He’s the Top!

Cole Porter
Cole Porter; drawing by David Levine

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


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.