Born Cole Albert Porter, June 9, 1891, in Peru, IN; died of pneumonia, October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, CA; buried in Peru, IN; son of Sam (a druggist) and Kate Cole Porter; married Linda Lee Thomas, 1919 (died May 20, 1954). Education: Studied music at Marion Conservatory, Worcester Academy, 1905-09, and Yale University, 1909-13; studied law and music at Harvard University, 1913-15; attended Schola Cantorum, Paris, 1920. Composed music as a child; wrote songs for amateur shows in high school and college; first songs performed on Broadway in Hands Up, 1915; composed first Broadway score, See America First, 1916; began writing for films, 1929.
Stories about Cole Porter's life are often as creative as the songs he wrote. When he enrolled in prep school at the age of 14, his mother told the school that he was 12, perhaps to make him seem more precocious, as his biographer Charles Schwartz suggests. Fictions such as this followed Porter throughout his life. Most notorious, perhaps, was his claim that he served in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. Porter did spend part of the war in Paris--entertaining friends, writing songs, and working for a relief agency. According to Schwartz, no evidence places him near any military engagements.
Hollywood did little to dispel the Porter myths; Night and Day, a popular 1946 film biography starring Cary Grant as Porter, was, in the words of Schwartz, "a tissue of fabrications neatly wrapped in technicolor and Hollywood gloss and lavishly bound together by a bejeweled string of over a dozen Porter classics." Porter found the fabrication amusing. "Considering the numerous fibs about himself that Cole had foisted on an unsuspecting public for decades," allowed Schwartz, "one could hardly expect a Hollywood film biography to come any closer to the truth."
It is clearly no fiction, however, that Cole Porter was one of the most influential and popular of American songwriters. He composed dozens of musical scores for the stage and screen, and his lyrics are considered the height of wit and finesse. Attested Didier Deutch of Pulse!, he "set new standards of invention and craftsmanship and forever changed popular songwriting." He brought innovation and creativity to popular music, which had long been marked by formulas, and gave musical audiences something new as well. "At their best, Cole's songs blended fresh, witty, urbane lyrics and highly singable melodies into a sparkling, irresistible combination. Cole's lyrics in particular were models of ingenuity and sophistication. They ... helped to spell the downfall of the mundane June-moon-croon approach that had been prevalent in popular music for so long. Once the public had gotten to appreciate the special brand of genius that set Cole's lyrics apart from those of his competition, it was largely unwilling to settle for the prosaic any longer."
Although Porter spent his life in the world's most glamorous cities, he was born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891. His father was a druggist, but his mother was the daughter of a self-made millionaire, and the young man grew up in luxury. His very indulgent mother saw to it that he was raised with social graces and refinement, which necessitated violin and piano lessons. She encouraged him to compose, self-publishing "Bobolink Waltz," which Porter wrote when he was 11. As a teenager, he was sent to the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts where he wrote songs for amateur shows. He continued to do so as a student at Yale University, where he wrote songs for the dramatic club, sang with and conducted the glee club, and--as a cheerleader--wrote football songs. Porter graduated from Yale in 1913 and, at his grandfather's insistence, enrolled in Harvard University's law school. Hardly interested in the law, Porter switched during his second year to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in order to study music. But this lasted only as long as law school had.
Though not studying music, Porter nevertheless continued to produce music, as well as spend his time with a very elite social set. Through friends he built contacts with a number of people connected to the theater and launched his career on Broadway. Still, the appearance of his songs on the professional stage was hardly auspicious. In 1915 and 1916 he contributed songs to two Broadway shows, Hands Up and Miss Information, and wrote another, See America First. The shows were all failures.
As the United States entered World War I, Porter left for France and continued to lead the high life to which he had become accustomed in the United States. On December 18, 1919, he solidified his place in the social world by marrying Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy divorcee. Throughout their marriage, Porter and his wife enjoyed an emotionally strong relationship, though platonic, as Porter was gay. Living off their formidable combined incomes, they traveled in the loftiest social circles, building a reputation for fashionable parties across Europe.
Between, and for that matter, during parties, Porter continued to write songs and hone his style. His companions loved his work, even if Broadway audiences did not. He again attempted a formal study of music, briefly taking classes in orchestration and counterpoint at Paris's Schola Cantorum. He contributed songs to Hitchy-koo of 1919, a Broadway revue, and though the show was a flop, one of Porter's songs, "Old-fashioned Garden," became a hit. The tune was highly sentimental, nothing like the polished, clever treasures with which he entertained his friends and for which he would later become famous. Nonetheless, the public loved "Garden" and bought the sheet music in droves. Porter contributed to more revues, had some work performed on the London stage, and even composed a ballet, Within the Quota. Though well received by some, none of these efforts were hits. In 1924 he wrote for another Broadway revue, The Greenwich Village Follies. This time the show was a hit--but none of his songs were.
