COLE PORTER (1891-1964) : Biography

Cole Porter was born and raised in Peru, Indiana in the midst of luxury, a very different background than the lower class ones experienced by George Gershwin or Irving Berlin.  He attended Worcester Academy (prep school) and Yale University.  His early musical career was prolific but enjoyed little success; as we have discussed in the Segment on Orchestrators, his first notable song written for Broadway (Hitchy-Koo of 1919), was “An Old Fashioned Garden.” It was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett as his first assignment at T. B. Harms in 1919, the same year that Porter married Linda Thomas.

Broadway Career Starts Slowly

The best thing that could be said about Porter’s first Broadway show (music and lyrics), See America First (1916.06), a comic opera with T. Lawrason Riggs, was that it introduced him to Elizabeth (“Bessy”) Marbury, the producer of See America First and one of the producers of the Jerome Kern Princess Theatre shows.

Ray Goetz produced Porter’s first hit play, Paris (1928.33), which starred Goetz’ wife, Irene Bordoni.  Four of the seven songs were written by others, but Porter  contributed the memorable songs–“Babes in the Wood,” “Don’t Look at Me That Way” and “(Let’s Do It) Let’s Fall in Love.”  

It was Porter’s next score for Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929.45) that revealed his true capacity to pair witty lyrics with sumptuous or facile melodies.  Edgar M. (“Monty”) Woolley, who taught drama at Yale when Porter was there, staged the book.  (Woolley is best known as the stage and movie actor in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942); however, he also played the professor in The Bishop’s Wife (1947), with Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young.)  

The entire score for Fifty Million Frenchmen is outstanding, as can be heard in the restoration recording by New World Records.  In the original show, there had been an outstanding cast of Jack Thompson, Betty Compton, William Gaxton, Genevieve Tobin and Helen Broderick (who would go on to play the older and wiser confidante to Ginger Rogers in the movie, Top Hat in 1935).  Gaxton was better known in his later shows with Victor Moore, as his sidekick.  As the story goes, Gaxton didn’t particularly want to sing one of the songs in Fifty Million Frenchmen, so it was dropped before reaching Broadway.  The name of the song was “Easy to Love,” which was sung (barely) by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, Born to Dance (1936).

Broadway Kicks into a Higher Gear

Porter next wrote the score for the successful musical, Gay Divorce (1932.27), with orchestrations by Hans Spialek and Bennett and direction by Howard Lindsay.  The cast included Fred Astaire, Clare Luce (also known as Clare Boothe Luce), Eric Blore (best known as the opinionated butler in Top Hat) and Erik Rhodes (best known as the jealous lover, Beddinni, in Top Hat); however, the 1934 Astaire and Rogers movie adaptation (Gay Divorcee)  is better known.  

Porter’s one, great show was Kiss Me Kate (1948.32), and his next best score was Anything Goes (1934.36), staged by Lindsay, with a book by Lindsay and Russel Crouse.  Bennett and Spialek again supplied the orchestrations.  Gaxton and Moore teamed up in the cast, along with Ethel Merman, Bettina Hall and Vera Dunn.

Jubilee (1935.14) had a book by Moss Hart, orchestrations by Bennett, dialogue direction (British accents) by Woolley and a wonderful cast:  Melville Cooper (Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood), Mary Boland (as the oft-times divorcee in the 1939 film, The Women), June Knight and the to-be-great Montgomery Clift in a small part.

Red, Hot and Blue (1936.26) came next, with another book by Lindsay and Crouse, staging by Lindsay and orchestrations by Bennett.  Merman, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope filled out the cast, with help from a newcomer named Vivian Vance (better known as Ethel in I Love Lucy).

Personal Tragedy

An event occurred in 1937 that permanently changed Porter’s life.  He went riding on Long Island with friends, as Brendan Gill relates:

“Against the advice of a groom at the stable at Piping Rock, Cole chose for his mount a mettlesome, nervy horse.   A few minutes out on the bridle path, the horse shied at some bushes, reared, and fell back on Cole, who, being out of practice, found himself unable to disengage his feet from the stirrups.  As the horse struggled to get up, it fell back upon Cole and crushed one of his legs.  Again the horse sought to rise and again it fell back, this time rolling over  and crushing Cole’s other leg.”  

In order to save his legs from amputation, Porter endured thirty-four operations; but finally, medical necessity required the amputation of one leg in 1958.  From that point to the time of his death in 1964, he never wrote another song.

Back in Business at the Old Stand

After the accident in 1937, Porter returned to composing music for Broadway and the movies.  He poured himself into his work, coming up with scores for You Never Know (1938.07), Leave It to Me! (1938.13, known best for the Mary Martin song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939.30), Panama Hattie (1940.19), Let’s Face It (1941.08), Something for the Boys (1943.01) and, Mexican Hayride (1944.02).

In 1948 Sam and Bella Spewack adapted Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into Porter’s smash hit Kiss Me, Kate (1948.32).  Orchestrations were provided by Bennett, and the cast included Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Lisa Kirk and Harold Lang.

While Porter would have good shows in the following years, such as Out of This World (1950.20), Can-Can (1953.07) and Silk Stockings (1955.02) on the Broadway stage and High Society (1956) in the movies, he would never experience the delirious success of Kiss Me, Kate again.

In many ways, the careers of Berlin and Porter are quite similar:  both men produced a huge number of incredible tunes; both men had one great Broadway success (Berlin had Annie Get Your Gun and Porter had Kiss Me, Kate); both men stopped writing late in their lives; and both men will forever be loved for what they did compose.