The artist’s genial and productive surface masked turbulent waters.
Photograph by Horst P. Horst
Back in 1976, the incomparable drama critic Kenneth Tynan wondered in his diary when someone was “going to take a deep breath and declare that, at some time in the thirties, the serious music tradition finally withered, curled up and died of sterility and malnutrition; and that the greatest composers of the twentieth century are Berlin, Rodgers, Porter, Kern, Gershwin, et al.” This view, bold enough at the time to be fit only for a diary, has by now become commonplace. In the mid-nineteen-seventies, you had to haunt London record shops to find Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin or Cole Porter albums. Now those recordings, and the songs they illuminate, are everywhere. Prompted, perhaps, by the publication, in the early seventies, of Alec Wilder’s groundbreaking study, “American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950,” the old songwriters have come to have a new presence, and their songs even a collective brand name: the American Songbook. Their music is now taken up routinely by the same rock singers who once seemed to have overshadowed them, with some (Van Morrison singing “A Foggy Day”) oddly good, some (Rod Stewart singing “Someone to Watch Over Me”) oddly bad, and some (Bob Dylan singing “The Night We Called It a Day”) just odd.
Like all victories in art, this one has a double-edged result. On the one hand, the music is, mostly, out there. On the other, the essential work of discrimination is lost in a blanketing cloud of nostalgia. Embattled memory takes things apart; complacent nostalgia squashes them back together. The first wave of rediscovery had ukases and prohibitions—Alec Wilder wrote off essentially all of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and almost everything self-consciously “jazzy” in Gershwin. (He preferred Harold Arlen, who knew jazz inside out, to Gershwin—a shocking view then.) These days, a smiling, everyone-together spirit inflects the appreciative albums and Lincoln Center celebrations; Tynan’s “et al.” covers a lot of talents, big and small. When you are in the middle of a battle, as Wilder was, it is important to sort out the fighters from the freeloaders. Once it has been won, everybody gets a medal.
So, with squads of scholars arriving on the field after the battle, to tend the wounded and bury the dead, we have a renewed chance not just to get the story right but to get the stature right, to figure out who ranks where and why. Certainly, Porter’s ghost could not ask for better care than he has been given in “The Letters of Cole Porter” (Yale), edited by Cliff Eisen, a professor of music history at King’s College London, and Dominic McHugh, a musicologist at the University of Sheffield (and the editor of Alan Jay Lerner’s letters). Laid out with a meticulous scholarly apparatus, as though this were the correspondence of Grover Cleveland, every turn in the songwriter’s story is deep-dived for exact chronology, and every name casually dropped by Porter gets a worried, explicatory footnote. The editors have also included some secondary material that is not, strictly speaking, correspondence at all, such as a hair-raising journal of the mid-thirties M-G-M movie project that became the Eleanor Powell vehicle “Born to Dance.”
As an artist’s letters, they are, truth be told, disappointing. There are few flights of fancy or spontaneous improvisations in Porter’s writings to friends—for such a famous wit, there is remarkably little wit. The most arresting passages of writing and thinking arrive less often in letters-from than in letters-to. Abe Burrows, the great musical “book writer”—what others call a libretto Broadway people call a book, and what others call a book they usually call revenge—contributes several good things. He offers Porter definitive wisdom about making musicals: “Doing a show is not unlike bringing up a child. The child develops a life of its own. The parents do their best but certain things remain immutable, and the child is what he is.” Porter, a great appreciator, tells Burrows that he liked those words enough to paste them in his scrapbook.
Yet a reader, without learning much directly about Porter’s art, comes away from the book with an even higher opinion of him as an artist than might have been held before. Though he was born into genuine if provincial affluence, with second-tier European royalty filling out the family’s dance card on vacation, he chose to become a working stiff. Reversing the usual American ascent from labor to leisure makes for a more strenuous, and more moving, story. The labor produced a new kind of American lyric, and language.
