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A Kick Out of Cole

Cole

edited by Robert Kimball, with a biographical essay by Brendan Gill
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 283 pp., $25.00

Cole Porter was the purest of the pop composers. He never had the zest of Gershwin, the melting melodies of Kern, the everyday energy of Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin. The lofty “You Are Love” was beyond his ear, the calescent “Fascinating Rhythm” beyond his beat. Yet of his many successes only “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” seems, here and there, less a Cole Porter number than a Vincent Youmans number. You can fumble Rodgers for Berlin, Kern for Rodgers, Youmans for Gershwin, if the nightcap’s good or the party’s a groove, but Porter, generally, whatever the setting, is immediately himself, irresistibly intact.

The long legato line of “In the Still of the Night,” the upper-class minstrelsy of “Let’s Not Talk About Love” or “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” the bolero sweep of “Night and Day” or “Begin the Beguine,” the wry catalogues and back alley sounds and tosspot rhymes (“Philharmonics” with “high colonics”)—in Porter the verbal phrase almost always matches the musical phrase, a perfect casualness and a perfect pitch coupled with the utmost lilt and concentration and swank.

True, he never really progressed. “Let’s Do It” and “Miss Otis Regrets,” as good as anything he’s done, perhaps even the best of everything he’s done, were around long before Du Barry Was a Lady or Leave It to Me. True, except when in the minor mode, whether sardonically or romantically, whether as in “Friendship” or “Love for Sale,” he appears, now and again, a little airy, the pop of the champagne rather too Anacreontic in the wings. He lacked, not often, but often enough, the insouciant swagger, the yeasty theatricality of the other lyricist-composer with whom he’s so frequently compared. Think of Noel Coward’s “Choir Boys’ Song” and think of Cole Porter’s “The Blue Boy’s Blues.” Coward has, it seems to me, the advantage of the English music hall tradition, its eccentricity and edge. The colloquial and the formal, the slangy and the recherché—Porter could be as cockeyed as he wished, but on Union Square or Broadway one had better always be cockeyed in a rough and ready way, or one would, in Porter’s day at least, run the risk of being thought a dip.

He loved the new and he loved the old. He loved the rippling ragtime (Fats Waller, usually), the thumping bass, the alternating clarinet and sax, and he also loved Haydn and Mozart and the Savoy Operas. He left his mark on more than one era. “Two Sleepy People,” “You Go to My Head,” “Whatever Lola Wants,” “What Now My Love?”—aren’t these the sort of songs one assumes Cole Porter to have written, or one fancies he would have written had he ever gotten around to it?

Of course he was a boon to performers. Catch Dietrich in Stage Fright on TV. Marvel at how aptly two spectacularly idiosyncratic styles play against each other. The fantastic Marlene, with her mean cat’s eyes and glistening lower lip and overwhelming slouch, nuance-laden and ermine-clad, swamped by pubescent chorus boys in top hats and tails, warbling one of the earliest and saltiest of Cole Porter’s songs:

Ev’ry proposition I turn down,
‘Way down….
It’s not ‘cause I wouldn’t,
It’s not ‘cause I shouldn’t,
And, Lord knows, it’s not ‘cause I couldn’t,
It’s simply because I’m the laziest gal in town….

Porter had a lengthy career, quite the most durable of that of any other Broadway composer except Berlin and Rodgers. But it was only the Twenties and the Thirties, I think, that were incontestably his own. Zebra rugs, floating “hot spots” on the Grand Canal, continental creeps with titles, bootleggers, world tours—the feather-boa frivolity of the postwar years suited the Porter tastes and temperament to a double t. He lapped up culture at the Palazzo Rezzonico or on the Rue Monsieur, but he had little interest in modernist “movements” or “ideas,” and none at all, it appears, in the literati. What he wanted, what the smart set of Europe and America in the Twenties wanted, was the sort of sophistication that could accommodate itself to everything but the deeply crenulated, the deeply felt—an aristocratic sophistication. Arnold thought the aristocrats of Victorian England were intellectual barbarians. Wilde did too: “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” In Vile Bodies, the young Evelyn Waugh, in a nattering mood, mocks madcap Mayfair:

Miss Runcible had changed into Hawaiian costume and was the life and soul of the evening.

She had heard someone say something about an Independent Labour Party, and was furious that she had not been asked.

If Cole Porter had ever come across the passage I’m sure he would have thought Miss Runcible a darling dodo, deliciously unaware that there was such a thing as a political party, just as, no doubt, a later generation, the Oxford generation of Auden and Spender, would pretend, as wicked Marxists, that the hapless Miss Runcible was, in fact, really making a crack at the expense of all political parties.

In the Twenties, then, Porter celebrated the playboy and the playboy’s estate. He was “at home abroad,” the languor and the lampoon blended half-and-half:

Flappers: Hallaluyah, Hallaluyah.
It’s the famous Madeleine.
Millionaire: We’ve got a church in Kankakee,
But this one is a riot.
So if you’ll send it C.O.D.
I’ll buy it.

