Cole Porter: A dazzling wit who lived in constant pain

Cole Porter

The Letters of Cole Porter
Edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh
Yale, 672pp, £25/$35

Cole Porter, who was born in 1891 and died in 1964, was the grandson of the richest man in Indiana. He was busy writing songs while still a schoolboy, and never stopped until 1958, when he had to have one of his legs amputated after 21 years of pain following a riding accident. This collection of letters edited by two music scholars, Cliff Eisen of King’s College, London and Dominic McHugh of the University of Sheffield, attest to his industry and also his cheerful nature, occasionally darkened by unfounded worries about money.

Porter was the wittiest lyricist since WS Gilbert and his irresistible and often exotic sounding tunes matched his words. We should start off by saying that Porter’s letters are rarely as spicily clever as his lyrics – even if Porter’s letter telling his lifelong pal from Yale days, the actor Monty Wooley, that since meeting his future wife, Linda Lee Thomas “I’ve been so much in love that I’m attractively triste” could be a line from one of his songs. He added that there was nothing like love “to kill concentration”.

In his letters, Porter could also be gently teasing, as when he recommends Lesley Blanch’s The Wilder Shores of Love to his friend, Sam Stark, a Californian jeweller, but warns him to keep it from his wife lest it give her any ideas. He is also invariably kind and encouraging, for example telling a friend denied a role not to worry for he has “great talent”.

Porter’s homosexuality was an open secret among his milieux of international café society and showbusiness. There is little in letters to boyfriends, including those in French to Boris Kochno, Serge Diaghilev’s secretary, with whom Porter had an affair in 1925, or to the dancer-choreographer Nelson Barclift, that is sensational. It was essential to Porter that his wife approve of his passing loves. Linda was “rich-rich”, as Porter said, as opposed to Porter himself, who was merely rich. At the time they met at the Paris Ritz (whose bar served as Porter’s bank), Linda’s circle was wider than Porter’s, her friends including Churchill, Bernard Shaw and Bernard Berenson, who described Porter as “a little music man from the Middle West”. At prep school and at Yale, Porter, though always a dandy, dressed in a way that lent him an element of an F Scott Fitzgerald “rich boy” from mid-America. The anomaly was noted by Gerald Murphy, himself a Fitzgerald figure, who with his wife Sara were inspirations for Tender is the Night.

Murphy and Porter collaborated in a well-received ballet, Within the Quota, in 1923. Linda was known for her perfect taste and encouraged her husband’s early interest in “serious” music, though she was happy about his success on Broadway. Hollywood – which Porter enjoyed and where he wrote memorable scores – was another matter and Linda was on the verge of leaving him after he began to spend much of his time there in the mid-1930s.

Porter’s accident was caused by a fateful whim. He hadn’t ridden for years and he was warned that the horse was unreliable. On hearing of the accident, Linda returned. (Porter’s correspondence often indicated his devotion to his wife and his worries about her in later years, when she was racked by emphysema, aggravated by constant smoking.)

Other than a letter to Monty Wooley, in which Porter described his gruesome accident, Porter wrote little about the excruciating pain, which remained constant even as he was writing many of his greatest hits and musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate and Silk Stockings.

Well-born he may have been, but Porter was plagued by a self-doubt found in many of his lyrics including some of the most famous. Even so, his description of his work on the 1936 MGM musical Born to Dance shows how he defended the film’s finale and won the support of his colleagues and MGM’s top brass.

Another Hollywood highlight is that of Night and Day, the 1946 biopic starring Cary Grant as Porter. Biographers have been quick to mark the physical differences between the six-footer Grant and the diminutive Porter who, though handsome in an ever-boyish, rather exotic way, was not quite a matinée idol. A more recent biopic starring the Errol Flynn look-alike Kevin Kline as Porter is even more exaggerated. Porter, delighted by Cary Grant whom he found “very nice”, was nevertheless disconcerted by the way the actor studied his mannerisms while preparing the role.

The amputation, however, proved his downfall and he never wrote a song after it. Years before, touched by Sam Stark’s Catholicism, he gave thought to converting, and in those last years his secretary mourned her boss’s lack of a faith – any faith – that might have bolstered him. This book plays tribute to the composer who lived his songs.