Back in 1976, the peerless drama critic Kenneth Tynan wondered in his diary when someone “would take a deep breath and declare that, sometime in the 1930s, the tradition of serious music finally withered away.” , curled up and died of sterility and malnutrition; and that the greatest composers of the 20th century are berlin, rodgers, porter, kern, gershwin, et al.” this point of view, bold enough at the time to be fit only for a journal, has now become commonplace. In the mid-’70s, you had to hang around london record shops to find ella fitzgerald’s gershwin or cole porter albums. now those recordings, and the songs they illuminate, are everywhere. Fueled, perhaps, by the publication, in the early 1970s, of Alec Wilder’s groundbreaking study, “American Folk Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950,” the old composers have come to have a new presence, and their songs even a collective mark. name: the american songbook. their music is now routinely taken up by the very rock singers who once seemed to have outshone them, with some (van morrison singing “a foggy day”) strangely good, some (rod stewart singing “someone to watch over me”) strangely bad, and some (bob dylan singing “the night we call it a day”) just plain weird.
Like all victories in art, this one has a double-edged outcome. On the one hand, music is, above all, out there. on the other, the essential work of discrimination is lost in an enveloping cloud of nostalgia. besieged memory disarms things; complacent nostalgia crushes them again. The first wave of rediscovery had ukases and bans: Alec Wilder jettisoned essentially everything Rodgers and Hammerstein, and almost everything self-consciously “jazz” in Gershwin. (He preferred Harold Arlen, who knew jazz inside out, over Gershwin, a shocking sight then.) A smiling, all-together spirit influences thank-you albums and Lincoln Center celebrations these days; “et al.” Tynan’s covers many talents, big and small. When you’re in the middle of a battle, as it was more savage, it’s important to separate the fighters from the freeloaders. once it’s won, everyone gets a medal.
so, with squads of scholars arriving on the field after battle, to tend to the wounded and bury the dead, we have a renewed opportunity to not only get the story right, but also get the stature right, to find out who occupies the place where and why. Certainly, Porter’s ghost could not ask for better attention than it has been given in “The Cole Porter Letters” (Yale), edited by Cliff Eisen, Professor of Music History at King’s College London, and dominic mchugh, musicologist at the university of sheffield (and editor of the letters of alan jay lerner). Presented with meticulous scholarly apparatus, like Grover Cleveland’s correspondence, each twist in the composer’s story is dived deep for exact chronology, and each name Porter casually mentions is given an explanatory and concerned footnote. The editors have also included some side material that, strictly speaking, isn’t correspondence at all, like a lurid diary from the mid-1930s m-g-m movie project that became the vehicle for Eleanor Powell’s “Born to Dance.” /p>
as artist cards, they are, to be fair, disappointing. there are few flights of fancy or spontaneous improvisations in Porter’s writings to his friends; for such a famous wit, there is very little wit. the most striking passages of writing and thought come less frequently in letters-from than in letters-to. abe burrows, the great musical “bookwriter”—what others call a script broadway people call a book, and what others call a book they call revenge—has several good things to say. offers Porter the ultimate wisdom on musical making: “Making a show is no different than raising a child. the child develops a life of its own. parents do the best they can but certain things remain the same, and the child is what he is.” Porter, a big fan, tells Burrows that he liked those words enough to stick them in his scrapbook.
However, a reader, without learning much directly about Porter’s art, comes away from the book with an even higher opinion of him as an artist than he might have had before. Though he was born into genuine provincial opulence, with second-tier European royalty filling the family holiday dance card, he chose to become a hard worker. reversing the usual American rise from work to play makes the story more grueling and more moving. the work produced a new type of American lyric and idiom.
porter’s personal history was well known even when that of other composers was not. To get a biopic, peers among the great songwriters had to die young, like Gershwin (who got a pretty good movie in “Rhapsody in Blue”) or Lorenz Hart (who got a terrible one in “Words and Music”). But Porter was the subject of two films, including one, “Night and Day” (1946), made in his lifetime and with his reluctant collaboration, despite the unspoken but no secret truth that he was gay. in his own social world, he was as strange as a man could be in those days, with a rich repertoire of lovers and dates.