Porter’s personal tale was well known even when other songwriters’ were not. To get a bio-pic, peers among the great songwriters had to die young, like Gershwin (who got a pretty good movie in “Rhapsody in Blue”) or Lorenz Hart (who got a terrible one in “Words and Music”). But Porter was the subject of two movies, including one, “Night and Day” (1946), made in his lifetime and with his reluctant collaboration, despite the unsayable but far from secret truth that he was gay. In his own social world, he was about as out as a man could be in those days, with a rich repertory of lovers and assignations.
Porter’s story was appealing because it was seemingly so generational—so Fitzgerald-like in its ascension from Midwestern beginnings to East Coast fame. Born in Peru, Indiana, in 1891 to the wealthiest family in town—perhaps the wealthiest in all of Indiana—he went to Yale right before the Great War. (Fitzgerald, four years behind him, at Princeton, regarded Porter’s commercial career a little enviously, as a path not taken.) A precocious though largely untrained musician, Porter wrote what are still among the school’s fight songs. Then came a short period of service in the war, followed by a long holiday in Europe through the early twenties, with a loving but mostly sexless marriage of convenience to Linda Lee Thomas, of the Virginia Lees. It was a perfect Gerald Murphy-style Jazz Age life, disrupted only by Porter’s determination to get to New York and become a successful Broadway songwriter—a very strange, and very “Jewish,” ambition for a young socialite.
Beneath his smooth, genial, almost inhumanly productive and evasive surface, there were turbulent waters. His very name, for all its air of Ivy League ease, represents a burdened legacy. The Porters were his difficult, scapegrace father’s family; the Coles were his mother’s rich and ambitious Indiana family. He was a Porter by birth but, if his mother had anything to do with it, would be a Cole for life.
Privilege has its privileges, and Porter’s queerness, evident in the countless letters in this volume to kindred souls, like Monty Woolley—the once famous character actor, whom he’d met at Yale, the original star of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”—seems never to have tormented him, as it did Hart. Porter, by temperament and entitlement, came of age among the openly bisexual European upper crust. Everyone knew that he was a gay man with a marriage of convenience; everyone agreed to maintain the pretense that he wasn’t. Far from a drama of either repression or subversion, the situation seems like an oddly happy social concord.
His letters to his lovers are in the same register as those of the Oscar Wilde–Robbie Ross circle in London a few decades earlier: chummy more than erotic, with a transparent language of concealment, a more or less open code of intrigue. “Way out here one gets that wicked city idea about New York & all those purlieus,” he writes to the dancer Nelson Barclift, from his cottage in Williamstown. “Have you been in a purlieu tonight? Confess. Say, ‘Guilty.’ But do write me soon that you have reported it all to Ben & Ollie”—gay friends—“for, for some intangible reason, they cleanse the impurity out of what they touch. And they touch plenty.”
It might be argued, and has been, most notably in William McBrien’s 1998 biography, that Porter’s sexuality shaped his sentiments, which burst out in happy one-night-stand songs like “Just One of Those Things” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with their note of sexual infatuation, cherished but not easily transmuted into domesticity. “I’d sacrifice anything come what might / For the sake of having you near / In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night / And repeats, repeats in my ear” does not lead us neatly to become the folks who live on the hill.
But Frank Sinatra had no trouble applying the songs, or their emotions, to Ava Gardner or her successors. At a time when everyone was chafing against the constraints of bourgeois morality, a sex song like “Let’s Misbehave” spoke as clearly to straying straights as it did to cruising gays. The sport of writing in a tightly organized genre like popular song is not to smuggle in specifically subversive subtext when the censors aren’t looking but to make the subversive emotions universal enough not to need a subtext. Porter was to straight sex in his “affair” songs as his best friend, Irving Berlin, was to Christianity in writing “White Christmas”—the outsider’s triumph was to own the insider’s material. It may be, as some have suggested, that the climactic lines “But if, baby, I’m the bottom / You’re the top” in Porter’s “You’re the Top” already meant in 1936 what they mean in erotic slang now; the point is that, post-Porter, they no longer had to mean only that.
