I sizzle to see you

John Lahr

  • The Letters of Cole Porter edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh
    Yale, 672 pp, £25.00, October, ISBN 978 0 300 21927 2

Of the many remedies Cole Porter used to kill pain – boys, drink, luxury – the most powerful was song. In October 1937, at the age of 46, out for an early morning canter at the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York, Porter lost his stirrups when his horse spooked at a bush and fell on him, crushing both his legs. He gave his crippled legs nicknames: ‘Josephine’ was the obliging left one; the right, ‘Geraldine’, ‘a hellion, a bitch a psychopath’, was amputated mid-thigh in 1958. The accident was defining of Porter’s life and legend. As he waited for help, or so he claimed, he worked on the refrain of ‘At Long Last Love’, a song he’d copyrighted a month earlier: ‘Is it in marble or is it in clay/Is what I thought a new Rolls, a used Chevrolet?’ True or not – Porter was in shock and unconscious for two days afterwards – his account illustrates the function of music-making’s in his life: a dandy’s masquerade of perfect equipoise.

Porter (1891-1964) was the cosseted surviving child of three born to Kate and Sam Porter, a pharmacist in Peru, Indiana. He inherited his aptitude for music from his father, a good pianist with an attractive tenor voice. ‘I suppose he started me writing lyrics,’ Porter said – he wrote his first song when he was ten. He inherited his wealth from his doting mother and her father, J.O. Cole, whose fortune from oil, timber and real estate was estimated at $17 million. Small, impish and shy, Port was encouraged to shine. Even as a child, his dapper clothes and musicianship set him apart and announced the Porter family’s imperial position. By the time he was eight he was sometimes invited to accompany the silent films at Peru’s Wallace Theatre; on one occasion, distressed by the sadness on screen, Porter ‘climbed uninvited onto the stage and played happy music on the piano’. He was asked to leave.

He discovered early that music acted as a spell, a voodoo he did so well that he could keep the world both at attention and at arm’s length. He contrived to have music precede him. When he went east to prep school at the Worcester Academy, a piano was sent with him and installed in his room; an upright was also a fixture in his Yale digs. Another import from prep school, Porter said, was the stoic credo ‘neither to show weakness nor to beg indulgence’. His songs were a way to mask and admit himself:

At boarding school I was always taught
Not to reveal what I really thought,
Nor ever once let my eyes betray
The dreadful things I longed to say

‘You might describe me as a cross between Eddie Cantor and the Duke of Windsor,’ Porter said of the foppish, flamboyant figure he cut in his Yale years. ‘I’d like to shine in a physical way,’ he wrote in one university ditty. With his salmon-coloured ties, manicured nails and droll rhymes, Porter’s puckish presence did just that. He was a kind of prancing pony: he performed at smokers and fraternity parties; he wrote and conducted musicals; he composed the 1913 Class Song as well as ‘Bull Dog’ and ‘Bingo Eli Yale’ for the football team’s marching band, anthems which are still sung today. A football cheerleader, he became, in a larger cultural sense, an emissary of pep, generating high spirits and good times for others and himself. According to his wife, Linda Lee Porter, he had the ‘wonderful quality’ of ‘making a room come alive’. His songs made him come alive too. Song lent the reserved Porter a come-hither thing in public that was bafflingly absent in private. ‘He is by turns pensive, nervous, mercurial and polite,’ Margaret Case Harriman wrote in a New Yorker profile in 1940. ‘At other times his air of boredom verges on the spectacular.’ Even though ‘Porter did not fit easily into the social mould of a Yale man,’ as his college friend Gerald Murphy put it, by the end of four years his music had engineered a place for him at the hot centre of campus life: he was elected to exclusive clubs and secret societies (the Pundits, Scroll and Key) as well as to the Whiffenpoofs, the most prestigious acapella singing group. He was, as the Whiffenpoofs sang in their traditional closing number, a gentleman songster off on a spree.

