Cole Porter was an only child prodigy whose life was filled with both privilege and adversity. He had all the money necessary to launch a career, but he also had a mother who was so controlling it’s a wonder he was ever able to establish his own identity. Perhaps that is why Cole had difficulty being honest about his sexual orientation.
His songs and lyrics are immediately familiar: I Get a Kick Out of You, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Don’t Fence Me In, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. We know the phrases and the tunes but not many of us can attach them to the man who was the preeminent song writing genius of the 1920-30s, Cole Porter. But who was this folk legend and what were his contributions to this century’s popular music?
An only child, Cole Porter got his name from a combination of his parents’ surnames, Kate Cole and Sam Porter. Cole’s maternal grandfather, James Omar (known as J.O.), was among the richest men in Indiana and was extremely influential throughout Cole’s life. J.O.’s business savvy, drive to make money, and relentless work ethic afforded his daughter a very comfortable life filled with the best of everything. Although Kate chose to marry a shy druggist from their hometown of Peru, Indiana, rather than the worldly man her father assumed she would wed, J.O. supported their marriage and their future which ultimately included Cole.
Cole Porter was born on June 9, 1891 and was musically inclined from an early age. He studied piano and violin at age six and was required to practice two hours every day in order to surpass his peers. Cole’s mother spent much of the practice time with him, parodying popular tunes on the piano in order to keep his interest. This lyrical playfulness and repetition influenced Cole’s creative sense of humor, evident in the lyrics he would later write. As a very beloved only child, Cole received much of his mother’s attention and time.
By the time he was fourteen Cole’s talent and ability were apparent, but for some reason his mother falsified his school records so that he appeared to be an extremely bright 12-year-old. Other unusual favors were extended to Kate and her son by virtue of grandfather J.O.’s wealth and influence. Among these, Kate financed student orchestras in exchange for the guarantee that Cole would play violin solos. She was also able to influence the media’s reviews of those concerts. Additionally, Kate subsidized the publication of Cole’s early compositions, including songs from as early as 1901 when he was ten. Cole dedicated one of those pieces to his mother and it was later published and mailed to various friends and relatives.
Cole enrolled in the Worcester School in 1905 and eventually became class valedictorian. Dr. Ambercrombie, his music teacher, was a significant influence during these years and taught Cole about the relationship between words, musical meter, and songs. Cole later remarked about Dr. Ambercrombie’s lessons, “Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one.”
Music led his life. Cole eventually attended Yale and his world was filled with the adventures, relationships, and musicals that would mark the rest of his years. It is assumed that during this time his homosexuality played an important role in his identity, and his gay lifestyle after college has been well documented.
The full scale college musical productions he designed for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, the Yale Dramatic Association, and solo performances in the Yale Glee Club defined Cole’s musical development. Despite a heavy academic workload and various social obligations, Cole was able to compose prolifically, leaving Yale a legacy of approximately 300 songs and six fullscale musical productions.
Cole’s grandfather had always wanted him to become a lawyer, and in an attempt to be dutiful, Cole briefly attended Harvard Law School. Despite J.O.’s disapproval of artistic careers, Cole ultimately abandoned his studies, moved to the Yale Club in New York, and continued writing music. Cole became prominent in the New York social scene and then set out for Paris in the summer of 1917. He never fought in WWI, but he lied about his military accomplishments in Europe, inventing stories about his involvement with the French Foreign Legion and the French Army. This allowed him to spend his time as a wealthy socialite in Paris while he maintaining his “war hero” image back home in the States.
By early 1919, Cole had spent considerable time with a wealthy American divorcee, Linda Thomas, who supported Cole and was from the same social milieu. Although Cole was openly gay, pressures from home probably hastened their marriage in December,1919. They lived a successful, though sexless, marriage for 35 years. The Porters settled in Hollywood where Cole began writing tunes for the film industry. He enjoyed the liberal sexual atmosphere in Hollywood, although some friction between Linda and Cole developed because she feared that his behavior would ruin his reputation and career. But their life changed dramatically in 1937.
During a serious horseback-riding accident Cole fractured both legs and sustained multiple injuries. In addition to the physical pain, he suffered psychologically from the blow to his good looks. After thirty-five operations and many months spent in the hospital, one of his legs was amputated. Although he remained in pain for the rest of his life, many of his signature songs and his major musical production, “Kiss Me Kate,” were written after the accident.
In 1945 “Night and Day”, a movie about the life of Cole Porter was produced with Cole’s permission but minimal involvement. Unfortunately, many important aspects of his life were omitted or glossed over; nonetheless, the very popular Cary Grant played the part of the composer, which delighted Cole.
Moss Hart, the American playwright and librettist, said, “Cole Porter is the most self-indulgent and pleasure-loving man I’ve ever known. But indulgence and pleasure stop dead the moment the song-writing begins.” The 1990’s may be experiencing a renaissance in the appreciation of Cole Porter’s music. An AIDS fund-raising pop album called “Red, Hot, and Blue” contains Cole Porter songs sung by popular musicians of the 80’s and 90’s. ASCAP reports that recent sales of the song “Night and Day” are the highest of all time. Clearly, Cole Porter’s individual songs, musicals and movie scores are a permanent part of contemporary American music. Although Porter died in 1964, his music will probably be “under our skin” as long as we are capable of appreciating beauty, elegance, and harmony.