Porter is so famous for his gifts as a lyricist that it might seem mischievous to the point of perversity to suggest that his real greatness resides in his skills as a composer. Yet how many other popular composers have had more hits with instrumental, unsung versions of their work? Artie Shaw’s version of “Begin the Beguine” is the best known, but the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s album of Porter songs, from the mid-sixties, with Paul Desmond’s peerless sax, is just as good. Though rarely overtly jazz in the Arlen-Gershwin manner, his melodies have so much mysterious inner propulsion that, asked to swing, they practically swing themselves.
For all Porter’s aristocratic mien, his tastes were rather plain, as those of the American upper classes usually are—high taste is typically simple taste, as anyone who has eaten at a Wasp club knows. His list of requirements for a hotel room in Philadelphia during a tryout included sliced liverwurst, salami, and bologna, and twenty-four cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Another small but striking social trait that runs through the letters is the preponderance of presents that were incumbent on people in show business then; Porter gives and gets flowers, paintings, wine, books for the smallest of reasons, and then writes at length to thank the present-giver, or to thank the present-recipient for his thanks. People who came of age in Porter’s time took gift-giving as seriously as the Kwakiutls took their potlatches, and for the same reason: coming of age in a culture of surplus, they believed in constant exchanges of the signs of prosperity.
Porter, high-Wasp tastes and all, had to navigate a Broadway and Hollywood world that was astoundingly uniform in its Jewishness. A famous story has Porter confiding in a friend that he was going to write “Jewish tunes,” meaning minor-key pentatonic croonings of the kind that Berlin had mastered in “Blue Skies.” In Mary Martin’s first showstopper song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the melisma in the middle section is self-consciously, even uncomfortably, Eastern European-sounding in order to indicate that “Daddy” is Jewish.
The degree of reverse cultural assimilation that this Gentile from the Midwest had to undertake is captured in one of the funniest letters Porter ever wrote, to his (Jewish) agent, Irving Lazar:
Thank you for your letter of Dec. 28 1955. I am not an idiot child. I do not call Sol “Saul” nor do I call Saul “Sol.” These are two different people. There is a producer named Sol Siegel—and an assistant producer named Saul Chaplin. Sol sent Saul to be with me here for ten days while I wrote new material. . . . Since Saul (not Sol) returned to Culver City, I have received charming telephone calls from Sol, and a most enthusiastic letter from Saul.
It’s a Porter lyric in miniature (“Sol Sent Saul to Tell Me All”), and shows what a forest of alien manners, or at least names, a boy from Indiana had to make his way through at a time when all the other great show-tune innovators—Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen—were Jewish. What other kind of tunes could you write?
Porter’s story does have a dramatic climax. In the fall of 1937, when he was forty-six, he endured a horrific accident, in which the horse he was riding fell on him and crushed one of his legs. The injuries led to more than thirty operations in the course of his life, all excruciatingly painful, and a legacy of permanent suffering. Just how agonizing his condition must have been, and what consequences it had for his work, has been a source of much speculation. Wilder, among others, insists that there was minimal good work after the accident. Eisen and McHugh dispute that verdict; certainly, his most successful Broadway shows, including “Kiss Me, Kate,” all happened well afterward. Still more certainly, the letters are heroic in their avoidance of self-pity, though they also reveal for the first time just how bad his injuries were. “When the cast was removed, I shall never forget the first sight of my leg,” he wrote to Monty Woolley from his hospital bed. “I asked ‘What is the jelly it’s covered with?’ And the reply was, ‘That’s not jelly, that’s blebs’ ”—blisters. “It was hard to believe for the whole leg looked like a flowing mass of lava and it sorta made me sick.” Heavily drugged, he managed to write down some of his “craziest illusions”: “My right leg stretches, slanting upwards before me, like the side of the hill, the summit of which is my toes. From the ankle down—and approaching me—any number of small, finely sharply toothed rakes are at work.”
