The Letters of Cole Porter
Edited by Cliff Eisen & Dominic McHugh
Yale University Press
Hardcover, 662 pgs photographs
After his death, Cole Porter’s relatives and estate basically wanted to erase any perception that one of America’s greatest songwriters was gay, though it was common knowledge even during his lifetime. The matter is now officially settled by the composer himself settled with the publication of The Letters of Cole Porter, just released by Yale University Press.
Cole Porter starts his lifelong letter writing habit when he was a student composer at Yale, and even at the height of his fame, while he composed hit Broadway musicals, Hollywood films and a was a star in his own right in the theater world and cafe society in New York, Paris and London.
He married socialite Linda Lee Thomas in 1918. By all accounts, his wife knew and accepted his affairs with men, but they were the celebrity couple on the theater and society circuits in New York, Paris and London. Even during their yearlong globetrotting honeymoon, Porter was writing lusty letters to Boris Kochno, a star dancer in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. At times Porter sounding completely obsessed that he would not be able to arrange clandestine meetings with the dancer.
Porter was from a wealthy family, and he easily moved among wealthy American and European society, where men had the means to create a protected private gay life.
Few clues to Porter’s love for Linda come through in his letters. He speaks of her so off-highhandedly about their relationship that she comes off as a companion than a. His passion is more apparent when writing to his colleagues, lovers and Yale alums, as he globetrots with Linda living a gay (in the old meaning of the term) and a barely hidden life as a most famous gay composer living a most extravagant double life.
Many of the letters reveal Porter as a charming, egocentric tunesmith right out of one of the frothy backstage musicals RKO and MGM were churning out during the Depression. But other than being tone deaf to the strife of millions of Americans in the 30s, he was at the height of his powers as a composer that connected with his audience, in the theater, in films and by way of popular singers and big bands.
Top stars like Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, and Eleanor Powell, just to mention a few championed his work. As did bandleaders and popular singers. Many performing his songs even before the charts were published.A short list of classics would include ‘Night and Day’ ‘Easy to Love’ ‘Let’s Do It’ ‘Anything Goes’ ‘Begin the Beguine’ ‘Too Darn Hot’ ‘So In Love’ ‘In the Still of the Night’ ‘Love for Sale,’ et al.
Porter had the mutual admiration of his contemporaries, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Noel Coward, Johnny Mercer, et al. Even late in his career, Porter and Berlin shared the distinction of being the most prolific and successful songwriters of the 20th century.
The diary entries reveal Porter as a hard-working composer writing at the top of his game and ready face off with Hollywood and Broadway producers, stars and moguls to promote and control how his music was used commercially.
In 1937, Porter life radically changed will he was riding in the country and his horse reared up, throwing Porter and then landing on on top of him, crushing both of his legs. Throughout the rest of his life, Porter faced risky surgeries and other physical difficulties, but he didn’t really complain about it more than document the setbacks that affected his professional life.
And he continued to compose multiple productions in New York and Hollywood, even though his shows weren’t the hits they used to be. His cache as one of the authors of the Great American Songbook increased as singers and bands on the ‘hit parade’ continued to record his songs.
After WWII Porter’s brand of sophisticated, escapist musicals lost their appeal with audiences. He had two flops in a row and a biopic about his life with Cary Grant was also panned by critics (though both scores produced hit songs). His triumphal comeback was the musical Kiss Me Kate, which revived his career during the 50s, with a string of hit musicals Can-Can, Silk Stockings, High Society and several revivals of his earlier shows.
His letters to his lovers and close friends during Linda Porter’s slow decline reveal little about his relationship with Linda, but it is obvious that her health was foremost on his mind. The older Porter essentially doesn’t change, but his worries about his career, his mother’s health, Linda’s reveal a sadness that he masks with his characteristic positive outlook.
He doesn’t slow up professionally or socially after Linda’s death and outside of a few passing references in his letters, he doesn’t really write about how he is handling grief or carrying on without Linda.
When Porter has to return to the hospital for more operations on one of his legs, that ends in his right leg being amputated, Porter, now over 60, he essentially becomes a recluse, cutting himself off socially and turning down work.
The Letters of Cole Porter makes for compulsive reading as fascinating, if sketchy self-portrait of one of the architects of the Great American Songbook. The editors fill in some gaps for continuity, but for the most part, this collection is Porter’s narrative via his own correspondence~~In equal measure frank and furtive~ there is a lot to read in between the lines~ cue music~ Well, Did you Evah? What a Swell Party It (still) Is.