After dropping out of Harvard Law School in 1914 and flopping on Broadway in 1916 with See America First (15 performances) – ‘I honestly believed I was disgraced for the rest of my life’ – Porter ignored some of the show’s satirical patriotic advice (‘Get that grand old strain of Yankee Doodle/In your noodle’) and sailed away from self-doubt and disappointment. Every live wire goes dead without connections; and Porter latched onto his at the Ritz in Paris in January 1918 when he met the beautiful, patrician American divorcée Linda Lee Thomas at a breakfast marriage reception. Porter was living well at the time on ‘Grandfather’s tick’, as he called his inheritance; but Linda was ‘rich-rich’. She was eight years older than him, with fabled taste and impeccable manners, and counted Shaw, Berenson, Churchill and Léon Bakst among her friends. ‘I’m in a complete rut. I lunch and dine with Linda Thomas every day, and between times, call her up on the telephone,’ he wrote to his bosom buddy from Yale, the actor Monty Woolley. ‘She happens to be the most perfect woman in the world and I’m falling so in love with her that I’m attractively triste.’ A banquet of new sexual and social possibilities was spread before him. In ‘Which’, from Porter’s first fully fledged Broadway musical, Paris (1928), his existential quandary was recollected by the show’s star Irène Bordoni:

Which life is for me
The peaceful or the stormy?
Which is the right man
Walt Whitman or Paul Whiteman?

Given the options of gay or straight, tempestuous or dependable, cruising or monogamous, Porter tended to choose both. He married Linda in 1919; they soon became ‘Les coleporteurs’, star turns on the Continental social merry-go-round. The marriage lasted until Linda died of emphysema in 1954. Porter, ‘a homosexual who had never seen the closet’, as Alan Jay Lerner put it, was always true to Linda in his fashion. After she had parted ways with her philandering first husband, who was reported to have had sadistic conjugal tastes, Linda ‘had had enough of the sexual side of marriage’, according to Brendan Gill. In their white marriage, Porter and Linda slept in separate rooms, though always nearby, with separate buildings on their estate in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and separate apartments on the 41st floor of the Waldorf Towers when they made it their residence from 1934 on. ‘Very few people amuse her,’ Porter wrote in 1925 to his lover Boris Kochno, who had succeeded in charming Linda. ‘I don’t know how to tell you how grateful I am – you did it. And that makes everything so much easier.’ The end of the letter spelled out just what was easier: ‘I love you so much that I think only of you – I see only you and I dream only of the moment when we’ll be reunited. Goodnight, darling.’

‘To fall in love with Linda Porter was as much a part of a young man’s first trip to Paris as eating snails at Fouquet’s,’ Moss Hart said (Hart collaborated with Porter on Jubilee in 1935). It was Linda who rolled up the zebra carpet of their fabulous Art Deco apartment on the rue Monsieur with its platinum wallpaper and marble floors to be the first to teach Parisians the Charleston. It was Linda, too, who wrote to Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy and Shaw suggesting they write librettos for Porter to make into an opera and who invited Stravinsky to Antibes (he didn’t come) to tutor her husband in harmony. (For a while, with no hope of succeeding on Broadway and still struggling to find his musical direction, Porter studied harmony, counterpoint and orchestration at the Schola Cantorum in Paris.) Linda’s first husband, also a Yalie, had the dubious distinction of being the first man to kill someone with an automobile; by contrast, Porter’s witty ‘secret songs’, as he called them, were aimed not at the burghers of Broadway but at the European elect; he knocked ’em dead with lyrics that teased their lush, louche lives. Songwriting was Porter’s antidote to his sybaritic aimlessness. Take ‘Poor Young Millionaire’:

I’m tired of betting
Tired of sporting
Tired of flirting
Tired of courting
Tired of racing
Tired of yachting
Tired of loafing
Tired of rotting …
Tired of being
Tired, tired, tired

The ‘old ennui’ which he memorialised in ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ (1934) was Porter’s perpetual struggle. ‘He used work as a weapon to shield himself from a boredom whose threshold was extremely low,’ Moss Hart said. ‘He could withdraw and disappear before one’s eyes with an almost sinister facility.’