porter’s story was compelling because it was apparently so generational, so like fitzgerald in his rise from midwestern beginnings to east coast fame. born in peru, indiana, in 1891 to the richest family in the city, perhaps the richest in all of indiana, he went to yale just before the great war. (Fitzgerald, four years after he, at Princeton, viewed Porter’s business career with a bit of envy, as a path he had not taken.) A precocious if largely untrained musician, Porter wrote what still ranks among the school’s fight songs. then came a brief tour of duty in the war, followed by a long vacation in europe in the early twenties, with a loving but mostly sexless marriage of convenience to linda lee thomas of virginia lee. It was a perfect Gerald Murphy-esque jazz-age life, interrupted only by Porter’s determination to make it to New York and become a successful Broadway composer, a very strange and very “Jewish” ambition for a young woman of the age. high society.
beneath its smooth, cool, almost inhumanly productive and elusive surface, lay troubled waters. His very name, for all its air of Ivy League ease, represents a loaded legacy. the porters were the family of his difficult and rugged father; the cabbages were his mother’s wealthy and ambitious Indian family. He was a goalkeeper from birth, but if his mother had anything to do with it, he would be a schoolboy for life.
privilege has its privileges, and porter’s rarity, evident in the countless letters in this volume to kindred souls, like monty woolley, the once-famous character actor whom he met at yale, the original star of ” the man who came to dinner”—seems never to have haunted him, as hart did. porter, by temperament and right, came of age among the openly bisexual european upper class. everyone knew he was a gay man with a marriage of convenience; they all agreed to maintain the pretense that it was not. Far from being a drama of repression or subversion, the situation seems like an oddly happy social concord.
Her letters to her lovers are in the same register as those of Oscar Wilde-Robbie Ross’s London circle a few decades earlier: friends more than erotic, with a transparent language of concealment, a more or less open code of intrigue. “walking out of here you get this perverse idea of the city about new york & all those places,” she writes to the dancer nelson barclift, from his williamstown country house. “Have you been anywhere tonight? confess. say, ‘guilty’. but write to me soon that you have reported everything to ben & ollie”—gay friends—“because, for some intangible reason, they cleanse the impurity of what they touch. and they play a lot.”
it could be argued, and has been argued, notably in william mcbrien’s 1998 biography, that porter’s sexuality shaped his feelings, which broke out into happy one-night stands as “just one of those things” and me”. I have you under my skin”, with the note of sexual infatuation with him, appreciated but difficult to transmute into domesticity. “I would sacrifice anything, come what may / to have you near / despite a warning voice that comes in the night / and repeats, repeats in my ear” does not clearly lead us to become the people who live on the hill.
but frank sinatra had no problem applying the songs, or his emotions, to ava gardner or her successors. at a time when everyone chafed against the restraints of bourgeois morality, a sex song like “let’s misbehave” spoke as clearly about straights as it did about cruising gays. the sport of writing in a tightly organized genre like popular song is not to smuggle in a specifically subversive subtext when the censors aren’t looking, but to make subversive emotions universal enough not to need a subtext. porter went to straight sex in his “affairs” songs like his best friend, irving berlin, went to christianity in writing “white christmas”: outsiders’ triumph was appropriating outsiders’ material. It may be, as some have suggested, that the climactic lines “but yeah, honey, I’m the one below / you’re the one above” in Porter’s “you’re the one above” already meant in 1936 what they mean in slang erotic now; the point is that, post-porter, they no longer had to mean just that.
porter is so famous for his gifts as a lyricist that it might seem mischievous to the point of perversity to suggest that his true greatness lies in his songwriting skills. however, how many other popular composers have had more success with unsung instrumental versions of his work? Artie Shaw’s version of “Begin the Beguine” is best known, but the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s mid-’60s album Porter Songs, featuring Paul Desmond’s peerless saxophone, is just as good. Though rarely overtly jazzy in the Arlen-Gershwin way, his melodies have such an uncanny internal propulsion that, when asked to sway, they practically sway themselves.
Despite his aristocratic demeanor, his tastes were fairly simple, as upper-class Americans tend to be: good taste is usually simple taste, as anyone who has eaten at a wasp club knows. His list of requirements for a hotel room in Philadelphia during a test included slices of liverwurst, salami and bologna, and twenty-four cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Another small but striking social trait that runs through the cards is the preponderance of gifts that were then the province of show business; the gatekeeper gives and receives flowers, paintings, wine, books for the smallest reasons, and then writes at length to thank the giver, or to thank the recipient of the gift for his appreciation. People who came of age in Porter’s day took gifts as seriously as Kwakiutls took their potlatches, and for the same reason: Coming of age in a surplus culture, they believed in barter. constant signs of prosperity.
