American composer & lyricist
Cole Porter’s name derives from the surnames of his parents, Kate Cole and Sam Porter. Kate’s father, James Omar (known as J. O.), was an influential man both in the community and in Cole’s early life. J.O. started from humble beginnings as son of a shoemaker, but his business savvy and strong work ethic made him the richest man in Indiana. Despite J.O.’s obsessive drive for making money, he took time off to marry Rachel Henton, who had several children with him.
Kate Cole was born in 1862, and was spoiled during her youth (as well as later in life). She always had the best clothes, the best education, and the best training in dancing and music. Her father had every expectation of marrying her off to a man with a strong business background, a strong personality, and the potential for a good career. As it is for many filial presumptions and expectations, Kate married someone who was quite the opposite — a shy druggist from their small town of Peru, Indiana.
The couple married without the full consent of J.O., but he financially supported their wedding and subsidized the couple. As one of the richest men in Indiana, he thought his daughter should be seen doing and wearing the right things without financial fears. These subsidies from J.O. financed the rest of Sam and Kate’s life, as well as that of their son born on June 9th, 1891: Cole Porter.
Cole’s early years
Cole learned piano and violin at age six. He became very good at both, but he disliked the violin’s harsh sound and so his energy turned to the piano. During his formative years, he played piano two hours per day. While Cole practiced, he and his mother would parody popular tunes on the piano in order to increase Cole’s patience with such long practice sessions.
Appearing to surpass his peers was easier due to deception on the part of Cole and his mother. When he was fourteen, his mother falsified his school records so it appeared that he was a extra bright for his age. The power J. O. Cole wielded within the small town of Peru, Indiana allowed Kate many such unusual favors by community officials. For instance, Kate financed student orchestras in exchange for guarantees of Cole Porter violin solos and apparently influenced the media’s reviews or billing surrounding such concerts. She also subsidized the publishing of Cole’s early compositions.
Cole composed songs as early as 1901 (when he was ten) with a song dedicated to his mother, a piano piece called Song of the Birds, separated into six sections with titles like The Young Ones Leaning to Sing and The Cuckoo Tells the Mother Where the Bird Is. His mother ensured that one hundred copies were published so that the song could be sent to friends and relatives.
He enrolled in the Worcester Academy in 1905, where he was lauded as the precocious youngster who became class valedictorian. There Cole met an important influence in his musicianship, Dr. Ambercrombie. His teacher taught him about the relationship between words and meter, and between words and music in songs. Cole later quoted from Ambercrombie’s lessons: “Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one.”
The Yale years
Cole’s Yale years included many adventures, many musicals, and the forging of relationships that he carried with him for the rest of his life. Most students soon knew him for the fight songs he would write, many of which continue to be Yale classics.
It might be worth noting that it was during the Yale years when Cole’s homosexuality became a force in his life. Some biographers have speculated that his later preference for large strong men and the number of Yale football fight songs was no coincidence. The Cole Porter biographies I have read do not reveal actual evidence for his gay sex life until after college, so some of this may be based on conjecture based on his more well documented liaisons soon after college.
Perhaps the biggest influence in his musical development were the full scale (for college) productions designed for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, the Yale Dramatic Association, and solo performances in the Yale Glee Club.
Despite an Ivy League academic workload and social obligations, he composed several full productions per year in addition to individual songs. Most of the shows for the Yale student groups were zany musicals which were always complicated, and sometimes rallied around the superiority or sexual (heterosexual) prowess of Yale men. These shows were primarily intended for a Yale audience, although some of them charged admission when intended for a non-college crowd. Cole did not necessarily contribute to the book (the script) of the musicals, but he did have an influence on how the parts of the plot was strung together, the high energy, and the witty unreality that marked all Cole musicals.
Cole wrote musicals for clubs and alumni associations, which allowed Cole and his friends to tour the country and showered with attention and parties. Some of these Yale connections were helpful when he started his career on Broadway. The Yale ties lasted beyond his graduation. Even as he was graduating, he was promising more musicals for his student organizations to be written after leaving Yale. He left Yale with a legacy of approximately 300 songs, including six full scale productions.
