client: The 5th Avenue Theatre
project: Anything Goes Articles
Cole Porter was a great talent and a fascinating man. I enjoyed learning more about him as I wrote this profile.
"I am the most enthusiastic person in the world. I like everything — as long as it's different." - Cole Porter
Heir to a considerable fortune, Cole Porter never needed to work a day in his life, yet this world-travelling bon vivant earned a reputation for being one of the most conscientious and productive artists in his day. Faced with the hardships of rejection and ill health, he nevertheless became one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of all time. With music and lyrics for over 50 shows and movies to his name, he penned more than 1000 songs, all known for their verbal intricacy, technical ingenuity and tuneful charm. Even his most frivolous lyrics boast a craftsmanship and artistry that demands respect and induces delight.
Born June 9, 1891, Cole Porter was the only surviving child of Kate Cole and Sam Porter. Even before he took up piano and violin at the age of six, he was composing rhymes to everyone's amusement. Disliking the violin's harsh tone, he focused on piano. His mother Kate would occasionally play with him, parodying popular tunes to help him endure long hours of daily practice. He wrote his first composition, Song of the Birds, at age 10 and dedicated it to her.
Cole's intelligence was notable from early on: he was valedictorian of Worcester Academy prep school, an academic stand-out at Yale University, and a Harvard Law School student (though after two years, he switched to the School of Music). His precocious intelligence was, at least at first, accentuated by the fact that Kate changed his birth certificate to make him appear to be a year younger than he actually was.
From childhood, music was a favorite subject. His first and possibly most influential teacher, Dr. Ambercrombies of Worcester Academy, planted this seed in young Cole's mind: "Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one." Clearly, Cole took those words to heart. For all his precocity, wealth and connections, Porter's career was slow to start. After leaving Yale with a legacy of hundreds of songs, including football fight songs still used today and six full-scale productions, he wrote his first Broadway show: See America First. It ran for a dismal 15 performances. Soon after it closed, he sailed for France; it would be over a decade before he returned to Broadway. Some said the show's failure deeply upset him; some said he joined the Foreign Legion to fight in World War I (he encouraged this story, enjoying the "war hero" status it gave him). His years abroad were actually spent happily travelling and socializing, gaining fresh experiences and a worldly perspective to strengthen his individual voice. While in Paris, he furthered his musical studies at the Schola Cantorum, and waited for Broadway to become interested in him.
In 1919, he met and married Linda Lee Thomas, several years his senior, who was quite rich and once considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Though Cole was a homosexual, they had a long and happy, if unusual, marriage; she was his biggest fan and a tremendous supporter of his work. The Porters spent much of the 1920s in Europe, part of the fashionable group of artists and intellectuals living abroad. In 1928, Irving Berlin recommended his friend Cole to producer E. Ray Goetz, for whom he wrote a show that contained the soon-to-be-famous Let's Do It. He contributed You Do Something To Me, What Is This Thing Called Love and Love For Sale to other shows, and was soon regarded as the smartest, most sophisticated songwriter available.
Cole's notorious sense of humor surfaced not just in his lyrics. When writing Anything Goes, he intentionally placed one of the show's biggest hit songs within the first five minutes of the show. It seemed that his society friends found it amusing to drift into a show quite late. He considered this habit rude, and chided them the best way he knew how: by making them miss the song everyone would be talking about afterwards.
Even during his most prolific songwriting period, Cole and Linda lived the high life, travelling extensively and entertaining on a grand scale. He composed You're The Top while floating along the German Rhine, inspired by a parlor game played by his guests. He wrote the score for Jubilee while sailing with playwright Moss Hart on a cruise around the world, a mere five months after Anything Goes opened. The bewitching and sultry Begin the Beguine debuted at an upright piano in Cole's cabin, as they sailed toward the Fiji Islands.
In 1937, Porter suffered a crippling injury; while horseback riding, his mare rolled on him, crushing both his legs. His wife and mother urged doctors not to amputate; they worried that Cole, who took such pride in his appearance, would grow despondent if he were to lose his legs. For the rest of his life, Cole endured almost constant pain and underwent over 30 operations.
To combat this physical hardship, Cole immersed himself in his work, his remarkable creativity and spirit undiminished. Much of his greatest work was written after his accident, including songs like My Heart Belongs to Daddy, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To, Don't Fence Me In and the scores to Can-Can, Silk Stockings, High Society, Panama Hattie and, his masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate.
Cole's right leg was finally amputated in 1958 — four years after Linda's death — and he became reclusive for the remaining years of his life. He died in California in 1964. His songs, with their blend of sophistication and innocence, continue to enchant audiences from all walks of life. In his urbane, top-hat fantasy world, everyone is clever, nonchalant and carefree, and love could be sparkling, wry, casual or ecstatic, but was always meant-to-be. Wrote the N.Y. World Telegram and Sun upon his death, "His songs will be played and sung for countless years to come, and the man who wrote them will be gratefully and affectionately remembered for his talent, originality and taste."