The Magazine


The Luxury of Cole Porter

Dec 21, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 14 • By ERIC FELTEN
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In late 1943, film mogul Jack Warner paid the extravagant sum of $ 300,000 to Cole Porter for the rights to make a movie about the composer's life. But it would be more than a year before filming would start -- in no small part because Warner Brothers' screenwriters had no idea how to make the "biopic" work.

It wasn't that Porter was uninteresting. Living the high life in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, hobnobbing with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Noel Coward, earning fame and fortune: These are hardly the humdrum of an ordinary existence. But even so, Porter's life lacked anything resembling drama. As Orson Welles put it, "What will they use for a climax? The only suspense is -- Will he or won't he accumulate ten million dollars?"

In an effort to manufacture some dramatic struggle, the screenwriters went looking for early know-nothing reviews panning the songwriter. They couldn't find any. A researcher named Herman Lissauer came up empty after plowing through fifteen volumes of yellowing newsprint: a near-encyclopedic compendium of press clippings Porter's wife Linda had compiled. Porter remained convinced that he had taken a shellacking in the press and complained to the film's producer, Arthur Schwartz, that Lissauer "has not been thorough enough." So Schwartz went through the scrapbooks himself -- and wrote back to Porter: "It looks as if you are in the rather ironic position of a man disappointed by the lack of bad notices."

In 1946, the Porter biopic Night and Day, starring Cary Grant, was finally released, credited to four different screenwriters. With such tepid material to work with, Grant finally gave up complaining about the lousy plot and dialogue and instead delayed production by demanding that only an eighth of an inch, not a quarter, of his shirt cuffs be allowed to show. It is a testament to Porter's songs that the film ever reached the screen.

This lack of drama in Porter's life has proved no less a stumbling block for William McBrien, the composer's latest biographer. McBrien isn't much of a story-teller, and though he gives in his new Cole Porter an accurate and thorough account of the man's life (and presents as well what Hollywood in the 1940s couldn't possibly manage: Porter's promiscuous homosexuality), his picture is hardly more compelling than Night and Day.

Born in Peru, Indiana, in the summer of 1891, Porter was the sole son of a doting mother, Katie, whose only real effort at discipline was to make the boy practice the piano. He was named after Katie's father, J. O. Cole, a rugged businessman who made his fortune selling supplies to miners in the California gold rush. J. O. wanted his grandson to go to military school and then into business, while Katie wanted something more refined. After a bitter struggle, Katie won, sending Porter to Worcester Academy and then to Yale, where his gifts first brought him acclaim, of sorts. He became famous for his football songs, some still used by the boula-boula crowd -- though it's hard to find in them much prediction of his future: There's a big gap between "Bull dog! Bull dog! Bow, wow, wow / Eli Yale!" and "When love congeals / It soon reveals / The faint aroma of performing seals."

J. O. Cole still hoped his grandson would manage the family's holdings, and after Yale, Porter enrolled at Harvard Law School. But after a semester, the dean himself told Porter that he was better suited to music than the law. By 1916, he was at work on his first musical, a Gilbert-and-Sullivanish flop called See America First. Then came the war, and he was off to France (where nobody quite knows what he did, other than strut about Paris in a perplexing variety of snappy uniforms).

After the armistice, Porter stayed on in France, where he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich socialite divorced from a cruel husband. They married in 1919, and with their charm and money quickly became the center of the expatriate social scene. Linda seems to have been more mother than wife to Porter: eight years older, she probably knew of Porter's homosexuality before they were married and grew cross with him only when, over the years, his taste for young men became indiscreet.

Astonishingly -- given the means and the temptations to slip into dissolute torpor -- Porter continued to study music and scribble songs. Throughout the 1920s, he wrote tunes for shows in Paris and New York and became friends with the other great popular composers of the age, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. His first big Broadway show, Paris, opened in 1928, and included the hit song "Let's Fall in Love."