Jun 092018
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Cole Albert Porter one of the great composers and songwriters for the stage in the Jazz Age. Porter was born into a wealthy family in Indiana. His grandfather J. O. Cole (called at the time “The Richest Man in Indiana”) wanted his grandson to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind, he sent him to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. Porter took an upright piano with him to school and found that music, and his ability to entertain, made it easy for him to make friends. Porter did well in school and rarely came home to visit. He became class valedictorian and was rewarded by his grandfather with a tour of France, Switzerland, and Germany. Porter entered Yale University in 1909, with a major in English and a minor in music, and also studied French. He was a member of Scroll and Key and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and contributed to campus humor magazine The Yale Record. He was an early member of the Whiffenpoofs a cappella singing group and participated in several other music clubs. In his senior year, he was elected president of the Yale Glee Club and was its principal soloist.

After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913. He soon felt that he was not destined to be a lawyer, and, at the suggestion of the dean of the law school, switched to Harvard’s music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon.In 1915, Porter’s first song on Broadway, “Esmeralda”, appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a “patriotic comic opera” modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, with a book by T. Lawrason Riggs, was a flop, closing after two weeks. Porter spent the next year in New York City before going overseas during World War I.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Porter moved to Paris to work with the Duryea Relief organization. Some historians have been skeptical about Porter’s claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion, although the Legion lists Porter as one of its soldiers and displays his portrait at its museum in Aubagne. By some accounts, he served in North Africa and was transferred to the French Officers School at Fontainebleau, teaching gunnery to US soldiers. An obituary notice in The New York Times said that, while in the Legion, “he had a specially constructed portable piano made for him so that he could carry it on his back and entertain the troops in their bivouacs.”

Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians and a large surplus of recreational drugs.” In 1918, he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior.] She was well-connected socially and the couple shared mutual interests, including a love of travel, and she became Porter’s confidant and companion. The couple married the following year. She was in no doubt about Porter’s homosexuality, but it was mutually advantageous for them to marry. For Thomas, it offered continued social status and a partner who was the antithesis of her abusive first husband. For Porter, it brought a respectable heterosexual front in an era when homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged. They were, moreover, genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 19th, 1919, until her death in 1954.

Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d’Indy. Meanwhile, Porter had his first big hit with the song “Old-Fashioned Garden” from the revue Hitchy-Koo in 1919. In 1920, he contributed the music of several songs to the musical A Night Out. Porter’s time in Paris was only minimally successful in terms of his music, however. At the age of 36, Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway in 1928 with the musical Paris, his first hit. It was commissioned by E. Ray Goetz at the instigation of Goetz’s wife and the show’s star, Irène Bordoni. She had wanted Rodgers and Hart to write the songs, but they were unavailable, and Porter’s agent persuaded Goetz to hire Porter instead.The songs for the show included “Let’s Misbehave” and one of his best-known list songs, “Let’s Do It”, which was introduced by Bordoni and Arthur Margetson. The show opened on Broadway on October 8th, 1928 and was an instant success. From that point on, Porter was a fixture on Broadway and in Hollywood.

You may look upon his musicals as period pieces, but I think his individual hits have stood the test of time. That may just be me, of course, because I am not a big fan of contemporary musicals. At best I find them vaguely irritating – caught between serious drama and opera. I’m also not a huge fan of Porter’s great stars, such as Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire, in their performances of his music. I like his own renditions better:

After a serious horseback riding accident in New York in 1937, Porter was left disabled and in constant pain, but he continued to work, partly because it distracted him from the pain. He had been estranged from his wife at this time because of his increasingly open affairs with men, and because she had disliked Hollywood, she had moved back to Paris. After Porter’s injury, she joined him in a suite of rooms at the Waldorf Hotel where they lived for the remainder of their lives. The Cole Porter Suite at the Waldorf can still be rented by the month.

Porter’s mother died in 1952, and his wife died from emphysema in 1954. By 1958, Porter’s injuries caused a series of ulcers on his right leg. After 34 operations, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb. His friend Noël Coward visited him in the hospital and wrote in his diary, “The lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face…. I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly.” In fact, Porter never wrote another song after the amputation and spent the remaining six years of his life in relative seclusion, seeing only intimate friends. He continued to live in the Waldorf Towers in New York in his memorabilia-filled apartment. On weekends he often visited an estate in the Berkshires, and he stayed in California during the summers. Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 73. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana, between his wife and father.

Various chefs at the Waldorf have produced signature dishes that bear the Waldorf name, but none is better known than Waldorf salad. Unfortunately, it has changed beyond recognition from its simple beginnings. Waldorf salad was first created for a charity ball given in honor of the St. Mary’s Hospital for Children on March 14th, 1896 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Oscar Tschirky, who was the Waldorf’s maître d’hôtel, and who developed or inspired many of its signature dishes, is widely credited with creating the recipe. In 1896, the salad appeared in The Cook Book by “Oscar of the Waldorf.” The original recipe was just apples, celery, and mayonnaise. It did not contain nuts, but they had been added by the time the recipe appeared in The Rector Cook Book in 1928. Other ingredients, such as chicken, turkey, and dried fruit (e.g. dates or raisins) are sometimes added nowadays. The modern Waldorf salad also may include the zest of oranges and lemons. In truth, the original suits me better than all the later additions.

  4 Responses to “Cole Porter”

  1. I could never stomach Ethel Merman, and have often wondered why Porter wrote for her. She was coarse and common, with a jarring voice: she really belonged in the Fulton Fish Market. My uncle, a man about town, refused to attend any of her performances.

    As to Fred Astaire, I like him only in the films he made with Ginger Rogers. His dancing was beyond compare, but as an actor, he could from time to time, be irritating.

    • I agree. Why Merman’s blousy manner appealed to Porter is a mystery. He valued the elegant life. Astaire is more obvious, because his manner was much more polished and refined. In any case, I much prefer to hear Porter singing his own songs.

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