Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter from Indiana. His works include the musical comedies Kiss Me, Kate (1948) (based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew), Fifty Million Frenchmen and Anything Goes, as well as songs like "Night and Day", "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "I've Got You Under My Skin". He was noted for his sophisticated (sometimes ribald) lyrics, clever rhymes, and complex forms. Irving Berlin used to refer to "Begin the Beguine" as "that long, long song."
The early years
Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, into a wealthy Protestant background; his maternal grandfather, James Omar "J.O." Cole, was a coal and timber speculator who dominated his daughter's family. Music was one way for the young Cole to escape from his grandfather's iron hand. His mother started Porter in musical training at an early age; he learned the violin at age 6, the piano at 8, and he wrote his first operetta (with help from his mother) at 10. Porter's mother, Kate Porter, recognized and supported her son's talents. She changed his legal birth year from 1891 to 1893 to make him look like an advanced child. J.O. Cole wanted the boy to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind sent him to Worcester Academy and then Yale University beginning in 1909.
Porter became a member of the famous Yale secret society, Scroll and Key, Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and sang as a member of the original line-up of the Whiffenpoofs. He spent a year at Harvard Law School in 1913. An unverified story tells of a law school dean who, in frustration over Porter's lack of performance in the classroom, suggested tongue-in-cheek that he "not waste his time" studying law, but instead focus on his music. Taking this suggestion to heart, Porter transferred to the School of Music. While at Yale, he wrote a number of student songs, including the football fight songs "Yale Bulldog" and "Bingo Eli Yale" (aka "Bingo, That's The Lingo!") that are still played at Yale to this day.
In 1915, his first song on Broadway, "Esmeralda", appeared in the revue Hands Up. However, the quick success was immediately followed by failure; his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First (book by Lawrason Riggs), was a flop, closing after two weeks. He soon started to feel the crunch of rejection, as other revues he wrote for were all colossal flops. After the string of failures, Porter banished himself to Paris, France, selling songs and living off an allowance partly from his grandfather and partly from his mother.
Paris and Marriage
Porter was writing and selling songs and holding “glittering soirees” when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. He traveled all over Europe, living very freely and savoring the good life around him. He lived lavishly and partied with some of the best known intellectuals and artists in Europe, becoming a charter member of the Lost Generation.
Believing he would continue to lead his charmed life, he did not register for the draft, yet loved to tell the press that he had joined the French Foreign Legion. In reality, he went to work for the Duryea Relief Fund and maintained a closet full of various tailormade military uniforms that he wore when the mood suited him. More often, his playboy lifestyle suited him better.
In 1918 he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich Louisville, Kentucky-born divorcée several years his senior; they were married in 1919. Despite his fairly well-known bisexual inclinations, their marriage was a happy contrast to the abusive one Thomas had just left. She was beautiful, loved travel, and was extremely wealthy, as well as a brilliant hostess with an innate sense of style and class, and Porter loved learning these tastes and disciplines from her.
Porter had relations with both men and women, which might not have been a concern for his almost a decade older wife, Linda; indeed, they both got what they wanted from each other. After her abusive first marriage, Linda was no longer interested in sex and was content to be the glamorous wife of a world famous songwriter who would never physically mistreat her; in turn, Cole had a beautiful woman on his arm when the situation warranted it. In those days, it was not uncommon even for wealthy gay men to marry wealthy socialite women. Cole and Linda did separate in the early 1930s when Porter's sexuality became more and more open during their time living in Hollywood. He had an affair in 1925 with Ballets Russes star Boris Kochno and reportedly had a long relationship with his constant companion, Howard Sturges, a Boston socialite, as well as architect Ed Tauch (for whom Porter wrote "Easy to Love"), choreographer Nelson Barclift (who inspired "Night and Day"), director John Wilson (who later married international society beauty Princess Nathalie Paley), and longtime friend Ray Kelly, whose children still receive half of the childless Porter's copyright royalties.
A review of a recent Porter biography recounts that in his later years, the composer kept "breaking appliances so he could lure cute repairmen into his lair". When in Hollywood, Cole was also a regular guest at George Cukor's Sunday pool parties, which were completely devoid of women, but featured plenty of young men who were Hollywood hopefuls.
His musicals and individual songs soon gained him popularity (in part due to Linda Cole's guidance, according to some biographers); many were written specifically with Fred Astaire and Ethel Merman in mind. Porter had a keen eye for talent and earned a reputation for advancing it. His revues, La Revue in Paris and Paris in New York were successes and some of his most memorable songs were born. His next revues were harshly received; what did well in America did not necessarily do well overseas and vice versa. He travelled with Linda and friends when he needed a break, and although the ‘20s were not terribly successful for Porter, that was soon to change in the '30s.
The middle years
The 1930s were Porter's Golden Decade. He had a string of hit shows, among them The New Yorkers, Gay Divorce, Anything Goes, Jubilee, Red Hot And Blue, and Dubarry Was A Lady. Cole expanded to movies, starting with films like The Gay Divorcee after its stage life. This was the first time Cole’s technique of feminine and masculine themes within songs appeared and his ability to cater to the singer’s voice, such as in "Night and Day" sung by Fred Astaire.
Porter was renowned for his throwing of and attendance at lavish parties. He hobnobbed with the likes of Elsa Maxwell, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Igor Stravinsky and Fanny Brice. While he truly loved the elite society and rubbing elbows with the upper crust, Cole saw these galas as an opportunity and used them as a vehicle to further his career. He would play his songs at parties for potential producers and star performers and in this way he would deal directly with the backers rather than having the formality of arranging time to promote his music through management. It was in this way that Fanny Brice commissioned him to write some material for her, which he readily did through a mutual admiration of the famed star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Porter fashioned a song in the style of Brice's famous number "Second-Hand Rose" entitled "Hot-House Rose." As Brice never ended up using the song in her act, it was forgotten and goes unrecognized today.
In 1937, a riding accident crushed his legs and left him in chronic pain and largely crippled, but he continued to compose. (According to a biography by William McBrien, a probably apocryphal story from Porter himself has it that he composed the lyrics to part of "At Long Last Love" while lying in pain waiting to be rescued from the accident.) Cole underwent more than forty surgeries on his legs and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. During this period, the many operations led him to severe depression. Cole was one of the first people who experienced a new treatment for depression, electric shock therapy, which at that time was particularly barbaric.
The later years
After a series of ulcers and 34 operations on his right leg, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb.
Cole Porter died of kidney failure at the age of 73 in Santa Monica, California and is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana.
His life was made into Night and Day, a very sanitized (almost fantasy) 1946 Michael Curtiz film starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith. His life was also chronicled, somewhat more realistically, in De-Lovely, a 2004 Irwin Winkler film starring Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda. It was decided by the producers that Porter would be portrayed as bisexual.
Shows listed are stage musicals unless otherwise noted. (Where the show was done both as a film and on stage, the year refers to the stage version.)
A far more comprehensive list of Cole Porter songs, along with their date of composition and original show, is available here: .