The rakes got only more sharply toothed over time. He managed to persevere, it seems, by a mixture of champagne and stiff-upper-lipness. But not a day of it could have been easy for him. There are long, relatively unrevealing diaries from later trips to the Greek islands and Naples and beyond, and the extent of his activity doesn’t sound at all like that of a crippled man. On the other hand, one of his companions says that he was “inhuman” on these voyages, a comment that seems to refer to the prodigious gifts of concentration necessary to keep out the pain and focus on the pleasures.
Porter writes engagingly, as an artisan, about the business of putting on a show. It is pretty clear that he measured a show’s success simply by the number of hit songs it produced, and he had savvy theories about how long it takes a song to become a hit once it’s out in the world. He writes minimally about his own creative process for the same upper-crust reason that he writes minimally about his suffering—only second-rate people go on and on about their inner lives. Analyzing is the same as complaining, and self-analysis is the twin of self-promotion.
Clues about his creativity shine through the workmanlike surface, though. Porter still wrote in a revue style where the characters were hardly worth dramatizing. The producer Cy Feuer, who put on two late Porter shows, says in his memoir that Porter didn’t really care where the songs fit within the story; he was blithely composing numbers for “Can-Can” (1953) while the book writer and the director struggled bitterly with the plotline, and though he threw in new ones as needed, he seems to have stood mostly aside, amused and productive, as the rest of the creative team raged and yelled. In fact, Abe Burrows wrote a couple of deft, diplomatic letters asking Porter to please wait to write the songs until they knew what the story was. Told that the integrity of the show demanded that there must not be any ooh-la-la songs about Paris, Porter airily wrote the most obvious of all such songs, “I Love Paris.” It was too irresistible not to include.
He didn’t need the shows to write drama. The songs were the stories. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and “So in Love,” though situated in the plot of “Kiss Me, Kate,” are hardly situational. He constructed songs so that each one is a drama in itself, with an allusive, erudite verse leading to a simpler storytelling refrain. In perhaps his greatest song, “Just One of Those Things,” from 1935—it’s a song that Holden Caulfield, who likes nothing, likes—the verse is an offhand sequence of references that were not quite commonplace then: Dorothy Parker, Heloise and Abelard. The chorus becomes slyly dynamic (“Just one of those crazy flings / One of those bells that now and then rings”), building from kiss-off to remembered kissing. The movement is minimal but emotionally exact (“Our love affair / Was too hot not to cool down”), and describes a journey from mere ruefulness to actual regret, a small but significant emotional arc that requires a great singer to convey.
List songs are anathema to the post-Sondheim sensibility, trained as it is on Oscar Hammerstein’s heightened dramatic style, but Porter’s lists are his poetry. Ring Lardner, in these pages, made fun of the overwrought imagery in Porter’s romantic lyrics; where Porter had “Under the hide of me / There’s an, oh, such a hungry yearning / Burning inside of me,” he offered as an alternative “Night and day, under the rind of me / There’s an Oh, such a zeal for spooning, running the mind of me.” But Porter is never the least bit off when it comes to Americana. He takes pleasure in rhyme for rhyme’s sake, in the play of language, and does so in a way that is, oddly, far more in tune with the main lines of the American avant-garde of his time than operetta style could ever be.
In “You’re the Top,” the collisions of high and low, the mixed vernacular that expects his audience to be equally comfortable at the movies and in the museums, is the purest kind of E. E. Cummings–Stuart Davis thirties pop avant-garde: “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum. / You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum. / You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss. / You’re a Bendel bonnet, / A Shakespeare sonnet, / You’re Mickey Mouse.” The beautiful chaos of similes—Cellophane! Botticelli! A Waldorf salad!—captures the hyperkinetic collisions of New York experience as perfectly as Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” The wit of the build, leading past Rome and Paris and culminating in high Americana, is complemented by a brilliantly quiet bit of rhyming—had “Mickey Mouse” and “Strauss” been rhymed before? When George and Ira Gershwin wrote their own Strauss tribute, a couple of years later, the waltz “By Strauss,” Ira had to cheat a little and make all the rhymes German, including rhyming “Strauss” with “Fledermaus”—the difference between “Fledermaus” as a rhyme and “Mickey Mouse” being the difference between talent and genius.
