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He’s the Top!

Anything goes, Cole Porter declared in one of his best-loved songs, but not everything did. He continually ran afoul of the censors. A number of his racier songs were banned from the radio, and the musicals for which he wrote both music and lyrics needed frequent tinkering before passing muster in the eyes of the authorities.

These days, when pretty much anything does go, the protectors of public decency can loom as surreal and ultimately comical figures, a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner. But in the Thirties and Forties and early Fifties—Porter’s heyday—decency was no laughing matter and its defenders could be stalwart and stringent. Robert Kimball’s Cole, an assemblage of Porter photographs and lyrics and documents, dramatically illustrates the point. It’s one thing to read that Porter had to contend with censorship and it’s another to examine a letter headed “CITY OF BOSTON, OFFICE OF THE MAYOR” requesting the “following eliminations” to the Broadway-bound Out of This World:

-“All irreverent use of ‘God”’;
-reference to Juno as “old bag”;
-reference to “sexual insecurity”;
-reference to “goosing me.”

It also asked for a “substitution for line that sounded like ‘saving my urgings for Vestal Virgins,”’ and recommended that “position and actions of girl in ‘Dove’ costume…be less suggestive, particularly when she is at right of stage draped over three men.” Suddenly the backstage drama behind the beleaguered onstage drama leaps into view. You can picture Porter and his “show doctors,” George Abbott and F. Hugh Herbert, passing the letter among themselves, gaping at it with horror, amusement, chagrin, disbelief, and exhaustion.

There were many fine Tin Pan Alley composers, but by common consent six men reigned as kings of the block: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. In many ways, Porter was the odd man out. He was the only one of the six who was not Jewish. (Porter drifted noncommittally through Baptist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian attachments, and flirted briefly with Catholicism.) He was the only one not born and raised in New York. (Solidly Midwestern, Porter grew up on the banks of the Wabash River, in Peru, Indiana, son to a poetry-loving, calliope-playing pharmacist and a headstrong woman who, as the daughter of J.O. Cole, one of the richest men in the state, harbored grand dreams for her darling boy.) And he was the only one of the six who habitually ran into trouble with the censors.

Others in the group doubtless chafed at the bonds of decorum. Irving Berlin was not above letting loose with an off-color lyric, like his parody of Porter’s “You’re the Top”:

You’re the arch
In the Rome collection.
You’re the starch
In a groom’s erection.
I’m a eunuch who
Has just been through an op,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top.

But as the composer of “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade”—as the nation’s unofficial songwriter laureate—Berlin felt little impulse to rumple or rattle his public. Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers’s inventive lyricist, did share with Porter an impulse to go public with his prurience, but seemed content if it went undetected. (Frederick Nolan’s biography of Hart offers a revealing anecdote from Joshua Logan: “The thought of putting something over on the censors was delicious to [Hart]. ‘Listen to this, he’d say, listen to this:

Lost my heart, but what of it?
My mistake, I agree.
He’s a laugh, but I love it,
When the laugh’s on me.

You get it, Josh, you get it? The laugh’s on me, you know, on top of her.’ He thought that was terribly funny.”) But Cole was the one who—as a matter of policy and temperament, as a manifestation of the very nature of his artistry—regularly tested the limits of the permissible. He was as dogged as the wily tutor in his Wake Up and Dream, who—so sings the ingenue—

took me off to a picture gallery,
To see how Aphrodite
Kept so warm without a nightie.
I suppose that we’ve seen between us,
Most ev’ry exhibition.
‘Cause he wants me to study Venus
In ev’ry known position.

Porter was perhaps most in his element when working in that topsy-turvy zone where a schoolboy’s naughtiness and a worldling’s sophistication overlap. The worldliness was purchased easily; Porter’s adult life flowed upon rivers of cash. In addition to the fortune he eventually inherited from his grandfather, money streamed in from his many hit shows as well as from his wife, the beautiful Linda Lee Thomas, whose foundered first marriage to a philandering newspaper mogul had made her an “alimony millionairess.” Cole and Linda shared a life of Parisian hôtels particuliers, Venetian palazzi, a suite at the Waldorf which they outfitted with parquet floors from a French château, and monstrous weekend “cottages.” Yet the man of the world who could write songs like “I’m a Gigolo” and “Love for Sale” remained at heart a sort of class clown. “Si Vous Aimez les Poitrines” points up his internal contradictions:

Si vous aimez les poi-trines
Come to Gay Paree.
Si leur beauté vous a-nime
Come and call on me.
I will show you how di-veene
Parisiennes’ poi-trines really are,
If you promise me, you naughty boy,
Not to go too far.

