Perhaps the single most cogent review of Cole Porter’s remarkable body of work came from a member of the audience during the opening-night performance of Porter’s masterpiece, Kiss Me, Kate. Onstage, the show’s comic-opera gangsters were jauntily advising their listeners to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”:
If she then wants an all-by-herself night
Let her rest ev’ry ’leventh or “Twelfth Night” . . .
If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the “Coriolanus” . . .
And down in the house seats, the 57-year-old Porter’s 86-year-old mother turned to her companion and observed, “Cole is a naughty boy.”
He was, in fact, the apotheosis of the naughty boy, the musical theater’s most precocious perpetual adolescent. Raised in a world of immense wealth and stultifying propriety, he adhered all his life to a rigorously Victorian code of manners — always rising, for instance, when any woman entered the room (which required no small effort after the shattering of his legs in a 1937 horseback-riding accident forced him to use canes or crutches for the next 21 years). At the same time, he was, in the words of one friend, “far queerer than anyone else I knew” — leading an uproarious gay sex life while nonetheless maintaining a correct, affectionate and thoroughly celibate marriage with an older woman who functioned as a kind of second mother to him.
In the world of Cole Porter, standards were to be constantly maintained — and just as constantly tweaked. The double-entendre was carefully encased within the wittiest of rhymes and set to the most elegant popular music anyone had yet heard.
Initially, though, there was almost no audience ready to receive Porter’s work. He wrote his first shows as a Yale undergraduate for his fellow Yale undergraduates, then — for quite a number of years after he graduated — continued writing songs and shows for campus performance only. The sons of America’s elite appreciated his wordplay and his dirty jokes, but the Ivy League was too small an audience to support a career. His early Broadway efforts came and went without notice, and he retreated during the ’20s to Paris and Venice, where he spent an opulent apprenticeship, studying composition, writing songs and stuffing them into his trunk. In 1926, the 35-year-old Porter met Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart while they were vacationing in Venice, invited them over to his palazzo, gathered up his nerve and played them his compositions. Why, Rodgers asked him, was he wasting his time in Europe? Why wasn’t he writing songs on Broadway?
In fact, during his decade abroad, the American musical theater audience had changed. Mass education and shifting sensibilities had produced a more critical, sophisticated ear among theatergoers (“lyric-conscious,” Ira Gershwin called it); the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart had made Broadway safe for Porter. He returned and took it by storm — in the late ’20s and early ’30s turning out such songs as “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and dozens more.
There’s no evidence that Porter himself ever understood the social changes that led to the creation of a Porter-friendly audience; he lived in a world so hermetically sealed from reality it’s almost unimaginable today. (He once explained to a mid-century interviewer, who marveled that Porter had traveled during the ’20s in his own private Pullman cars, that back in those days everybody did it.) Nor was this inability to see the big picture particularly disabling to a songwriter.
The same, alas, cannot be said for a biographer. For while Hofstra University English professor William McBrien has clearly done prodigious work in researching Porter’s life, his account reads like nothing so much as a book of lists. There are pages and pages devoted to telling us which socialites attended which premieres, which members of the nobility came to dinner at which mansion, which chorus boys Porter screwed in which shows. No scrap of paper, so long as it catalogs something, is omitted: During the Philadelphia tryouts for Can-Can, we are informed, Porter submitted to a local pharmacy a 12-item shopping list that included tissue boxes, Milk of Magnesia, Carter’s Little Liver Pills and pomade.
Such encyclopedic scope, of course, requires economies elsewhere in the narrative, and what’s missing is any analysis of Porter’s work. There are two paragraphs early on quoting some musicologists on his music, which then gives way to a far lengthier discussion of the modernist motifs employed by the Porters’ home decorator. McBrien occasionally relates Porter’s lyrics to Porter’s life, but there is no consideration whatever of the influences on Porter’s work, on the traditions of musical theater he inherited, worked in and eventually altered. Porter’s last words, as McBrien reports them, may well have been, “I don’t know how I did it.” Unfortunately, neither does his biographer.
There is not a “Porter sound” in the same sense, say, that there is a “Gershwin sound.” There is instead an amazing ability, unique among the songwriters of his generation, to shift a song from a minor to a major key and back again, as the lyric recounts the ups and downs of an affair. There is a particular affinity, both musical and lyrical, for songs that convey sexual obsession and for songs that express sheer exuberance. In the last line of “It’s De-Lovely,” for instance, Porter runs wild with extra notes and extra neologisms: “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delectable, it’s delirious, it’s dilemma, it’s de-limit, it’s deluxe, it’s de-lovely!” Porter knows he does this better than anyone, and that we love it; the kid is showing off.
His world, finally, is a kid’s world — an early 20th-century kid, rebelling against the matriarchal propriety that dominated both his personal life and the popular culture of late Victorianism. And yet, he is always seeking that matriarch’s approval, be it his mother’s or his wife’s, and the approval of the society whose strictures they personified. The very title of one of his early hits, “Let’s Misbehave,” only works because, fortunately, there were still standards that could be transgressed. The same is true for the lyric of “Anything Goes”: “Good authors too who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words . . . ” Overthrowing either his own familial matriarchy or the social conventions he consistently flouted was the farthest thing from his mind.
In Kiss Me, Kate a showgirl acknowledges to her boyfriend that while she may have somewhat profitable affairs on the side, she really is his nonetheless:
Mr. Harris, plutocrat,
Likes to give my cheek a pat,
If a Harris pat
Means a Paris hat,
But I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion,
Yes, I’m always true to you, darling, in my way.
It’s delectable, it’s delirious, and it’s Porter’s pledge of allegiance to his wife, and his mother, and the whole damn straight society.