As late as 1926, Irving Berlin, the songwriter Porter most admired and the only other master of the Broadway musical besides himself to write both words and music, counselled the frustrated Porter to return to New York where the city and the audience were much changed since he’d decamped for Europe nearly a decade before. Neon had just arrived on Broadway along with George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! The lights turned Times Square into a celebration of American individualism (‘name in lights’); the Gershwin songs turned Manhattan into a playground, ‘an isle of joy’. At a stroke, a new urban rhythm pointed the musical in a streamlined contemporary direction. ‘We are living in an age of staccato, not legato. This we must accept,’ George Gershwin said at the time. The 1920s boom brought with it a new sense of liberation and metropolitan sophistication. Like the New Yorker, which was launched in 1925, musical shows were no longer written for ‘the old lady in Dubuque’ but for an increasingly hip theatre-going audience enjoying the sugar rush of the stock market boom. ‘Times have changed,’ as Porter admitted in ‘Anything Goes’. Eight new Broadway theatres were built in the decade; in 1927-28, there were 267 shows on Broadway. The cultural mood was buoyant. Porter’s lyrics were no longer ‘too smart’ or too raffish for the cosmopolitan public.

In its lavishness, the American musical traditionally made a myth of abundance – plenty in cap and bells. In the playful elegance of his word hoard, his proliferating wit and the lushness of his sound, Porter’s songs became part of Broadway’s show of opulence. By the time he hit his stride in the 1930s the economy was tanking, with about 13 million people unemployed, 25 per cent of the workforce. Yet Porter’s songs never uttered a peep of social distress. He celebrated the deluxe not the dispossessed, the Extraordinary Man not the Common Man. Porter was an unabashed hedonist. His songs didn’t challenge the status quo: they made it irresistible. His exuberant lyrics, famous names and brand labels tumbled together and turned the material world into a glamorous pop landscape of high-low delights:

You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You’re a Bendel bonnet
A Shakespeare sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse …
You’re the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain
You’re the National Gall’ry
You’re Garbo’s sal’ry
You’re cellophane

First and foremost among the bounty in Porter’s Superbia was sex. ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)’ was Porter’s first bona fide hit, in 1928. The song winked at Broadway’s puritanical expressions of desire while mining a new comic erotic seam. Disguised in the most genteel terms, Porter mischievously teased propriety and copulation, importing onto the American stage his rollicking European sense of the pleasures of the flesh:

The most refined lady-bugs do it
When a gentleman calls,
Moths in your rugs, do it,
What’s the use of mothballs?

Porter’s treatment of Topic A was more robust that that of his talented contemporaries. On the subject of desire, Ira Gershwin was demure (‘’S Wonderful’); Lorenz Hart was vexed (‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’); E.Y. Harburg was cute (‘If I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near’). Porter was, more or less, gleefully balls out, as they say. Appetite, not idealism, was something to sing about:

Though other dames
At football games
May long for a strong undergraddy
I never dream of making the team
’Cause my heart belongs to Daddy

‘Experiment,’ Porter counselled in Nymph Errant (1933) about sexual matters. ‘The future can offer you infinite joy/And merriment/Experiment.’ Porter had covered the sexual waterfront, and some of his songs (‘Love for Sale’, ‘I’m a Gigolo’) registered the dark side of his pleasure-seeking. However, the majority revelled mischievously in the comedy of lust. ‘Let’s Misbehave’, ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)’, ‘Find Me a Primitive Man’, ‘Katie Went to Haiti (‘And practically all Haiti had Katie)’, ‘All of You’ (‘the east, west, north and the south of you’). Even as his songs were stopping the show, they were slipping it to the paying customers. At one point, in ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ from Porter’s most successful musical, Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Bianca and her suitors sing in unison:

A dicka dick,
A dicka dick,
A dicka dick,
A dicka dick!

Porter couldn’t resist phallic fun. In ‘By the Mississinewa’ (from Something for the Boys, 1943), two Indian squaws who share a husband dream of his homecoming ‘when we can laze in a daisy chain’. ‘But in the Morning No’ (from Du Barry Was a Lady, 1941) – a duet which went on for ten refrains and was banned from the airwaves – the courting couple politely enquire about the sexual possibilities for an early morning romp, including anal sex:

She: Are you good at figures, dear?
Kindly tell me, if so.
He: Yes, I’m good at figures, dear.
But in the morning no.
She: D’you double entry, dear?
Kindly tell me, if so.
He: I do double entry dear,
But in the morning no.