If the song reflects Porter’s many years in France (Cole and Linda had a mansion in the seventh arrondissement from 1922 until 1939), it also reminds us that in his undergraduate days he wrote many shows pitched to a rowdy frat-house audience.

The whole issue takes on further shading in the light of Porter’s homosexuality. Despite his marriage, and apparently with Linda’s resigned awareness, Cole’s sexual appetites were concentrated exclusively on men. The outrageousness of his lyrics suggests an understandable impatience with an audience he could never level with. He could speak to them of the giddiness of passion and the ravages of heartbreak, but only if he never opened up his own passionate heart.

The classics of Tin Pan Alley—the “standards”—likewise inhabit an indeterminate, overlapping domain. On the one hand, the songs echo and re-echo down the decades. Today, tunes composed before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic are piped through cavernous airport lounges round the world; songs written before the advent of sound pictures caper down the overstuffed aisles of video supermarkets. In the Nineties, it’s common at wedding receptions to dance to music written by composers born in the Nineties—the Eighteen-Nineties. On the other hand, the music of Tin Pan Alley lacks one essential of a truly vital medium: the ability to grow and evolve. Theoretically, contemporary composers are enriching and extending the genre (new musicals continue to get written, clever lyricists continue to fit their rhymes together), but it seems musical styles have moved on, irreversibly, and today it’s nearly as difficult to add a song to the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter genre as to insert a string quartet into the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven canon. Alec Wilder’s compendious study, The American Popular Song, ends in 1950, which he calls “the end of an era.” The popular song was about to be supplanted by rock-and-roll.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that rock and Tin Pan Alley were never going to be intimate friends and neighbors—but perhaps this wasn’t so clear at the outset. Early rock-and-roll groups regularly went rummaging in the Alley for songs. So in the Fifties a doowop group like the Platters would follow up a rock-and-roll hit like “The Great Pretender” with a Kern classic like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; in the Sixties, the Beatles’ first American album included a cut from The Music Man. But fences went up over time, and it wasn’t long before Bob Dylan singing “Blue Moon” or Linda Ronstadt belting out “I’ve Got a Crush on You” took on a self-conscious air. The singers were “going retro.”

You might say the two schools of music spoke a different language, as reflected in their contrary views about enunciation. Tin Pan Alley singers like Fred Astaire or Ethel Merman or Mabel Mercer were prized for their clean delivery—hardly a virtue in the world of rock, where many of the most famous songs (“Louie Louie,” “Stairway to Heaven”) are famously unintelligible, leaving loyal fans to take up the task, with the feverish intensity of cryptographers cracking a military code, of figuring out what in the world they’ve actually been listening to.

If Tin Pan Alley today looks dated, Porter’s music can seem especially so. The virtues of wit, elegance, irony, and the distrust of self-pity which he embodied are those least valued in the popular music of our era. And the cagey battles he fought against prudery—his humane cry for a music adult enough to encompass the urgencies and vagaries of carnal passion—has been so thoroughly won that his innuendoes and obliquities can appear merely coy. I recently came upon the following in a rap lyric: “With your wrinkled pussy, I can’t be your lover.” We’re a long way from Cole Porter’s “Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”

With a New England boarding school education, an undergraduate degree from Yale, a year at Harvard Law School, and classical music studies at Vincent D’Indy’s Scola Cantorum in Paris, Porter was much the best educated of his Tin Pan Alley confreres. Given his background, and given how novel and sharp his lyrics can be, you might expect him to have left behind an eloquent testimonial of his life and work—something comparable to Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics for Several Occasions. Yet this born raconteur, who loved nothing better than to beguile crowds at parties, was essentially a self-contained man, and in the end left only a scattered and skeletal account of himself.

That’s a void others have rushed to fill. There was, first and most spectacularly, Night and Day, the film version of his life, in which the short, slight, hyperthyroid Porter was played by the tall, solid, restrained Cary Grant. There have also been two New Yorker profiles; a biography by George Eells, a friend of Porter’s; a biography by Charles Schwartz; a comparative study of Porter and Noel Coward by Stephen Citron; an oral biography; and—just released, and among the largest of the bunch—William McBrien’s Cole Porter.

