Indiana native whose sophisticated music and urbane style made him an international sensation
His musicals dominated Broadway from 1930s to 1950s
J.O. Cole was the richest man in Indiana. His father had been a shoemaker, but J.O.--the initials stood for James Omar--went out to California during the Gold Rush and came back a wealthy man to Indiana, where he multiplied his wealth by way of timber and coal and other enterprises. J.O. married Rachel Henton, and when their daughter, Kate Cole, was born in 1862, nothing could be too good for J.O.'s girl. J.O. gave Kate expensive clothes, expensive tastes, and an expensive education that included music and dance.
J.O. naturally expected his Kate to choose a husband from the ambitious world of high-powered businessmen, someone who could take over his financial empire if and when J.O. ever chose to let go of the reins. But Kate Cole had a mind of her own, and the husband she selected was Sam Porter, said to be a weak and ineffectual, although modestly successful, pharmacist from her hometown of Peru, Indiana. One can only speculate, but one can at least suspect that Kate was too much like her father to want to marry a man of her father's stamp, and instead deliberately chose a husband that she could rule.
J.O. fumed and grumbled, but in the end Kate got her way, and J.O. paid first for the wedding and then for the expensive lifestyle of the wedded couple. And then, on June 9, 1891, in Peru, Indiana, Kate's son, J.O.'s grandson, was born, and they named him Cole Albert Porter.
From the age of six, the little boy studied first violin and then, at age eight, piano, and soon he showed real talent for both. When he decided that he didn't like the violin, he devoted all his energies to the piano, practicing two hours every day. Frequently, his mother Kate would join him at the piano, and together they would make up wicked parodies of the popular songs of the day.
Kate knew that her son had talent, and did everything she could to pave the way for musical fame. Early on, she subsidized the student orchestra at the local music school, making sure that her son, dressed in velvet and lace, was the featured violin soloist. There were rumors that she also took steps to ensure that the local papers gave her son the right reviews. When Cole was ten years old, he began composing music, and his mother paid to have his compositions published and sent copies to family and friends. And when, at age 14, she sent Cole off to the exclusive Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, she decided that people would be more impressed with her son's accomplishments if her son were only twelve instead of fourteen. And so, she made Cole twelve, officially at least, by arranging some small changes in his school records.
When Cole was sent east to boarding school, J.O. was furious. J.O.'s plan was that his grandson would stay in Indiana, learning about the family business empire and preparing to eventually take it over. J.O. was so angry, in fact, that for two years he refused to speak to Kate. But, as always, Kate got her way.
Cole's stay at the Worcester Academy was a successful one. In later years, he remembered one of his instructors there, Dr. Abercrombie, as an important influence. Cole said that Abercrombie taught him about language and meter, and that, in a song, "Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one." When he graduated from the Academy in 1909, Cole was the class valedictorian.
Next came Yale, and Cole's undergraduate years at Yale were one of the richest periods of his life. He was a huge social success, famous on campus for the songs he was constantly writing and singing. He sang solos with the Yale Glee Club. He wrote football fight songs, some of which continued to be sung long after he left Yale, especially "Bingo Eli Yale" and the "Yale Bulldog Song". And he wrote songs for six full scale musical comedies, produced by the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and by the Yale Dramatic Association. Some of these shows went on tour around the country, and Cole toured with them, reveling in the parties and good fellowship that went with the tours. In all, Cole wrote around 300 songs while he was at Yale. And when he graduated in 1913, his classmates voted him the "most entertaining" member of his class. In his Yale years, Cole made many connections that would be professionally and personally important to him for the rest of his life.
At J.O.'s insistence, Cole then enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he roomed with a young man named Dean Acheson--yes, the Dean Acheson who would become Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953. But Cole had no interest in becoming a lawyer, and his activities continued to be mostly musical. Many of Cole Porter's stories about himself were inventions, but, according to Cole, the Dean of the Law School, Ezra Ripley Thayer, took him aside one day, during Cole's second year at the Law School, and told him, "Don't waste your time--get busy and study music." Whether the advice really came from Thayer or not, Cole took it, and transferred to Harvard's School of Arts and Sciences in 1915, where he studied for a graduate degree in Music. Cole told his mother Kate about the change in career plans, but both of them allowed J.O. to believe that Cole was still earnestly pursuing his Law School degree.
Cole left graduate school in 1916 and moved to New York City, where he lived at the Yale Club. His first show, See America First (1916), lasted for only 15 performances, but the audience was full of prominent socialites, and Cole himself quickly became a familiar figure in social circles in New York.
