"The story is not important since it is so completely overshadowed by the songs." Thus read a 1946 review of "Night and Day," the inaccurate Cole Porter biopic which starred, improbably, Cary Grant. The New York Times recommended "quick dismissal" of the film. It's a shame the movie fell victim to Hollywood's tendency to produce glossed-over biographies that barely resemble the lives they're purportedly portraying, for Porter was no less intriguing than his witty, sometimes naughty compositions. Thankfully, his life is now more accurately recalled in William McBrien's Cole Porter: A Biography.
I'll remember forever,
When I was but three,
Mama, who was clever,
Remarking to me:...
Be a clown, be a clown,
All the world loves a clown...
Cole Porter was born on June 9, 1891, in Peru, Indiana circus country. In a match that some found unsuitable, his mother, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, married a man Cole described as "a parvenu druggist." "I just love the way he plays the guitar," she explained. Having inherited his father's musical gifts, and with the example of daring circus performers before him, it is not surprising that Cole showed early promise as a musician; his first composition is dated 1901, when Cole was ten.
Oh, it's awfully hard to concentrate at Yale....
For the extra curriculum
Makes the gay life at Yale
In 1909, with the financial backing of his grandfather, Cole enrolled at Yale, where his academic achievements were not outstanding. However, he quickly gainedareputation as a dandy, a wit, and a composer of some facility: While at Yale, he masterminded many student shows and penned several school songs that are still standards today.
Cole's New York theater debut was in 1916, and inspired the following harsh assessment: "Cole Porter is a young man who ought either to give up songwriting or get out of town."
Paris will still be laughing after
Ev'ry one of us disappears,
But never once forget her laughter
Is the laughter that hides the tears.
Get out of town he did, traveling to Paris, where he mingled with the smart set, composed wry songs for his friends, and polished his sophisticated veneer. Porter married in 1919 and subsequently had his first big hit, "Old-Fashioned Garden," a song from an otherwise forgettable show. His reputation as a playboy composer was launched.
I'm in love with a soldier boy,
So in love with a soldier boy,
I'm in love with an Army man
And can he send me? Yes, he certainly can!
Not only was he a playboy; Porter was also something of a tomcat, taking several male lovers in succession. In McBrien's estimation, "[A]s an artist Cole could cause characters to fall in love, but in his private life he failed to find an enduring romantic attachment." His wife, Linda (who would be chronically ill for the rest of her life), had been aware of his homosexuality from the first, and asked only that he behave discreetly. Porter, however, describes those years as "raising hell on the Continent."
When you sit down, one day,
Look over yourself and say,
"You're very good,"
Ra-ap tap on wood.
Upon his return to New York in 1927, those years bore fruit in the form of "Paris," a show that launched "Let's Do It," one of Porter's wittiest songs. An impressive string of hit musicals followed throughout the '30s, among them "Anything Goes" and "Born to Dance" and songs like "Night and Day," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Begin the Beguine," and "Easy to Love." Cole Porter was now firmly established as both a successful composer and reigning sophisticate. He divided his time between New York and Hollywood, working on Broadway shows and films concurrently. His devil-may-care days were soon to end, however: In 1937 Porter's legs were crushed in a riding accident, when his horse fell and rolled over on him. He would be in excruciating pain for the remainder of his life.
Although Porter continued to compose, he fell into something of a creative slump. The 1946 biopic, "Night and Day," did nothing to bolster his spirits; largely an unsatisfying exercise for Porter, it was a critical disaster. One critic even dubbed it "an exemplar of what's wrong with Hollywood musicals." These must have been discouraging times for Porter, who had great difficulty securing financial backing for his next show as a result of his recent failures. But when that show, "Kiss Me, Kate," opened at the end of 1948, it was a smash hit. "The champ is back again," crowed the Hollywood Reporter.
Wouldn't it be fun not to be known as an important V.I.P.
Wouldn't it be fun to be nearly anyone
Except me, mighty me!
The champ wasn't back for long, however. Soon afterward, Porter began experiencing insomnia, lack of appetite, depression, and fits of temper. Electroshock therapy in 1951 seemed to help, and "Can-Can" and "Silk Stockings" followed, but the death of Porter's mother and then his wife severely demoralized him. His physical and emotional condition continued to deteriorate, and the 1958 amputation of his right leg signaled the end of his career. "He just couldn't get up the interest to do anything," recalls Diana Vreeland.
Deep depression, anger, physical pain, and even loneliness continued to plague Porter. "He was terribly alone at the end," a friend said of his last years. Porter died on August 15, 1964, after surgery for kidney stones. A heavy drinker, he apparently died from delirium tremens, which rocked his weakened body after the operation.
It was not generally felt that Cole Porter's life entailed any interesting artistic struggle. Moneyed, sophisticated, and one whose art seemed effortless, Porter's life seemed to lack adversity. As Orson Welles said of the 1946 biopic, "What will they use for a climax? The only suspense is will he or won't he accumulate ten million dollars?" But William McBrien's richly detailed, meticulously researched biography refutes that impression ably, leaving the reader with a full understanding of Cole Porter's complexity and artistry.
Julie Robichaux, barnesandnoble.com