Each of these has its welcome touches, its moments when, with some fresh anecdote or image, Porter the party-thrower or the generous friend or the abrupt snob or the jocular lover springs to life. Eells’s book, published in 1967, is waylaid partly by friendship and partly by the mores of its time into concocting a falsely romantic portrait of the Porter marriage—one uncluttered by Cole’s many homosexual liaisons. Schwartz’s book, published ten years later, is far more lively and candid, but not very fastidious about documentation, leaving his readers to wonder whether they’re examining scholarship or gossip. McBrien’s book feels far more scrupulous, and has the advantage of incorporating some recently discovered Porter love letters, but it has its own problems: a jumpiness from paragraph to paragraph; a failure to create nuanced portraits of any of the men Cole consorted with; and—the occupational hazard of biographers of theater or film personages—a fondness for recounting at numbing length cast lists and production history.

It seems there’s still a grinning, truant figure out there who has mostly escaped his biographers—somebody perhaps most successfully apprehended in Brendan Gill’s brief New Yorker profile.* As Gill convincingly portrays him, “The desire to seem a charming amateur who just happened to enjoy all the perquisites of a hardened professional was based less on a sense of caste and class than on a deep-seated and, as it proved, ineradicable lack of confidence in himself.” And: “Cole wished ardently to succeed; still more ardently, he wished not to be known to have failed.” By this light, the driving riddle and triumph of Porter’s life was that a man so leery of failure made a career of writing for the stage, where flops are sudden and spectacular and mortifyingly public.

Porter was a man of deep contradictions. Few American artists in any field have led a more cosseted—a more spoiled—existence than the chauffeured-butlered-valeted Porter, a man who was once described as “wholly unable to shave himself.” Yet he weathered with forbearance and enormous courage the great, transfiguring tragedy of his life: a horseback riding accident on Long Island in 1937, when he was forty-six, which crushed both of his legs. Medical efforts at recovery proved to be harrowing. Two decades and some thirty-five operations later, his right leg had to be amputated at mid-thigh. A less elastic spirit may well have given up a public life in the theater after the accident. Not Porter, who nine years later had the greatest triumph of his career, the radiant Kiss Me Kate.

Porter was something of a Gatsby-in-reverse. Like the young man Jay Gatz who was destined to flower into Gatsby, Cole was a fanciful Midwesterner who went East in search of fame and romance, bearing a cloudy résumé. (Embarrassed to be the son of a mere pharmacist, Cole spun various stories around his father, or simply suggested the man was dead—when not going the additional step of portraying himself as an orphan. And his evasiveness about his age extended to passports with three different birthdates.) But while Gatsby’s fabrications were meant to impart an aristocratic air (like his being an “Oxford man”), Porter sometimes aspired to a more rough-and-tumble existence than any he’d ever known, as when he told the tale of joining the French Foreign Legion in 1916 in response to a theater critic who remarked, “Cole Porter is a young man who ought either to give up songwriting or get out of town.” It’s an appealing story, but unfortunately Legion archives fail to turn up any trace of him. His friend Monty Woolley recalls Porter in Paris during the war as a boulevardier who “had more changes than Maréchal Foch, and wore them with complete disregard of regulation. One night he might be a captain of the Zouaves, the next an aide-de-camp.” (Of course Gatsby, too, had his military decorations, including even one from “little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea.”)

Woolley’s story fits with Porter’s extraordinary disconnectedness from the adult world of political conflicts, intimidating bosses, unpaid bills. In the early Thirties, he occasionally needed to be reminded that the world was mired in a Great Depression and that displays of exuberant wastefulness (like his plan to surprise a friend with a gift-wrapped baby elephant) might be looked on with disfavor. Later, when he mentioned Siberia in one of his lyrics, it came as news to Porter that in Stalin’s Russia the place had unfavorable associations; he’d evidently envisioned it as some sort of tsarist summer playground.