In July 1917, Cole moved to Paris. The First World War was raging, and Cole invented stories about joining the French Foreign Legion and performing numerous heroic exploits that were duly reported in the press back home and that remained part of Cole's official biography throughout his life. Not a word was true. In fact, Cole was enjoying Paris's fabulous social life, an endless stream of extravagant parties full of international celebrities, members of the minor nobility, cross dressers, artists, and eccentrics, accompanied by alcohol and other drugs, and featuring an assortment of gay and bisexual activity.
Linda Lee Thomas from Louisville, Kentucky, was another prominent socialite in Paris. Divorced from an abusive husband, wealthy, and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, Linda soon became one of Cole's closest friends. She was older than Cole, and was quite aware of his homosexual preferences and activities. Nevertheless, on December 19, 1919, Cole and Linda were married. Although sex was never a part of their relationship, they truly liked each other, and Linda was deeply dedicated to Cole's career, so, in its own way, their marriage proved a close, successful, and mostly happy one.
Cole and Linda led a glittering social life in Paris, Venice, and the Riviera. Their Paris home had platinum wallpaper and zebra skin chairs. For one extravagant party in Venice they hired 50 gondoliers and a troupe of circus acrobats. For another party, they hired an entire ballet company.
But while his social life was dazzling, Cole's career was moving frustratingly slowly. He studied briefly with the noted French composer Vincent d'Indy. He had a few small successes, contributing songs to such shows as Hitchy-Koo 1919 and the Greenwich Village Follies of 1924. And in 1923 he had a success in Paris with a short ballet called Within the Quota. But Broadway producers had little interest in his work. However, in 1928, Irving Berlin recommended Cole to the producers of a "musicomedy" called Paris, starring Irene Bordoni. Cole wrote five songs for the show, and one of those songs "Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)", became Cole's first big success.
Finally, the Broadway career that had so long escaped him began to be a reality. He followed up on Paris with another "French" show, and a full musical this time, Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929). The show, with a book by Herbert Fields, ran for 257 performances, and included "You've Got That Thing", and "You Do Something To Me". And then, for a London show called Wake Up and Dream (1929), Cole wrote "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
Now living in New York, Cole entered an extraordinarily productive period in which show followed show on Broadway, and hit song followed hit song. The New Yorkers (1930) introduced "Love For Sale". His 1932 musical Gay Divorce starred Fred Astaire, in Astaire's last Broadway role and Astaire's only Broadway appearance without his sister and longtime dancing partner Adele. The show ran for 248 performances, and included "Night And Day" and "After You, Who?"
In 1934, Cole wrote one of his greatest scores for a show with a book by Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsey, and Russel Crouse, Anything Goes. The show starred Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, Bettina Hall, and Victor Moore and included "Anything Goes", "I Get A Kick Out Of You", "All Through The Night", "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", and "You're The Top".
Cole wrote the songs for 1935's Jubilee while on a round the world cruise with Moss Hart, who wrote the show's book. This show had a big hit in "Just One Of Those Things" and also introduced a song that became a hit some years later, "Begin The Beguine", said, at 108 measures, to be the longest successful popular song melody ever written.
Around this time, Cole and Linda began to spend much of their time in Hollywood, where Cole's flamboyant lifestyle became, if anything, even more so, with all-male parties by the swimming pool and an assortment of long and short-term gay love affairs.
Meanwhile, in 1936, Cole had another Broadway musical, Red, Hot and Blue!, which starred Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, and Jimmy Durante, and included "It's D'Lovely". Also in 1936, the movie musical Born to Dance featured "I've Got You Under My Skin" and Jimmy Stewart singing "Easy To Love". And a 1937 film, Rosalie, introduced "In The Still Of The Night".
Things could not have been going better for Cole, but tragedy struck. In the summer of 1937, Cole was riding on a bridle path at Long Island's Piping Rock Club. Suddenly his horse slipped. Cole was thrown, and his horse fell on top of him, crushing both his legs and damaging his nervous system. The doctors wanted to amputate both legs, but his mother Kate and his wife Linda refused to allow this, convinced that the loss of his legs would kill him. However, Cole would never recover the full use of his legs, and for the rest of his life he would be in serious pain, suffering chronic osteomyelitis and undergoing more than thirty operations over the next twenty years.
