1964, few people, save his closest friends and associates, had any idea of the painful and tragic life he led for more than 25 years. Miraculously, through physical anguish, drastic surgical procedures, and the grip of addiction, he could still trip the light fantastic in his mind and reliably inspire the rest of us to do so as well. Such stories remind patients and doctors alike that regardless of the outcome, the human spirit remains the most formidable foe of illness.

Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, Irving Berlin and Producer Don Hartman, notice the stick

References

 

 

 

 

Cole Porter  - William McBrien

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Observations

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