In his songwriting, Porter began with a title and then, he said, ‘worked out the psychology of the tune’. ‘I write the lyric backward and in this way you built it up to a climax … If I can’t find a good climactic line I throw out the tune.’ At his best, as in the sophistry of ‘Hence It Don’t Make Sense’, the dextrous hi-jinx could yield something as garish and unique as a Fabergé egg:

Now a virgin’s a miss
And a miss is a strike
And a strike is a blow
And a blow is a toot
And a toot is a jag
And a jag is a big expense
But a virgin ain’t a big expense.
Hence it don’t make sense.

At the beginning of his career, dismissed by Tin Pan Alley as a dilettante and in the doldrums about cracking the code of American musical success, Porter told Richard Rodgers: ‘I’ll write Jewish tunes.’ In Porter’s shift to the heavily chromatic minor key with its unmistakable Mediterranean flavour, he found a rhythmic correlative which engineered the crossover to Broadway. ‘It is surely one of the ironies of the American musical theatre that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring “Jewish” music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana,’ Rodgers wrote.

‘In every show I always try to use my favourite tempo, one seldom used in America, the paso doble – or three-two time, a lively tempo,’ Porter said. These exotic borrowings, the aural inheritance of his expatriate gallivanting, are what gives Porter’s love songs their unusual sultriness. ‘Everybody else, perhaps, when fortunate can write a tender song or a romantic song or a wistful song or nostalgic song,’ Alan Jay Lerner observed. ‘But Cole could write passion.’ Porter’s understanding of lust was matched by his sure knowledge of longing. He found exquisite words for that pain:

Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I die a little,
Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I wonder why a little

If his words expressed the erotic in new ways, so did his rhythms. ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ and ‘Night and Day’ grew out of strains of Moroccan music; Porter discovered the off-beat of ‘Begin the Beguine’ while watching a local dance in the Dutch East Indies; the fast-paced wit of the popular songs performed in Parisian boîtes worked its way into Porter’s list songs, a style that he originated and which, according to its creator, was ‘the TinPantithesis of melody’. ‘You’re the Top’ – a new kind of Broadway love song – sparked ‘a national game’ of parodies, according to Porter, none better than Irving Berlin’s:

You’re the burning heat of a bridal suite in use,
You’re the breasts of Venus
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re self-abuse.

As he moved through his days, Porter insisted he was more or less always at work writing songs, just not necessarily at the piano. ‘I’ve done lots of work at dinner, sitting between two bores. I can feign listening beautifully and work. That’s the reason I like to go out. I have no hours. I can work anywhere. I work very well when I’m shaving or when I’m in a taxi.’ In a quote on the back of this book, one pundit suggests that ‘this is the closest we’ll ever get to an autobiography.’ No, the songs are Porter’s autobiography, an expression of his refusal to suffer; the letters, all 670 pages of them, are an expression of his civility. A good portion of them are thank you notes: thank you for the carnations, the wine, the books, the gossip, the records, thank you for the thank you. Porter believed in the punctilio of good manners – he stood when his wife entered and left the room – and he insisted on them. When a present to Greta Garbo went unremarked, he told an acquaintance of hers to have a word: ‘You might add that it’s the custom in this country to acknowledge gifts.’ In prose, he is crisp but not boffo; he smiles but rarely twinkles. Occasionally his swiftness of mind shines through the literate badinage. About seeing his good friend Jean Howard: ‘She is up to no good but I couldn’t find out which gender of “no-good” it was.’ Porter, who wrote so well for low comedians like Jimmy Durante and Bert Lahr, has an ear for the sludge of American speech, and enjoys retailing it to friends. At a party for Douglas Fairbanks Jr, he recounts Samuel Goldwyn’s overheard malapropism: ‘Since the last time I saw you, we’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge!’ Even so, the letters contain moments of his own incidental, almost Firbankean hilarity: ‘Linda is in wonderful form in spite of almost constant butler trouble.’ Of a female friend’s toy boy: ‘She says she found him in Sun Valley, but I’m still betting that she took him out of a tree. He’s awful + behaves like a bad waiter.’