There’s a touch of the lingering child in Woolley’s tale of a young man playing with military costumes, as there are in many aspects of Porter’s adult life: his love of dubious pranks; his sporadic fits of petulance; his practice of dyeing his hair and having his body hair shaved. His accident would be painful to hear about in any case, but all the more so given Porter’s perennial boyishness. It’s like reading about the maiming of Peter Pan. In remembrances and portrayals of Porter it’s striking how often the language of childhood enchantment is invoked: he’s elfin, he’s impish, he’s a sprite, he’s a leprechaun.

Porter had his first hit, “An Old-Fashioned Garden,” in 1919, when he was twenty-eight, but this was something of a fluke. The song was a sentimental un-Porterish pastoral that not even Joan Morris and William Bolcom, who have a deft flair for the lacy gentilities of the era, were able to revitalize in Night and Day, their 1988 album of Porter songs. The first hit in which Porter found his stride was “Let’s Do It,” in 1928. (But having found his stride, he kept it: there was scarcely a year afterward, until he retired in 1958, when he didn’t have a hit on the charts.) “Let’s Do It” remains a Porter classic, with a number of choice touches:

Penguins in flocks, on the rocks, do it,
Even little cuckoos in their clocks, do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love….

In shallow shoals, English soles do it,
Goldfish, in the privacy of bowls, do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love….

The world admits bears in pits do it,
Even pekineses in the Ritz, do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

There’s a wink and a nod in that reiterated “it,” as well as a sane recognition that, in their comfortable carnality, the rest of the animal kingdom implicitly reproach us—who ostensibly stand at the top of the pyramid—for our hesitations and inhibitions.

You rarely hear all five of the song’s refrains performed, but as set out in another Robert Kimball compilation, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, Cole’s little bestiary looks as neat as one of those French gardens Linda so admired: the first refrain concentrates on people; the second on birds; the third on marine creatures; the fourth on insects; and the last, bringing us round to where we began, on mammals (“I’m sure giraffes, on the sly, do it,/Heavy hippopotami do it…”). The wit is sparked by the friction of Porter’s incongruous juxtapositions. Who else would have come up with a song in which “educated fleas,” “romantic sponges,” and “courageous kangaroos” cohabit with “Siamese twins” and “Argentines without means”?

And who else but Porter could have arrived at the still more charming “You’re the Top”:

You’re the top!
You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
You’re the top!
You’re Napoleon brandy.
You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain,
You’re the National Gall’ry,
You’re Garbo’s sal’ry,
You’re cellophane.

This seems nearer to light verse than to any conventional love song. But it’s light verse—that often fusty form—thrust into the modern world, where the weighty venerables of the National Gallery bump up against chic Greta Garbo, and the fading light of the Old World yields to that shiny technological wonder, cellophane. Some of the rhymed pairings-up are so inspired you want to loiter over them (Gandhi the ascetic pacifist teetotaler linked to a luxurious bottle of spirits named for a general), but the keenest pleasure of the experience lies in the speed with which one such marriage of opposites yields to another.

To point out that nowadays light verse is in a bad way is a little like lamenting the decline of milkmen or transistor radios—seemingly, a case of inevitable obsolescence. And yet when you examine the best of Porter—funny, feisty, slangy, and au courant—or the light verse of someone who admired and emulated Porter, W.H. Auden, the form’s decline suddenly looks less than predestined. The question is reopened. Why do we have so little regard for poetry that combines mordancy with an impeccable formal finish?

Cole’s working methods tell us much about the strengths and weaknesses of his songs. In modern parlance, they were text-driven:

I like to begin with an idea and then fit it to a title. I then write the words and music. Often I begin near the end of a refrain, so that the song has a strong finish, and then work backwards.

In truth there are many cases, among his more forgettable songs, where the tune serves as little more than a frame on which to hang the words. Unlike George Gershwin, Porter was no inexhaustible melodist. “The song is over but the melody lingers on,” Berlin remarked in one of his songs, but in Porter’s case it’s “The melody’s over but the lyrics linger on.” The flashing word play, the unexpected rhyme, the inspired double-entendre—these often outlast the tunes they garnish.

And yet when Porter hit on an inspired melody, he could work wonders. By beginning with a promising idea or phrase he generally ensured that his songs were about something, and that they dispatched their subject concisely and without padding. (This question of padding was taken seriously by the best Tin Pan Alley writers. Ira Gershwin once confessed that he’d never been content with his lyric to the marvelous “Love Walked In,” whose first line, set to a cluster of four notes, is “Love walked right in”; it vexed him that the word “right,” though idiomatic, wasn’t strictly necessary.)