Finally, with 1928's Paris, Porter landed a hit song in a show that was also a hit. That triumph, titled "Let's Do It," was characteristic of the style that had been delighting his friends for years--intelligent, urbane, and highly suggestive of the sexual. "Let's Do It" was also the first of Porter's "list," or "catalogue," songs--inventions that boasted a litany of comparisons and examples, dropping famous names and events, drawing from high and popular culture. This time, Porter did not have to wait a decade for another hit; following Paris were the very successful Wake Up and Dream and Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Whereas at one time Porter's songs may have been too cosmopolitan for Broadway audiences, by then, noted Philip Furia, author of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, popular taste had begun to change. This was due in part to the success of songwriting teams more in Porter's vein--Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and George and Ira Gershwin. In this more accepting climate, the list of Cole Porter hits grew: "Love for Sale," "Night and Day," "Anything Goes," "You're the Top," "Begin the Beguine," "Just One of Those Things," and "It's De-lovely" were only a few.
As Porter's popularity expanded, so did his reputation as a jet setter. He exuded the privilege into which he was born, and The Economist observed that he "sometimes gave the impression that to write a hit tune was an enjoyable sort of slumming." He made songwriting seem like a game--overhearing a comment or phrase he would cry "Title!" and promptly build a song. But, as the New Yorker' s Ethan Mordden explained, behind this dandy was a diligent artist: "Unseen, however, Porter was the craftsman, as painstaking as the dogged [Oscar] Hammerstein, and yet as natural, born to it, as the explosive George Gershwin."
For many, Porter was far ahead of his time. He was fearless of taboo subjects, and sex was one of his favorites. He could be highly romantic and also wickedly smutty, taking on love with sincerity but also with satire, cynicism, and double entendres. And his music often drew as much praise as his lyrics. In Mordden's estimation, he was a musician "with a compellingly idiosyncratic style." The music was characterized by the minor key and an essential rhythm that made his compositions so natural for dance bands. Together, the music and lyrics were an often unbeatable team. "The exact nature of those songs was unprecedented," declared Chicago Tribune contributor Howard Reich. "Never before had lyrics been put together with such cleverness, economy and poetry.... But that's only half the story, for Porter's music is unique: the insinuating, chromatic half-steps of his melodies; the erotic, Latin undercurrents of his rhythms; the bittersweet harmonies, every chord sharpened with passing dissonance--these, too, make Porter's song unforgettable."
In spite of his success, Porter was often concerned that his songs were too sophisticated for popular taste. He was shaken when his show Nymph Errant flopped in London in 1933. As Mordden made clear, Porter believed Nymph Errant was his best work. With his next show he decided to write songs that would appeal to a broader audience. The resulting score was Anything Goes, a Broadway sensation that produced five hit songs--"Anything Goes," "All Through the Night," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "You're the Top." Mordden demonstrated that Anything Goes was not a drastic compromise; although the score was not as "suave" as that of Gay Divorce, a previous show, or as "brilliant" as Nymph Errant, "it conveys all the Porter 'things'--the romance and the drollery, the respect for the famous and the adoration of the beautiful."
Characteristic of Porter's uneven career, his next show, Jubilee, was a flop. Buoyed by the success of Anything Goes, he had plunged back into his more cultured fare, but by Mordden's reckoning, he dove too deep. Despite the fact that two songs from the score--"Just One of Those Things" and "Begin the Beguine"--eventually became celebrated, there were no immediate hits, Jubilee closed early, and Porter and his backers lost a great deal of money. Porter remarked at the time, as quoted by Mordden, "Polished, urbane, and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury." Badly rattled by this latest setback, he once again focused on lyrics that would be more accessible to audiences. As with Anything Goes, the songwriter was able to find a middle ground. "Porter was not so much writing down to his audience as writing tricky music that did its best to sound easy, and also deemphasizing the world of gigolos and cocottes and royal families," illuminated Mordden.
The popularity of Porter's broader works versus the tepid reception of his more rarified offerings was not the only inconsistency of the songwriter's career; many critics have been perplexed by what author Furia called Porter's "ongoing stylistic schizophrenia." Critics marveled that while producing some of the most clever popular music in existence, he would also write love songs that were highly sentimental and melodramatic. And this tendency did not seem to be related to his desire to pull back from songs that were too sophisticated. According to Furia, he "actually aspired to write romantic schmaltz" and created "some of the worst lyrics--melodramatic, histrionic, banal--of the age." Porter biographer Schwartz wondered why someone "normally considered the personification of worldliness, savoir faire, and even cynicism," who wrote "such refreshingly cool and sophisticated gems as 'Let's Do It,' 'You're the Top,' and 'Anything Goes,'" could also create "mawkish, heart-on-the sleeve tunes like 'Old-fashioned Garden,' 'Hot-House Rose,' and 'Let's Be Buddies.'"