He kept a tight rein on feelings, which is why song was so crucial to his mental balance. Only in a few passages, such as his detailed description of seeing the casts come off his shattered legs for the first time, does the reader glimpse the unguarded Porter. ‘I shall never forget the first sight of my leg,’ he wrote to his pal Monty Woolley in 1937. ‘It was hard to believe for the whole leg looked like a flowing mass of lava and sorta made me sick.’ On the whole, true to his credo, Porter kept accounts of his pain clear and concise. ‘I am living in torture and it doesn’t seem to decrease,’ he wrote to his agent, Swifty Lazar, in 1959. The editors leave it to letters from his intimates – Linda Porter, his secretary Madeline Smith and his valet Paul Sylvain – to spell out the extent of Porter’s anguish. ‘It is Mr C.P’s severe order that none of his good friends be told anything,’ Sylvain wrote in 1951, documenting Porter’s breakdown in Paris and his return incognito to the Doctors Hospital in New York. ‘We did all that travelling back without anyone knowing Cole Porter, the composer, was ill – and where Electric Shock Treatments were started. He’s had two so far.’

*

What these letters really reveal is not Porter’s process or his productions but his longing – the underground stream that fed the flow of song. Porter was at his most effusive and uninhibited before fame found him. To his Yale classmate Charles Green Shaw, aka Big Boy, in 1925, he was flirtatious: ‘I miss that great giant body of the boy I love,’ he wrote, and, when he couldn’t coax a reply from Big Boy, he signed himself ‘inConsOLablE’. But, around the same time, with Kochno, swagger abandoned him. ‘Ah, Boris, how you have complicated my life!’ he wrote from Paris at ‘2 in the morning’. He burns with hunger for ‘those beautiful eyes of which I dream night and day, my Boris’, and begs for letters to get him through his lonely nights ‘when I suffer to have your lips against mine – your lips that I have kissed so often + so tenderly’. In the middle years, Porter was a cooler romantic customer whose affection was dispensed with a kind of coy, suave politesse. ‘In spite of the fact that you are merely a frivolous moth, don’t forget me entirely,’ he wrote to the dancer and choreographer Nelson Barclift. ‘I realise I date. I know that my trimmings are tarnished, I admit I’m poor. But be kind, Nelson, to someone who really is true-blue.’ And, in another letter to Barclift, he signed off: ‘It’s bedtime now. The ole open-fire is a-fadin’ … Night’s a-fallin’, sugah – So, sweet dreams, puss.’ To Sam Stark, a jewellery shop owner, from whose trove of Porteriana many of these letters are culled, he wrote: ‘I sizzle to see you.’ And in another to Stark: ‘Even as I sign my name tears are dropping because you are so far away.’

Recent years have seen the publication of important collections of theatrical letters; those of Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, for instance, brilliantly illuminate their personalities, their times and their artistic struggles. The Letters of Cole Porter, for all its piquant tidbits, is not in that league. Part of the problem is that the editors have been dealt a thin hand of documents, a pair of twos which they try to make into a full house. The other issue is the editors themselves, both British academic musicologists, who know the music but whose knowledge of the Broadway scene is from the reading room not the green room. In trying to fill in Porter’s backstory and turn the letters into a biography, they can always be counted on to underscore the obvious. After a 1949 letter to Linda Porter which ends ‘All love, my darling’, they link to one from Irving Berlin: ‘Porter was also close, albeit in a contrasting sense, to Irving Berlin.’ Again and again, like pedantic waiters spieling about the food while keeping you from it, they intrude on the pleasure of discovery. Their narrative segues are as gauche as they are galling: ‘The following letter to Stark confirms his plans to travel’ – and so it does! Or: ‘Clifton Webb joined the cast during the run of the show and Porter wrote to him from Lyon with a song and a rude suggestion.’ Joke alert – get ready to laugh. ‘Take your finger and stick it up your ass.’ The playfulness they admire in the writer they refuse the reader.