Porter also had a wonderful gift for making the most of the melodies that came to him, enhancing them with innovative structures and subtle harmonic effects, many of them lucidly analyzed in Alex Wilder’s American Popular Song. His songs often explode the 32-bar AABA formula of their era. “Begin the Beguine” runs a colossal 108 measures, shifting and modulating at every turn.

He had a penchant for repetition. It’s striking how often his songs will hammer, with an anthematic insistence, at a single note before slyly drifting away, often into a minor key. My favorite Porter song—atypical both in its openhanded pathos and in its plangent musical style—is “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which provides a good example:

Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I die a little,
Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I wonder why a little…

It opens with eight G’s in a row—ev’ry time we say good bye I—before lifting ever so slightly, to A-flat, just when an emotional climax arrives, with the word die. Time and again, when Porter’s sentiments take on some fresh nuance, his melodies respond. Those two venerable dancing partners—words and music—move as one.

What is a biographer to do with Porter’s final years? They don’t make cheerful reading. In his last decade he suffered two irrecoverable losses: not only the amputation of his leg (which shattered the vanity of this natty man without remitting the pain he’d endured for twenty years), but also the death of his wife (who, even if she’d never been the focus of his passions, was an indispensable counselor, supporter, and protector). The upshot was that in his final six years Porter quit composing and largely abandoned playing the piano even for pleasure.

McBrien takes what strikes me as the more humane and reasonable path by riding lightly over these years. Although he shows that Porter’s decline was ineluctable—an ever deeper slide into alcoholism, depression, drugs intended to reduce pain and regulate sleep, and malnutrition brought on by a near-complete loss of appetite—he spares us many of the tawdry details. Readers looking for a more gruesome account can consult Charles Schwartz, who chronicles the daily trials and mishaps (the portable urinals and the incontinence, the unbrushed teeth, the rumors about the sexual prowess of Porter’s masseur) with a thoroughness bordering on relish. Either volume makes clear that the underpinnings of Porter’s life—his musical talents, his spry appearance, his graceful repartee, his social cachet—ran out in the end. Anything goes? Everything went.

Any regular museum-goer is famil-iar with an inexplicable phenomenon. Somehow, even from a distance, self-portraits often have a way of declaring themselves. It scarcely matters whether the painter is a Fauvist or an Expressionist, a Neoclassicist or a Romantic, a Mannerist or an Old Dutch Master. In the coalescing impulse of self-definition a characteristic sparkle emerges: an arrogating exuberance, a coruscating defiance. The painting cries out, in a language that transcends all schools and factions and eras, Here I am.

Much the same thing occurs in the few sketchy recordings of himself that Porter left behind. Reports vary about his talents as a performer. In one account he plays the piano nimbly and has a pleasing baritone; in another he thumps at the keys and croaks like a frog. But actually to hear him play and sing is to render irrelevant all questions of virtuosity. The recordings cry Here I am and they are infectiously gleeful. I don’t know how anyone could hear Porter singing “You’re the Top” and not be charmed—just as his playing and singing once charmed his prep school classmates at Worcester Academy; charmed regional meetings of booze- and sentiment-softened Yale alums when he toured with the Glee Club; charmed painters and writers and dislocated dukes in Parisian salons; and eventually charmed the whole world. His is the singing of someone asking for your love and feeling confident he’ll get it; it’s the resilient joy of someone delivering joy.

Reading accounts of Porter’s early life, before his hideous accident, one can easily envy him—even resent him—for his glittering swank and his blithe blindness to the cruelties of financial want and political repression. But it’s impossible to resent him when you lay down your book and instead turn on some of his music. His was the brightest voice in Tin Pan Alley. His lyrics often spoke of champagne, and among his contemporaries he came closest to creating a musical counterpart to champagne’s festive suavity, its continually ascending little explosions of gaiety. He composed songs in a sunny Venetian palazzo and set couples gamely dancing in gray industrial towns like Buffalo and Milwaukee, Liverpool and Rotterdam. He spread the gold around. Cole Porter was a rich man who gave away riches for something like a third of a century—who gave until he didn’t have anything more to give.

  1. *

    Wouldn’t It Be Fun?” September 18, 1971, p. 50.

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