Cole spent the years immediately after Yale flailing in an unsuccessful Harvard law career. The man who paid all of Cole’s bills, his grandfather J.O. Cole, disapproved of men choosing careers in the arts and tried hard to convince Cole to become a lawyer. Even when Cole was young, J.O. tried to instill a sense of rough individualism and business savvy that was lost on the over-pampered young Porter. Cole did indeed start attending Harvard Law but his primary attention was always to music (including writing musicals for his Yale friends). Although Kate knew, J.O. was not told that in his second year Cole switched from the law school to the school of arts and sciences at Harvard in order to pursue music. Eventually, he abandoned his studies, moved to the Yale club in New York, and began his serious music career.
Career and Travel
His first Broadway show was See America First, which was a 1916 flop despite the social luminaries in the early audiences — a feature of hiring Bessie Marbury as theatrical producer. It was described by the New York American as a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” Cole later claimed to be in hiding after the failure of the show but he actually was prominent in the New York social scene and continued to live at the Yale Club in New York.
In July of 1917, he set out for Paris and war-engulfed Europe. Paris was a place Cole flourished socially and managed to be in the best of all possible worlds. He lied to the American press about his military involvement and made up stories about working with the French Foreign Legion and the French army. This allowed him to live his days and nights as a wealthy American in Paris, a socialite with climbing status, and still be considered a “war hero” back home, an ‘official’ story he encouraged throughout the rest of his life.
The parties during these years were elaborate and fabulous, involving people of wealthy and political classes. His parties were marked by much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross- dressing, international musicians, and a surplus of recreational drugs.
By 1919, Cole was spending time with the American divorcee Linda Thomas. The two became close friends quickly. Their financial status and social standing also made them ideal candidates for marriage — as a business contract, not for passion. The fact that Linda’s ex- husband was abusive and Cole was gay made the arrangement even more palatable. Linda was always one of Cole’s best supporters and being married increased his chance of success, and Cole allowed Linda to keep high social status for the rest of her life. They were married on December 19, 1919 to live a happy but mostly successful although sexless marriage until Linda’s death in 1954
The Later Years
After early success with one-offs like Don’t Fence Me In, re- released in a World War II musical called Hollywood Canteen, Cole signed some contracts to do work for the film industry. The first film to contain a Cole Porter song was The Battle of Paris from 1929, but his two tunes from that movie had little impact on his career because of the low quality of the film in general.
Cole was happy with many aspects of the Hollywood community, including the liberal gay enclave called movie industry population. Although there is some dispute about the reasons why Linda did not like the Hollywood home, my research indicates that the primary friction was due to Cole’s relatively more public sexual escapades. At the time, it was much less acceptable to be an eccentric gay artist and Linda feared for Cole’s reputation and career.
In 1937, Cole was involved in a horse riding accident and fractured both of legs. This was a personal tragedy for the composer who placed an enormous value on his looks, for both social and sexual reasons. His vibrant energy and obsession to maintain his looks through elaborate daily rituals could not (in his opinion) compensate for such a debilitating blow at his health and his ego. He was in the hospital for months, but the effects took a hit upon his mental and physical health. It was only made worse by the eventual amputation of one of his legs. This did not stop him from writing music. During this period were songs like Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, From Now On, and Get Out Of Town.
In 1945, he lent his permission but minimal creative energy to the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Sadly for history, this movie had little relationship to the actual life of Cole Porter. It left out important parts of life, like his overly pampered and controlled youth, his gay lovers, his ‘business’ marriage, and told the tall tales that Cole inflicted upon the world. For instance, although he had never served in the French Army, the movie faithfully told of his exploits. Cole reportedly enjoyed the movie’s wildly fictional account, and he had the privilege of seeing Cary Grant play the part of the composer.
After this point, he had one major production, Kiss Me Kate, which was based on the Shakespeare classic Taming of the Shrew. Cole was very skeptical of this production but eventually lent his hand to the production and it became very successful, eventually spawning a moderately successful movie.
The following years saw some less successful productions, and the amputation of his right leg which pained him in 1958. After the amputation, his creative productivity, his social power, and his happiness had waned. He died on October 15, 1964. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried between his wife Linda and his father Sam Porter. Perhaps because his father’s almost irrelevant role his upbringing, many reports have circled that he was buried between his mother Kate and his wife Linda.