Cole escaped from his physical agony in work. Cole composed the score of his Broadway musical, Leave It to Me!, soon after the accident, ordering his piano raised on blocks so that he could roll up to it in his wheelchair during the brief intervals when he was able to leave his bed. Leave It to Me! had a book by Bella and Sam Spewack, and starred Sophie Tucker, Victor Moore, and William Gaxton. But it is best remembered as the show that made Mary Martin a star, stopping the show with a mock strip tease performed on top of a cabin trunk while singing "My Heart Belongs To Daddy". The show opened on November 9, 1938, and ran for 291 performances. Earlier in 1938 an unsuccessful show called You Never Know had introduced "At Long Last Love".
Cole resumed an astonishingly productive pace. 1939 brought DuBarry Was a Lady, which had a book by B.G. ("Buddy") De Sylva and Herbert Fields, and which starred Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman. The show ran for 408 performances and introduced "Friendship" and the delicious "But In The Morning, No!"
Nevertheless, perhaps because of the excruciating physical and emotional pain he was experiencing, the hit songs and standards began to be rarer in his output. Still, he was back on Broadway again in 1940 with Panama Hattie. Again, De Sylva and Herbert Fields wrote the book, and Merman starred. The show ran for 501 performances. Also in 1940 came the film, Broadway Melody of 1940, for which Cole wrote "I Concentrate On You".
In 1941, he had a Broadway hit with Let's Face It!, with a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, and a cast that included Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, and Nanette Fabray. The show ran 547 performances. Ethel Merman starred again in 1943's Something For The Boys, and for the film Something to Shout About, also in 1943, Cole wrote "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To".
Bobby Clark starred in 1944's unsuccessful Mexican Hayride. He did have a hit with "Don't Fence Me In" in the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen, but the song had actually been written years earlier. For another 1944 show, Seven Lively Arts, Cole wrote "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye".
In 1946, Hollywood released a "biography" of Cole Porter, Night and Day, starring Cary Grant, Alexis Smith, and many others. The film was pure fiction, even by the standards of the biopics of the period, and Cole is said to have been quite content to have it that way. 1946 was also the year of another Broadway musical, Around the World in Eighty Days. Orson Welles wrote the book, directed, and starred in the show, which ran for only 75 performances.
One feels a little awkward describing these years as less than successful. Certainly, most songwriters would have been proud to have Cole's achievements of those years, but for Cole Porter it must have been a frustrating period.
But then he teamed up again with writers Bella and Sam Spewack to create a new musical. It was called Kiss Me Kate. The show was Cole Porter's masterpiece and triumphantly re-established him as one of the greatest of American songwriters. It opened on December 30, 1948, starring Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang, and ran on Broadway for 1,077 performances. The amazing score, written while Cole was recovering from his 21st operation after his accident, includes, "Another Op'nin', Another Show", "Why Can't You Behave", "Wunderbar", "So In Love", "We Open In Venice", "Tom, Dick, Or Harry", "I've Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua", "Were Thine That Special Face", "Too Darn Hot", "Where Is The Life That Late I Led?", "Always True To You (In My Fashion)", "Bianca", and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". Kiss Me, Kate is constantly, and rightfully, being revived all over the world, and is currently running again on Broadway in a hit revival.
In 1950, he was on Broadway again with Out of This World, which ran for less than six months, although it included "From This Moment On" and the delightful "Nobody's Chasing Me". Then, in 1953, he had a hit with Can-Can. The show had a book by Abe Burrows and introduced "I Love Paris" and "It's All Right With Me". Can-Can ran for 892 performances, and was a career breakthrough for Gwen Verdon, who went on to become a major Broadway star.
1955 brought Silk Stockings, which ran for more than a year. Cole then wrote the songs for the 1956 film High Society, which starred Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra. He also wrote the songs for the 1957 George Cukor film Les Girls, starring Gene Kelley and Mitzi Gaynor.
However, through all this, both his health had been steadily deteriorating. In 1958, Cole's right leg was amputated. To make things worse, this came at a time when he could not have been more emotionally vulnerable, following the deaths of both his mother Kate and, in 1954, his wife Linda. For the remaining years of his life, Cole, who had always been the center of a glamorous social whirl, was depressed and a recluse. He traveled between his nine-room suite in New York's Waldorf Towers and his 350 acre estate in the Berkshires and his California home. He no longer wrote songs, and rarely saw anyone except his very closest friends. When ASCAP presented a "Salute to Cole Porter" at the Metropolitan Opera House, Cole was one of the few important songwriters or celebrities who was not present. Although a lavish party was thrown for his 70th birthday, he did not attend it.
Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964 in Santa Monica, California after kidney surgery. Cole Porter produced a rich and fascinating body of work, characterized by wit and sophistication, with an underlying strain of restless melancholy and loneliness.