While still a very young man, Porter coined the phrase “See America First” (it was the title of his début musical, a George M. Cohan spoof), and that gift for creating idioms may be a clue to the quiddity of his genius. Porter is one of the three great lyricists of invented American speech, with only Chuck Berry in the fifties and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead in the seventies his equal in this respect. Berry constructed a world of fast cars and fried chicken and teen-age back-seat fumblings, with the right jive to cover it all; Hunter, in songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Friend of the Devil,” invented a lost nineteenth-century world of runaway trains and pursuing sheriffs and brass bands playing by the riverside which somehow resonated as an available American reservoir of myth. (Of course, people had written songs about cars before Chuck did, but he was the one who had the specific wit to put Maybellene’s Coup de Ville in a contest with his own V-8 Ford. Just as, where the Band wrote about Dixie in the winter of ’65, only Hunter made up Uncle John, who could have been equally at home playing during the Civil War or at Woodstock.)
Hart heard a world; Porter made one up—a New York of penthouses and night clubs and hangovers which still resonates as another kind of American myth. Even phrases now as familiar as “I’ve got you under my skin” and “I get a kick out of you” are not precisely idioms taken directly from American talk, the way that Hart’s “I could write a book” and “I’ve got five dollars” are. No doubt people had long said that a thing got under your skin or that we got a kick out of something else, but no one said exactly those formal sentences; Porter’s special work was in elevating the smallest of small talk into comic poetry. It gave him license to invent a vernacular. “Down in the depths of the ninetieth floor,” “But in the morning, no!,” “I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion,” even “You’re the top”—none of these things were idiomatic before Porter transformed them from little acorns into mighty jokes. When, in “Blazing Saddles,” the villain quotes “You Do Something to Me” (“Now go do that voodoo that you do so well!”), we know at once that he is quoting Cole Porter.
Porter’s condition worsened—in 1958, the crushed leg would have to be amputated—and though his energy didn’t slacken, the quality of the work did decline. The letters trace his work on one good movie score (“High Society”), a couple of so-so shows (“Silk Stockings” and “Can-Can”), and a promising but too-late-in-the-day collaboration with S. J. Perelman on an Aladdin musical for television. What’s odd is that Porter writes voluminously in the nineteen-fifties without ever mentioning the recordings of his work that would do more than anything to assure his immortality: the Nelson Riddle arrangements of his greatest songs, which Sinatra recorded in the decade beginning in 1953. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Easy to Love,” “Anything Goes”—these are the high points of Porter interpretation. (Sinatra’s sadly obscure live recording of “Night and Day,” with the Red Norvo vibraphone trio in Australia, is perhaps the best of all.)
As Will Friedwald and James Kaplan have both pointed out, the Riddle-Sinatra “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was as pivotal a recording in American music as “Like a Rolling Stone” would be a decade later. Before that, Porter is Astaire and elegance; after that, he swings and can become anything more. Although Porter’s biographer Robert Kimball recently assured an audience that Porter had admired Sinatra and befriended him—his slightly dubious evidence being that Sinatra took over Porter’s apartment in the Waldorf after his death, in 1964—that doesn’t show up in the letters, and one wonders if Porter was even fully aware of the Riddle-Sinatra records, beyond the royalties he collected. Yet Porter lives on in such recordings of single songs more than in the spasmodic revival of shows that often need heavy rewriting to exist onstage at all. His dramatic songs are all the dramatic revival we need.
All art aspires to the condition of music, Walter Pater wrote; within music itself, all music dreams of becoming another kind of music. Art songs dream of becoming pop songs and pop songs dream of becoming folk songs, too familiar to need an author. We hear Porter now without knowing that it’s Porter we’re hearing. Like Stephen Foster, he sublimated his suffering into his songs, until the songs are all we have, thereby achieving every artist’s dream, to cease to be a suffering self and become just one of those things we share. ♦
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