Cole Porter

Cole Porter

4.1 10
by William McBrien

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In his life and in his music, Cole Porter was "the top"—the pinnacle of wit, sophistication, and success. His songs—"I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes," and hundreds more—were instant pop hits, and their musical and emotional depths have made them lasting standards.

William McBrien has captured the creator of these songs, whose life was… See more details below


In his life and in his music, Cole Porter was "the top"—the pinnacle of wit, sophistication, and success. His songs—"I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes," and hundreds more—were instant pop hits, and their musical and emotional depths have made them lasting standards.

William McBrien has captured the creator of these songs, whose life was not merely one of wealth and privilege. A prodigal young man, Porter found his emotional anchor in a long, loving, if sexless marriage, a relationship he repeatedly risked with a string of affairs with men. His last eighteen years were marked by physical agony but also unstinting artistic achievement, including the great Hollywood musicals High Society, Silk Stockings, and Kiss Me Kate (recently and very successfully revived on Broadway). Here, at last is a life that informs the great music and lyrics through illuminating glimpses of the hidden, complicated, private man.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephanie Zacharek

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

Edward Karam
Loaded with juicy gossip. . . He succeeds in evoking Porter's white-tie-and-orchids set. When his wife, Linda, was asked why she seldom used the Rolls-Royce Porter gave her, she answered, 'It bruises my sables.' -- People Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The wit, sophistication and often-surprising depth of feeling in the music and lyrics of Cole Porter are at last fully realized in this latest of the songwriter's many biographies. Making illuminating use of previously unpublished material at Yale and at the Cole Porter Trust, McBrien (Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith) weaves a complex and groundbreaking portrait of Porter, interspersed with lyrics and 72 illustrations, recounting his affluent upbringing in Peru, Ind., and his emergence in the 1930s as the musical theater's reigning sophisticate. A delicious chapter on the making of Kiss Me Kate in 1948 demonstrates what sharp talons were needed to create a hit. But McBrien's most startling scholarship is on the subject of Porter's homosexuality. Although Porter's marriage remained sexless, he and his wife Linda were the most intimate of soulmates, says McBrien. He traces the early years of their marriage in the expatriate Europe of the 1920s--during which time Linda would meet and approve Porter's male lovers--through their older years in postwar Broadway and Hollywood, when Linda's respiratory illnesses and Porter's paralyzed legs racked their bodies but not their spirits. Never-before-seen letters shine light into Porter's ongoing relationships with Ballets Russes star Boris Kochno, architect Ed Tauch, choreographer Nelson Barclift, director John Wilson, and longtime friend Ray Kelly, whose children still receive half of the childless Porter's copyrights. In previous biographies by George Eells and Charles Schwartz, these men are passing references; here, they are three-dimensional figures, as McBrien locates the psychological roots of Porter's love songs in his unrequited love for the men he could have but not forever. In the tradition of Anthony Heilbut's Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature and Patrick McGilligan's A Double Life: George Cukor, this astute biography will help to create a standard-setting portrait of Porter as a homosexual artist in a heterosexual world. (Oct.)
Library Journal
McBrien (English, Hofstra Univ.), whose previous work has focused on the poet Stevie Smith, provides us with the first full-length biography of Cole Porter in at least a decade. Porter is a major figure in American popular music, the composer of musicals running on Broadway from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s like Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate and such perennial popular songs as "You're the Top" and "Begin the Beguine." Porter was born into a well-to-do Indiana family and later married into even more money. His globe-trotting experiences in high society show up in the sophistication of his lyrics. He was also gay, and McBrien points out how Porter's sexuality emerges in his songs as well. McBrien deals mostly with Porter's life and lyrics; there is little discussion of the music. Copiously illustrated and well researched--it draws on notebooks and letters that were previously unavailable--this book should supplant Charles Schwartz's excellent Cole Porter (LJ 6/15/77) as the definitive Porter biography.--Michael Colby, Univ. of California, Davis
Julie Robichaux
"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,

Charles Wright
Despite its faults (and in the absence of anything as comprehensively researched), McBrien's biography is a decent resource on this impish personality. . . --Biography
Alexander Chancellor
. . .[D]isappointingly plodding. The writer and his subject don't seem like kindred spirits at all, more like inhabitants of different planets. Nonetheless, McBrien's achievement is substantial. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive biography that ultimately seems rather like a 400-page Cole Porter song list. McBrien (English/Hofstra Univ.; co-author, with Jack V. Barbera, of Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith) enjoyed the cooperation of the Porter estate and the composer's relatives; he interviewed surviving friends and colleagues; and he makes extensive use of contemporary periodicals and previous books about Porter. He duly collects the pertinent information and imparts it clearly, from Porter's 1891 birth into a wealthy Indiana family to his lonely death in 1964 after 27 years of suffering from leg injuries sustained during a riding accident. McBrien conscientiously chronicles Porter's privileged existence: undergraduate cavorting at Yale; early composing efforts; marriage to an equally affluent widow; his travels through Europe during the '20s (when he was considered too rich to really devote himself to Broadway); and then his triumph, from the '30s through the '50s, as the musical theater's smartest, sexiest, most sophisticated songwriter. This detailed narrative is long on facts and quotes but short on analysis. Attempting to understand, for example, how the Porters sustained mutual affection even as the homosexual Cole pursued men with increasing openness, McBrien settles for a friend's reductive explanation that Linda's unhappy first marriage had put her off sex. It's a pleasure to read large chunks of brilliant lyrics from Porter's astonishing array of classic songs ('Anything Goes,' 'Love for Sale,' 'Night and Day,' 'You're the Top,' 'I've Got You Under My Skin,' 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare'), but McBrien unfortunately devotes much less time to the sinuous melodies andpulsating rhythms that were equally important. His account of Porter's decline and death acknowledges but doesn't do justice to decades of pain borne with stoicism and style. McBrien obviously appreciates and loves his subject, but his book lacks two things needed to convey Porter's essence: wit and rue.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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