Cole Porter Biography Page

by Patrick McAndrews:

Cole Porter
Born: June 9, 1891, Peru Indiana
Died: October 31, 1964, Hollywood California

One of the most beloved figures of the American music scene, to many he was the greatest writer of the popular song yet seen. With his keen understanding of the human condition, he was able to make the listener laugh and cry within eight or ten lines of lyrics. A man who was blessed and who seemed to have everything this world could offer, he was stricken down in the prime of life yet continued composing and triumphing. The popular myth of the jilted beau running off to join the French Foreign Legion fits Cole Porter. The truth about his life was far more of a heroic storybook than even the myths he could dream up.

Born into wealth, he produced a body of work for generations of singers and musicians to draw from. He learned how to compose in prep school and he entered Yale to begin a production line of over 1,400 songs. His trademark was his wit and mastery of language, humor, and dramatic verse, usually all rolled into one.

He was born on June 9, 1891 in Peru Indiana, the only surviving child of a druggist, Samuel Fenwick (S.F.) Porter, and Kathleen Cole, whose family was of wealth and influence. Her father (Cole's grandfather) James Omar "J. O." Cole, was a self-made man who became the richest man in Indiana with plenty of savvy along with a Christian work ethic- like approach to business. Kate Cole led a spoiled life, with her father subsidizing her extravagant lifestyle. Her father expected her to marry into wealth, but she didn't. She married a shy druggist. This was against the full blessings of J.O. but he ended up subsidizing the wedding and further supporting the couple. Baby Cole was given his mother's maiden name as a first name.

At the age of six the youngster took to music, learning the piano and the violin and becoming adept at both. His mother saw to it that he practice piano two hours a day. During Cole's developmental years, Kate was known to use her family's influence to promote the lad's success. It is said she even attempted to falsify Cole's school records.

In 1905 he entered Worchester Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts. There he made friends quickly and the students and teachers were so charmed by his dynamic bubbly personality they eventually elected him class valedictorian. Dr Ambercrombie, his music teacher, schooled him on the fundamentals of composing and became an important influence in his life. The youngster held Ambercrombie in high esteem and later in life, Porter would quote him, saying, "Words and music must be so inseprately wedded to each other that they are like one."

All of the Porters' planning and fussing over their son's education, abetted by the small portfolio of songs he had written at Worchester, led to his acceptance at Yale in 1913.

Just as in prep school, Cole made friends quickly and began a college career that was amazing by any standards. A very popular student, he had many adventures, wrote musical scores, and forged relationships that would last a lifetime. His Yale football fight songs went on to become classics. The experiences of putting together full-scale stage productions at Yale were invaluable to development as a composer. His first staged scores were for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and for the Yale Dramatic Association. He also sang solos of his own work for the Yale Glee Club.

Amazingly, he was able to compose several full productions per year plus individual songs, in addition to his Ivy League curriculum workload and numerous social obligations. His shows for the Yale student groups were mostly zany musicals which glorified the superior sexual prowess of the Yale men. The shows were mostly written for Yale audiences, though some shows charged admission and were modified for a non- college crowd. Porter usually wasn't the author of the plays but he wrote the music and had a large influence in plot chemistry, casting, and the witty, high energy tempo of the productions. His musicals allowed Cole and his friends to tour the country where they were showered with parties and attention. Some of his college connections were able to help him later start his career on Broadway. The much-in-demand student promised to continue to keep writing songs for Yale, even after he left. Upon graduating in 1916, Porter had written over 300 songs while at Yale.

The man who paid all of Cole's bills, his grandfather, J.O. Cole, strongly disapproved of young men choosing careers in the arts, preferring him to become a lawyer. Porter tried to get a law career off the ground in the years after his return from France in WWI, but his heart just wasn't in it. His mother, Kate, had known of Cole's shift from Yale Law to its School of Arts and Sciences as a sophomore, but had failed to let J.O. know. Cole later enrolled in Harvard Business School, but writing music was too important to him. All his high living, college life and the acclaim that his composing brought made the practice of law unattractive at best.

In 1916 fresh out of college and with the help of his Yale friends, Porter's first Broadway score, "See America First" was produced, and flopped after 15 performances. In July of 1917 the war in Europe was heating up and all men of draft age were expected to go to war. Discouraged by his Broadway failure, Porter went to France as a civilian. He joined a relief organization and drew light assignments as he built a strong social life in Paris and mostly enjoyed himself for the duration of the war.

With a Devil-may-care attitude, his liaisons with young men seems to have started just after his Yale years and his homosexuality became a little known secret. During the war years Porter lied to the press about his military service and tried to present himself as a bit of a war hero. He told stories of working with the French Foreign Legion and the French Army. In the meantime, he was highly regarded in Paris social circles for the parties he threw. His galas involved the wealthy and politically-connected with gay and bisexual activity among internationally known jazz musicians, Italian nobility, cross dressers and others, with a complete array of recreational drugs in abundance.