In fact, many of the songs that make Porter's critics wince were his most popular. For instance, referring to "Begin the Beguine," one of the most famous of Porter's oeuvre, American Popular Song author Alec Wilder muttered, "Along about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title, End the Beguine. " The numbers Porter wrote for Hollywood tended to be particularly maudlin; given the size and diversity of Hollywood's audience, Porter's bent toward the sophisticated was even less acceptable there than it was on Broadway. Furthermore, as Furia reported, Louis B. Mayer, the powerful head of MGM studios, loved the overemotional songs--even crying when he first heard "In the Still of the Night"--and steered Porter away from "high-brow" music. Critics felt the title song of the MGM film Rosalie reached new depths of mush--though stories imply that this gushing may have been deliberate; according to Wilder, one account suggested that after the film's producer had rejected several versions, Porter wrote the final one in a rage. Another tale has "Rosalie" written on a bet that Porter could make the producer accept the worst that he could create. "No matter," Wilder concluded, "It was a big hit, and one of the worst songs Porter ever wrote, both words and music. It has nothing to recommend it.
In 1937 Porter was involved in a devastating accident: Riding with friends on Long Island, his horse reared and fell, crushing both of Porter's legs. Porter later joked, according to Schwartz, that as he waited for help, he took out his notebook and penned the lyrics for "At Long Last Love." Albeit jocular, he was badly injured. He suffered through dozens of operations, his right leg was eventually amputated near the hip, and as Porter's surgeon told Wilder, the songwriter was in enough pain to cause "virtual sleeplessness" for years.
In spite of his injury, Porter remained a prolific songwriter. By 1944 he had produced scores for five smash Broadway hits-- DuBarry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, Let's Face it, Something for the Boys, and Mexican Hayride. He also wrote for a number of Hollywood musicals. But many felt the quality of his songs had deteriorated. According to Schwartz, after Something for the Boys appeared, one critic sniffed, "Mr. Porter isn't the composer he once was," and another stated, "Cole Porter's last few shows have been most disappointing and this one perhaps most of all." The productions were successful, though few of the songs contained therein become popular. While some critics believed that he was just "written out," Wilder attributes the decline to Porter's accident, noting that the line of creativity is very clear, markedly at 1937.
But Porter's creativity had certainly not disappeared altogether. In 1948 he came back as strong as ever with Kiss Me, Kate, which Deane Root and Gerald Bordman in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music called his masterpiece, and which Wilder considered perhaps his finest score. Inspired by what would become a lasting trend in musicals, whereby songs were carefully integrated into plot and character, Porter decided to try the method himself. Kate, a musical based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, was a huge success and generated a string of hits including "Another Op'nin, Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," and "Too Darn Hot."
Nonetheless, it appeared that Kate was an exception in the latter part of Porter's career. Again buoyed by success, he wrote his next score, Out of This World. Although the New Yorker' s Mordden considered the show Porter's highest achievement, other critics disagreed. In fact, there were a number of problems with the production, and the show was a failure. After this, Porter returned to more accessible scores, laboring more often in film than theater.
After the riding accident, Porter became increasingly irritable and prone to depression. His wife's health began to fail as well; her death in 1954 from emphysema was a sizeable blow. Afterward, he become a semi-recluse and, according to the Tribune' s Reich, "a broken spirit." He continued to see friends and received a number of tributes, including honorary degrees from Williams College and Yale University, but wrote little. He died of pneumonia on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California, and was buried back home in Peru, Indiana.
Yet the end of Porter's life was hardly the end of his prominence; many of his songs became standards, performed by artists as disparate as cabaret singer Michael Feinstein and proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop. 1991, the year of Porter's centennial, brought a number of honors and celebrations, including a first-class stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Beginning in the late 1980s, the record industry mounted an enormous celebration, releasing several tribute albums and reissues of earlier recordings. These included recordings by rock artists gathered for Chrysalis's 1990 AIDS charity project Red, Hot + Blue, which comprised a double album, television special, and long-form video. Though the combination of Porter and contemporary pop stars Sinead O'Connor, U2, Fine Young Cannibals, and Neneh Cherry may have seemed strange, Mordden found the gambit worked because the artists actually share a great deal, including "an openness in dealing with sex, a distaste for anything remotely religious or sanctimonious, a rebelliousness--even the air of autobiography in his lyrics."