Porter, high tastes and all, had to navigate a world of Broadway and Hollywood that was astonishingly uniform in its Judaism. A famous story goes that Porter confided to a friend that he was going to write “Jewish melodies,” that is, minor-key pentatonic crooning of the kind Berlin had mastered in “Blue Skies.” In Mary Martin’s first sensational song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the melisma in the middle section has a timid, even awkward, Eastern European sound to indicate that “Daddy” is Jewish.
the degree of reverse cultural assimilation this midwestern gentile had to undertake is reflected in one of the funniest letters porter ever wrote to his (Jewish) agent, irving lazar:
it’s a miniature porter lyric (“sun sent saul to tell me everything”), and shows the forest of strange manners, or at least names, a boy from indiana had to go through at a time when all The other great show business innovators—Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen—were Jewish. what other kind of melodies could you write?
porter’s story has a dramatic climax. In the fall of 1937, when he was forty-six years old, he suffered a terrible accident, in which the horse he was riding fell on him and crushed his leg. the injuries led to more than thirty operations in his lifetime, all excruciatingly painful and a legacy of enduring suffering. Just how agonizing his condition must have been and what consequences it had for his work have been the source of much speculation. Wilder, among others, insists that there was a modicum of good work after the accident. Eisen and McHugh dispute that verdict; Certainly the most successful Broadway shows of his, including “Kiss Me, Kate,” all happened much later. even more certainly, the letters are heroic in their avoidance of self-pity, though they also reveal for the first time just how grievous his injuries were. “When the cast came off I will never forget the first time I saw my leg,” he wrote to Monty Woolley from his hospital bed. “I asked ‘what’s the jelly that’s covered in?’ and the answer was ‘that’s not jelly, that’s blisters'”, blisters. “It was hard to believe because the whole leg looked like a mass of flowing lava and it made me sick.” heavily drugged, he managed to write down some of his “craziest illusions”: “my right leg stretches out, slopes up before me, like the side of a hill, the top of which is my toes. from the ankle down, and coming towards me, there are a number of small, finely-edged rakes at work.”
Rakes got sharper over time. she managed to persevere, it seemed, through a mix of champagne and a stiff upper lip. but no day could have been easy for him. There are long and relatively unrevealing journals of later voyages to the Greek islands and Naples and beyond, and the scope of his activity does not sound at all like that of a crippled man. On the other hand, one of his companions says that he was “inhuman” on these trips, a comment that seems to refer to the prodigious concentration skills necessary to drive away pain and concentrate on pleasures.
Porter writes engagingly, as a craftsman, about the business of putting on a show. it’s pretty clear that he measured the success of a show simply by the number of hit songs he produced, and he had clever theories about how long it takes for a song to become a hit once it’s out in the world. he minimally writes about his own creative process for the same high-class reason that he minimally writes about his suffering: only second-rate people talk and talk about his inner life. analyzing is the same as complaining, and self-analysis is the twin of self-promotion.
however, clues to her creativity shine through the professional surface. Porter was still writing in a magazine style in which the characters were hardly worth dramatizing. Producer Cy Feuer, who hosted two late Porter shows, says in his memoir that Porter didn’t really care where the songs fit into the story; he was merrily composing numbers for “can-can” (1953) while the book’s author and director wrestled bitterly with the plot, and though he added new ones as needed, he seems to have mostly remained aloof, amused and productive, like the rest of the creative team he raged and yelled. in fact, abe burrows wrote a couple of clever diplomatic letters asking porter to wait to write the songs until they knew what the story was. When told that the show’s integrity demanded there be no ooh-la-la songs about Paris, Porter gleefully penned the most obvious of all those songs, “I Love Paris.” he was too irresistible not to include.
He didn’t need the programs to write drama. the songs were the stories. “brush up on your shakespeare” and “so in love”, while situated in the plot of “kiss me, kate”, are hardly situational. he constructed songs so that each one is a drama unto itself, with an erudite, allusive verse leading into a simpler narrative refrain. In perhaps his best song, “Just One of Those Things,” from 1935, it’s a song that Holden Caulfield likes, who likes nothing, the verse is an impromptu sequence of references that weren’t very common at the time: Dorothy Parker, Heloise, and Abelardo The chorus turns cunningly dynamic (“Just one of those crazy flings / One of those bells that ring every once in a while”), from kiss to kiss remembered. the movement is minimal but emotionally accurate (“our love story / it was too hot not to cool”), describing a journey from mere regret to actual regret, a small but significant emotional arc that requires a great singer to convey.