The popularity of his individual songs lasted far beyond the common knowledge of the man himself. Many of his most famous songs were presented to the public only in the context of musicals or movies which contained non-Cole Porter songs. Other famous songs have come from Cole Porter musicals or revues that failed miserably, but made up their exposure via sheet music and recordings from popular singers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
One album that brought Cole Porter to many younger listeners was a fund raising pop album called Red, Hot, and Blue with Cole Porter songs sung by popular musicians of the 1980s and 1990s. Porter songs still maintain a strong presence in movie soundtracks (from Woody Allen Movies, to Tank Girls), with the most popular songs Lets Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) and Night and Day. Let’s hope that we all keep that faith and keep the talent of Cole Porter alive!
The Shows (theatre)
Around the World in Eighty Days
Du Barry Was a Lady
Kiss Me Kate
Leave It to Me
Let’s Face It
Mexican Hay Ride
The New Yorkers
Out of This World
Red, Hot and Blue
Seven Lively Arts
Something for the Boys
You Never Know
Anything Goes (1936)
Anything Goes (1956)
Born to Dance
Broadway Melody of 1940
Du Barry Was a Lady
Kiss Me Kate
Something to Shout About
You’ll Never Get Rich
These films a) were made from Cole Porter shows, but used very little of his contributions, b) have a song (or two) that were directly commissioned from Cole Porter.
The Battle of Paris
Fifty Million Frenchmen
The Gay Divorcee
Break the News
Let’s Face It
Something for the Boys
Early Broadway, Paris, and London Shows
Greenwich Village Follies of 1924
Hitchy-Koo of 1919
Hitchy-Koo of 1922
La Revue des Ambassadeurs
See America First
Wake Up and Dream
Within the Quota
And the Villain Still Pursued Her
The Pot of Gold
Concert Productions and Studio Recordings
Anything Goes (1989)
Fifty Million Frenchmen (1991)
Kiss Me Kate (1990)
Nymph Errant (1989)
Out of This World (1995)
Something for the Boys (1997)
Kiss Me Kate
– Anything Goes
– Kiss Me Kate
– Let’s Face It
– Panama Hattie
Adios, Argentina [film]
Ever Yours [stage]
Greek to You [stage]
Mississippi Belle [film]
Star Dust [stage]
Interpolations and Revues
Films and shows with interpolated Porter songs, and revues of Porter songs.
At Long Last Love [film]
Cole (Mermaid) [revue]
Decline and Fall … [revue]
Evil Under the Sun [film]
Happy New Year [stage]
Night and Day [film]
A Swell Party [revue]
Unsung Cole [revue]
Complete Movie Listing
These are all the movies which contain Cole Porter songs.
Action in the North Atlantic (1943) Adam’s Rib (1949) Aladdin (1958) American Pop (1981) Anything Goes (1936) Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (1938) Battle of Paris, The (1929) Born to Dance (1936) Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) Bullets Over Broadway (1994) Don’t Fence Me In (1945) Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) Everyone Says I Love You (1996) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) Evil Under The Sun (1982) Eye For an Eye (1996) Forget Paris (1995) Frauds (1993) French Kiss (1995)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) High Society (1956) Hollywood Canteen (1944) I dood It (1943) I morgon, Mario (1994) Imaginary Crimes (1994) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Innocent Blood (1992) Innocent, The (1993) Jumanji (1995)
Junior (1994) Kiss Me Kate (1953) Let’s Make Love (1960) Life Stinks (1991) Life With Mikey (1993) Little Man Tate (1991) Lullaby of Broadway (1951) Maria’s Lovers (1984) Marrying Man, The (1991) Miami Rhapsody (1995) Mighty Aphrodite (1995) More the Merrier, The (1943) Mr. North (1988) New York Stories (1989)
Night and Day (1946) No Questions Asked (1951) Now, Voyager (1942) Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Paree, Paree (1934) Pirate, The (1948) Prelude to a Kiss (1992) Radio Days (1987) Rising Sun (1993) Rocketeer, The (1991) Rosalie (1937) Russia House, The (1990) Scenes from a Mall (1991) Side Street (1950) Silk Stockings (1957) Six Degrees of Separation (1993) Slither (1972) Something for the Boys (1944) Something to Shout About (1943) Stage Fright (1950) Stardust Memories (1980) Starlift (1951) Tank Girl (1995) That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976) Timecop (1994) What’s Up, Doc? (1972) Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) Young Man with a Horn (1950)