While critics have continued to qualify their esteem for Porter's work, they almost universally marvel at the heights he reached. As Wilder affirmed, "No one can deny that Porter added a certain theatrical elegance, as well as interest and sophistication, wit, and musical complexity to the popular song form. And for this we are deeply indebted." Since his death, Porter's failures have receded while his perennially acclaimed work has ably endured. Perhaps Red, Hot & Rich! author David Grafton best explained the reason: "Cole's treasury will live as long as anyone wants to listen to songs bearing a witty, sophisticated touch. Or songs that have a raucous joy. Or a haunting and voluptuous surrender. Cole Porter without question is an acquired taste, but then so are caviar and champagne."
Cole Porter's Career
Cole Porter's Awards
Honorary doctorate from Williams College, 1955; honorary doctor of humane letters from Yale University, 1960.
- Selective Works
- Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook Verve, 1956, reissued, 1984.
- Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter Atlantic, 1971.
- Cole Porter Songbook RCA, 1988.
- Red, Hot + Blue Chrysalis, 1990.
- Cole Porter: A Centennial Celebration RCA, 1991.
- I Get a Kick Out of You: The Cole Porter Songbook, Vol 2 Verve/Polygram, 1991.
- Cole Porter, Overtures and Ballet Music: Within the Quota EMI/Angel, 1991.
- Cole Porter Centennial Gala Concert: Recorded Live in London Teldec, 1991.
- Fifty Million Frenchmen New World Records, 1991.
- Porter/Hyman: All Through the Night MusicMasters, 1991.
- Anything Goes: The Cole Porter Songbook: Instrumentals Verve/Polygram, 1992.
- You're the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s Indiana Historical Society and Koch International Classics, 1992.
- From This Moment On: The Songs of Cole Porter The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1992.
- Kiss Me, Kate Angel/Broadway, 1993.
- Anything Goes 1989 London Cast Recording First Night/Koch, 1993.
- Ella Loves Cole Atlantic.
- Capitol Sings Cole Porter Capitol.
- Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Cole Porter Capitol.
- Selected scores Stage See America First 1916.
- Hitchy-koo of 1919 (includes "Old-fashioned Garden"), 1919.
- Within the Quota (ballet), 1923.
- The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924 1924.
- Paris (includes "Let's Do It"), 1928.
- Wake Up and Dream 1929.
- Fifty Million Frenchmen 1929.
- The New Yorkers (includes "Love for Sale"), 1930.
- Gay Divorce (includes "Night and Day"), 1932.
- Nymph Errant 1933.
- Jubilee (includes "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things"), 1935.
- Anything Goes (includes "Anything Goes," "All Through the Night," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "You're the Top"), 1936.
- Red, Hot and Blue (includes "It's De-lovely"), 1936.
- You Never Know (includes "At Long Last Love"), 1938.
- Leave It to Me! 1938.
- DuBarry Was a Lady 1939.
- Panama Hattie 1940.
- Let's Face It 1941.
- Something for the Boys 1943.
- Mexican Hayride 1944.
- Seven Lively Arts 1944.
- Around the World in Eighty Days 1946.
- Kiss Me, Kate (includes "Another Op'nin, Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So in Love," and "Too Darn Hot"), 1948.
- Out of This World 1950.
- Can-can 1953.
- Silk Stockings 1955.
- Film Born to Dance 1936.
- Rosalie (includes "In the Still of the Night" and "Rosalie"), 1937.
- Broadway Melody of 1940 1940.
- You'll Never Get Rich 1941.
- Something to Shout About 1942.
- Hollywood Canteen 1944.
- Night and Day 1946.
- The Pirate 1948.
- Adam's Rib 1949.
- High Society 1956.
- Les Girls 1957.
- Television Aladdin 1958.
- The Book of Days, 1987, Pierian, 1986.
- Furia, Philip, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Grafton, David, Red, Hot & Rich!: An Oral History of Cole Porter, Stein & Day, 1987.
- Green, Stanley, Encyclopedia of the Musical Theater, Da Capo, 1976.
- The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume 3, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.
- Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter, A Biography, Dial, 1977.
- Wilder, Alec, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, Oxford University Press, 1972.
- Periodicals Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1987; May 5, 1991.
- Economist, June 15, 1991.
- National Review, December 2, 1991.
- New Yorker, October 28, 1991.
- Pulse!, October 1992; November 1992.
- Rolling Stone, October 18, 1990.
- --Megan Rubiner