There's no reason a biography of a figure as dazzling as Cole Porter
shouldn't be as frisky as a glass of Veuve Cliquot.One of the most brilliant songwriters of the century, Porter was clever, witty and well-to-do, and he traveled in the most sophisticated social circles in Europe, Manhattan and Hollywood
from the roaring '20s practically until his death, in 1964, at the age of 73. He was married for 22 years to a woman he dearly loved, although he was a (barely) closeted homosexual. In 1937, both of his legs were crushed in a horseback-riding accident, and he suffered often-agonizing pain for the rest of his life. Porter
was a complicated, private man who wrote some of the best-known and best-loved songs of our time. As a biographer's subject, he's practically a textbook case, a golden opportunity for a writer to blend research and analysis: How did his
private life inform his sensibility, and conversely, what secrets does his work reveal about him?
That's why it's almost a shock that there's so little
fizz in William McBrien's biography of Porter. McBrien (the co-author of Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith) has done plenty of homework, sifting through mountains of detail -- the problem is, he hasn't sifted it enough. In a section on the
time Porter spent in Venice, he digresses to tell us that an aunt of Cole's once worked an embroidered Venetian scene that was displayed
publicly in Porter's hometown of Peru, Ind. It's the kind of detail that seems to serve no other purpose than to prove how much research he's done, how many newspaper clippings he's waded through. His chronicling of Porter's many shows
are bogged down by similar minutiae -- there's important and interesting information there, but sometimes these sections just read like laundry lists of quoted lyrics, of songs added or thrown out at the last minute, of squabbles among cast members, writers and producers. Porter knew lots of people -- big names and small are dropped in multitudinous quantities -- and there are so
many characters, it's often hard to keep track of them.
McBrien, to his credit, has taken a tremendous amount of care to write about Porter's many lovers and crushes without being catty or gossipy: He clearly wants to preserve the dignity of his subject, and that's admirable. But there are ways to keep a subject's dignity without draining all the blood out of him and his work. McBrien quotes a heartbreakingly tender letter Cole wrote to Boris Kochno, one of his lovers, only to follow it with his leaden bit of analysis: "The passion here may startle those who know Porter only from the nonchalant persona he chose to present to society. But these words help those who are moved by Porter's songs to understand the
origins of the ardor that is replicated in lyrics and in his throbbing rhythms and intoxicating melodies."
When you do as much research as McBrien has,
you're bound to turn up some amusing anecdotes: In the hospital after his horrible accident, Cole, heavily sedated, muttered to his friend Elsa Maxwell, "It just goes to show 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong. They eat horses instead of ride them." But the connective tissue between those moments is stretched pretty thin.
You'd hope a biography of Cole Porter would go under the skin. This one merely strokes the surface. -- Salon
"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 gained a reputation 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