Saturday, February 15, 2014

Believing in Cole Porter

Cole Porter's brand today encompasses both his persona, cultivated carefully, of a carefree high society composer, and the secret suffering that came to light after his death in 1964.  A review of his life and work reveal how these opposite images integrate in one complete, complex human being.


"Begin with the face," begins Brendan Gill in his superlative biographical essay on Porter, "invincibly boyish."  After decades in constant pain, fearful that he had lost his talent, that face "haunted itself": "Cole carried with him to the grave not the ravaged face of an old man but the ravaged face of a young one" (Kimball ix).

Puffed up as a prodigy by his indulgent mother in Peru, Indiana, Porter -- shaving two years off his true age -- went east to Yale where he found a niche as composer-lyricist for satirical revues and football rallies.  He was "a little dark man with his hair parted in the middle and slicked back... looking like a westerner dressed up for the east" recalled fellow Eli Gerald Murphy (9) (see my blog post on Murphy and his wife "Muses of the Roaring Twenties").  His early reputation was for being a playboy who occasionally wrote supercilious songs, while he "literally sweated to make good" songs (xiv) : "Social in his tastes but Middle- Western- Protestant- Puritan in the seriousness of his aspirations" (xii).

Kimball's book Cole documents the "high society" part of his life.  In photographs we see the cocktails, Dukes and Princesses, and Cole himself cavorting on the beach with Noel Coward, Monty Woolly, and Gerald Murphy.  We read breezy, chatty notes and also the lyrics that he wrote for friends.  A couple of these are well-known, "Miss Otis Regrets" and "Mister and Missus Fitch."  Another song of this type concerns a social-climbing "scampi" eaten, then vomited, by one of Porter's guests, who concludes his little song, "I've had a taste of the world you see / And a great princess has had a taste of me" (74).  Porter's marriage to heiress Linda Lee, we're told, was a "business arrangement" that suited them both:  she escaped an abusive first marriage, and acquired an attentive lifelong companion, while he acquired her fortune and a beard for his relationships with numerous gay men.  His reputation added cachet to his delightful scores for Broadway shows in the 1930s, when he wrote most of the songs that remain standards.

"The central episode of his life" was his accident at a Long Island estate in October 1937.  When the horse he rode balked at a jump and fell, both of Porter's legs were crushed.  In nearly three decades remaining to him, Porter endured dozens of operations, constant pain, and at last, the double amputation that he'd fought to avoid.  Typically, Porter made light of the accident, telling us how he started the lyric for "At Long Last Love" while he awaited medical help:  "Is it an earthquake?  Or merely a shock?"   Gill commends Porter's courage and indomitable joie de vivre as he masked his hobbled state.  The book gives us many portraits of the smiling composer seated at his piano, or standing between friends, but also the memorable photo of two men lifting grim-faced Porter from a limousine into a theatre wearing his tuxedo, boutonniere and all (167).

None of this would be of more than passing interest if the songs didn't speak for themselves.  The lyrics collected in Cole demonstrate what Stephen Sondheim means when he writes, "Of all the best theater lyricists, Porter is the one whose style is most immediately recognizable" (Sondheim 212).  Sondheim explains:

[Porter's] style is ...extreme in its distinction.   The list songs are such a gallimaufry of pop-culture references ("You're the Top"), the salacious songs so heavy with double entendre ("But in the Morning, No"), the love songs and out-of-love songs so outrageously extravagant ("In the Still of the Night," "Down in the Depths") that they verge on, and often cross into, camp.  The unique thing about Porter, though, even at his most camp, is that the lyrics are genuinely felt.
How can we as singers and listeners tell whether a lyric is "genuinely felt?"  Do we have to know the life story to know that Porter believed what he wrote?   It helps, but I'd offer the verse for "Why Shouldn't I?" as a crystalline example of the way Porter's artifice intensifies feeling -- the way an actor arouses sympathy more by smiling through tears than by copious weeping.  Here, I've highlighted rhymes to emphasize the artifice:
All my life I've been so secluded (1)
Love has eluded (1) me (2),
But from knowing second-hand (3) what I do of it (4),
I feel certain I could stand (3) a closer view of it (4).
Till today I studied love discreetly (5),
But now that I'm completely (5) free (2),
I must find (6) some kind (6) persona grata (7)
To give me data(7) personally (2).

(refrain)
Why (8) shouldn't I (8)
Take a chance (9) when romance (9) passes by (8)?
Why shouldn't I know of love? ... (Kimball 137)
Whose feelings are expressed here, we wonder?  Feelings of the character who sang it, or of the middle-aged closeted gay man who wrote it - speaking through the mask of the character?  Sondheim, who flatly denies speaking for himself through his own lyrics, explains how it used to be different:  Before Oscar Hammerstein introduced a second dimension to musical characters, Sondheim writes, characters in musicals were all types:
...the kinds who could be described with one adjective and one noun: the shy hero, the aggressive vamp, the wisecracking friend, the stodgy parent, and so on.  As a consequence, the songs they sang reflected only the outlook of the songwriters or the personalities of the performers.  Cole Porter's characters were all aspects of Cole Porter, or at least his public image: the worldly cosmopolitan with the aching heart. (Sondheim 55)
So Porter "loves the haute monde he is satirizing," and Sondheim gives a great example of how Porter projected his own attitude of "the amused observer" into lyrics that Mary Martin introduced in 1938:
While tearing off
A game of golf,
I may
Make a play
For the caddy,
But if I do,
I don't follow through,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.  (Sondheim 212)
"Technically," Sondheim writes, "in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."

Sondheim relates the anecdote of a visit he paid to Cole Porter as part of Ethel Merman's entourage.  The time was during the composition of the score for Gypsy, shortly after Porter's double-amputation, and Merman wanted to cheer the composer up.  Sondheim says "it may well be the high point of my lyric-writing life" to have heard a "gasp of delight" from Porter for a very Porter-esque moment in the lyrics -- a surprise fourth rhyme in a foreign language  ( "Wherever I go, I know he goes,/ ...she goes/ No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos -- / Amigos / Together!")(Sondheim 69).

The last lyrics in Kimball's book, coming from that dreary and painful last period in Porter's life, are short and undistinguished imitations of earlier gems.  One exception, from the movie High Society (1956), is "I Love You, Samantha," a lovely song built on the dissonance of a diminished chord.  The lyric, "Together, Samantha / We could ride a star and ride it high" may be reminiscent of "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings," but  the lyric ends:

If some distant day
You decided to say:
"Get along, go away, good-bye!"
Remember, Samantha,
I'm a one-gal guy (Kimball 249).

Singing in his white tie and supper-club diction, Bobby Short brought out the ache and insecurity implied in that last line.  Cole Porter gives a singer something brilliant to play with, but also something underneath to believe in.

See my reflection on the life and work of Sammy Cahn. I've written much about Sondheim;  see my Stephen Sondheim page.

Reflection on Cole, lyrics and documents of Cole Porter's life edited by Robert Kimball, with biographical essay by Brendan Gill, designed by Bea Feitler (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1971).  Also, comments by Stephen Sondheim in his memoir Finishing the Hat (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

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