After the war, in 1918 it was back to America, and a half hearted attempt to please his grandfather and practice law. It was then that he started spending a lot of time with a well-to-do divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas who happened to be very attractive. The two became very close and her money and social status made her a perfect candidate for marriage to Cole. The marriage was more for appearances than for passion. Linda's first husband was abusive and, with Porter being gay, they had a happy but sexless marriage that lasted for 35 years until her death in 1954. Although they weren't lovers, they were indeed best friends. It is said that Porter would never call a song finished until Linda gave it her nod of approval.

The early 20's found the Porters travelling, mostly in Europe, partying constantly. Porter wasn't regarded as much more than a rich kid that wrote songs to amuse his friends, but he took his music more seriously than that. In 1923, he studied music at the Schola Cantorium in Paris. He then wrote the score for "Within The Quota" a jazz ballet staged by The Ballet Suedois. It wasn't until 1924, back in New York, that Porter had his first real Broadway success with "Greenwich Village Follies Of 1924". In 1927 he enjoyed another hit with the "Revue des Ambassadeurs" starring Irving Aaronson and his Commanders, who made one of the earliest recordings of a Porter song, "Let's Misbehave". Later that same year French stage star Irene Bordoni opened the musical "Paris" and introduced "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love". 1929 saw Porter opening two hit musicals: the first was the lavish London production of "Wake Up And Dream" which produced among other things, the song What Is This Thing Called Love?; the other hit that year was "Fifty Million Frenchmen" with You Do Something To Me. 1929 also saw the first appearance of a Porter song in a movie, an obscure film of low quality called "The Battle Of Paris". The 20's closed with Porter on an upswing, and the 30's proved to be his decade to really shine.

1930 opened with "The New Yorkers" which featured the songs "I Happen To Like New York ", Just One Of Those Things and Love For Sale.

1931 featured Porter writing an un-produced score called "Star Dust" but in 1932 he had a huge hit with "The Gay Divorce". The title was a little too racy for the censors of the day so it was changed to "The Gay Divorcee" featuring the tunes; After You, Who? and Night And Day (perhaps Porter's most recognizable song, all things considered.)

In 1933, he wrote "Nymph Errant" for the London stage, where a young star Gertrude Lawrence triumphed before she returned to finishing school a year later than expected.

In 1934, Cole and Linda returned to New York and he had one of his biggest Broadway hits, Anything Goes. The zesty shipboard romance soon became a worldwide hit not just on Broadway but also in the European theatre. It was later made into a movie, featuring the songs; All Through The Night, "Blow Gabriel, Blow", and its bigger hits were Easy To Love, I Get A Kick Out Of You, You're The Top and, of course, the title song. Porter by this time was truly the toast of Broadway.

In 1935, Porter followed with "Jubilee" which contained the song Just One Of Those Things and an initially-obscure number called Begin The Beguine, which caught on when Artie Shaw recorded it a few years later.

1936 premiered the show, "Red Hot and Blue" featuring It's De-Lovely, and the show, "Born To Dance" that held another sleeper with I've Got You Under My Skin.

In 1937, Porter was back on Broadway with "Rosalie", featuring the songs, "Why Should I Care?" and In The Still Of The Night. At age 46, he was on top of the world, enjoying fame and life in general. Porter was an avid horseback rider, and during a morning ride he was thrown and the horse fell on his legs, fracturing both. This accident, along with some 30 operations and eventually the amputation of one leg, was to bring him pain for the rest of his life. The amputation took place after Cole's wife Linda had passed away in 1954 because she had always been adamantly opposed to the amputation. Porter, despite his great pain, always put up the appearance that everything was okay, even joking that he worked on a song for the score of "You Never Know" while waiting for the ambulance after the horseback accident.

1939 saw the opening of another hit with "You Never Know" featuring At Long Last Love and Get Out Of Town. 1940 saw the film "Broadway Melody Of 1940" featuring the tune, I Concentrate On You and the opening of "Du Barry Was A Lady" with the tunes Well, Did You Evah? and "Friendship". One of the truly amazing things about Porter was that, despite his pain, he continued to produce, with some of his greatest hits still ahead of him.

The early 40's saw a number of hit shows; "Panama Hattie", "Let's Face It" and "Something For The Boys". During the WWII years Porter's production fell off and he was considered washed up. But in 1948, he scored his greatest triumph with "Kiss Me, Kate", a show which portrayed the backstage bickering of a couple of ham actors as they produced Shakespeare's "The Taming Of The Shrew". It was a brilliant success that ran for over 1,000 performances, and it is still widely performed today. Along with "Anything Goes", it remains one of Porter's most popular scores.

Porter had several more hits up his sleeve in the 50's; "Can-Can", "Silk Stockings", and "High Society". His last score was for a television production of "The Aladdin Story" in 1958. The last years of Porters life were sad ones. His leg was amputated in 1958 and after that he led a lonely and reclusive life. In 1960, Yale recognized him with a honorary doctorate. This man of wealth, fame, and talent, blessed with many friends, spent his last two years alone except for paid nursing help. At age 73, he died in October of 1964 in a Hollywood nursing home.

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