But what about the Thirties, that hootenanny era? Bread lines and strikes, the Dionne Quints and “fertility stones”; chubby Alice Faye, vacuous dimples and trembling chin and no talent at all—it made her endearing, a sort of over-age Shirley Temple; Busby Berkeley and his “top shots”—hundreds of grand pianos and sobbing violins and bejeweled beauties swimming in and out of waterfalls. Hardly a Porter milieu! Yet it was in the Thirties, both on stage and screen, that Cole Porter became a household word. Is it hard to understand?

No doubt, the parody character of America’s fallen plutocrats lifted many a cartoonist from the ranks of the unemployed. No doubt, the rags to riches yarn became completely frayed. But remember, during the Thirties the Duke and Duchess of Windsor often rivaled in speculation and popularity the ménage at the White House. Debutante balls were astonishingly as much on the minds of the masses of people as union songs—if they weren’t, the escapist entertainment of the Hearst papers would ensure the common man becoming misty-eyed over the lost splendor.

Porter had always been youthful, full of youthful self-doubt. Far from damping his spirits, the gross jinxy world of the Thirties, rather like Broadway itself, buoyed him up. The pernickety Eli yielded to an exuberant self-promoter, hungry for good old American success. Despite the slump, despite the famous disabling horseback riding accident of his forty-sixth year, Porter, in the Thirties, composed infectiously, inspiritingly, often in an absolute rush, as he never quite had before and never quite would again.

Tomorrow, you poor Jerseyites, who got such awful jars,
When Orson Welles went on the air and made you all see stars,
I know you’ll be relieved to hear we’re giving him back to Mars,
‘Cause there aint gonna be no sorrow tomorrow….

The plots of his shows were full of larky impersonations or goofy transformations. Whimsical Victor Moore, a gangster masquerading as a clergyman; Bert Lahr, a washroom attendant dreaming he’s Louis Quinze. In Panama Hattie, the couth and the vulgar, the junior miss and the lass who dwelt among the trodden ways (the diminutive Joan Carroll and Ethel Merman singing “Let’s Be Buddies’) meet in a prudential alliance—on the eve of the Second World War. Unlike the Gershwins’ satiric Let ‘Em Eat Cake or Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right, the musical heralded the New Deal closing of the ranks. Porter had moved from the smart revue to the topical revue, the lyrics of many of his songs sprinkled with the patter of the Trans-Lux newsreels: taxes and senators, Father Coughlin and John L. Lewis. Indeed some of the wooziest lines could bring down the house:

If Mr. Roosevelt desires to rule- la-la,
Until the year nineteen forty-four,
He’d better teach Eleanor how to Oo-la-la!
And he’ll be elected once more….

The honeymoon, however, was not to last. The war years, suddenly and expansively, brought about the embourgeoisement of the workers. The cold war turned them to the suburbs and TV. A new era of provincialism began. Even the play-within-a-play drolleries of Kiss Me, Kate, a sterling score, were no match, alas, for the foursquare fatcat sonorities of Rodgers and Hammerstein telling everyone they were “corny as Kansas.” In the Forties and the Fifties, believe it or not, Porter’s most popular song, overwhelmingly so, was the Roy Rogers ditty “Don’t Fence Me In”—a mock celebration of the wide open spaces the bobby soxers took straight.

Was Porter a happy man? The pert smile, the puckish face, then the sad, sad eyes—one sees that again and again. There were only two women in Cole Porter’s life. One was, of course, Kate Porter, “dearest Ma,” Middle Western and nouveau riche, “full of the old paprika,” determined to launch her talented piano-playing son with the right people at the right places in the expensive East. The other was Linda Lee, his wife, a member of the international set, a neurasthenic beauty and a great snob, but a snob “on gossamer wings.”

The mother nurtured the son’s climber instinct, the wife her husband’s love of luxury and caprice. He became, through them, a sort of Broadway aesthete. Linda, a divorcee, was older than her second husband (by eight years) and far richer (by a few millions). They were devoted to each other, but it was, I suspect, a mariage blanc. Porter had always had a world apart, with merry Monty and Len and Sturges and burly Elsa, a world suggested teasingly in “Pets,” soulfully in “Down in the Depths,” and in a number of other songs in a number of other ways, including some of his best soliloquies, throughout his career.

The Porters lived in Italy and they lived in France. They built houses at Brentwood and Buxton Hill and the Waldorf-Towers. They gave parties and more parties. He wrote scores and more scores. Linda died miserably of emphysema in the early Fifties. Porter became irascible about money, fanatical about punctuality, vexed over valets, tormented by his leg. The last years were full of rows and rue. Once a friend asked him what he had to be so sunk about. “You can go any place, have dinner any place, travel any place. You’ve met everyone you ever wanted to meet, except Churchill and Eisenhower. What more can you want?” But when Porter reeled off the names of the “stars of the cinema” and then would say, “I have to take an inema”; when he remarked of “that frightfully vulgar girl they all call ‘Elsa,’ ” that she would always make him want to “take a Bromo-Seltza,” was he merely spoofing “Dainty, Quainty Me,” or rather, unwittingly or not, really revenging himself on his fame, his friends, his fortune, the whole hiccuppy whirl?

As for the anthology, Cole, it is a splashy affair, full of marvelously inconsequential memorabilia and wondrously sappy photos one instantly admires and instantly forgets. I regret the absence of “Mack the Black,” “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” and “Love of My Life,” but the selections, on the whole, seem just. The old Porter charm and effervescence are here.

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