Cole Porter

Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter. His works include the musical comedies Kiss Me, Kate, Fifty Million Frenchmen, DuBarry Was a Lady and Anything Goes, as well as songs like “Night and Day“, “I Get a Kick out of You“, “Well, Did You Evah!” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin“. He was noted for his sophisticated, bawdy lyrics, clever rhymes and complex forms. Porter was one of the greatest contributors to the Great American Songbook. Cole Porter is one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to have written both the lyrics and the music for his songs. Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only child of a wealthy Baptist family.[1] His father, Samuel Fenwick Porter, was a druggist by trade;[2] his mother, Kate, was the indulged daughter of James Omar “J.O.” Cole, “the richest man in Indiana”, a coal and timber speculator who dominated the family.[3] Kate started Porter in musical training at an early age. He learned the violin at age six, the piano at eight, and he wrote his first operetta (with help from his mother) at 10. She falsified his recorded birth year from 1891 to 1893 to make him appear more precocious.[3] His father, who was a shy and unassertive man, played a lesser role in Porter’s upbringing, although as an amateur poet he may have influenced his son’s gifts for rhyme and meter.[2]

“Night and Day”

Ella’s version of the song.

J.O. Cole wanted his grandson to become a lawyer,[3] and with that career in mind sent him to Worcester Academy in 1905. He became class valedictorian,[3] and was rewarded by his grandfather with a tour of France, Switzerland and Germany.[4] After this he attended Yale University beginning in 1909, where he was a member of Scroll and Key and Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and sang both in the Yale Glee Club, of which he was elected president his senior year, and in the original line-up of the Whiffenpoofs. While at Yale, he wrote a number of student songs, including the football fight songs “Bulldog Bulldog” and “Bingo Eli Yale” (aka “Bingo, That’s The Lingo!”) that are still played at Yale today.[5] Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale.[3] After graduating from Yale, Porter studied at Harvard Law School in 1913 (where he roomed with Dean Acheson).[3] He soon felt that he was not destined to be a lawyer, and, at the suggestion of the dean of the law school, Porter switched to Harvard’s music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon.[2] Kate Porter did not object to this move, but it was kept secret from J. O. Cole.[3]

“Cheek To Cheek”

In 1915, Porter’s first song on Broadway , “Esmeralda”, appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a “patriotic comic opera” modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, with a book by T. Lawrason Riggs, was a flop, closing after two weeks.[6]

In 1917, the year in which the U.S. entered World War I, Porter moved to Paris. He distributed relief supplies for three months, but the extent of his other war work is unclear. Some writers have been skeptical about Porter’s claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion,[3][6] although the Legion itself lists Porter as one of its soldiers[7] and displays his portrait at its museum in Aubagne.[8] By some accounts, he served in North Africa and was transferred to the French Officers School at Fontainebleau, teaching gunnery to American soldiers.[9] One obituary notice said that, while in the Legion, “he had a specially constructed portable piano made for him so that he could carry it on his back and entertain the troops in their bivouacs.”[10]

“Anything Goes” -This is Cole Porter singing!!

Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs.”[3] In 1918, he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Louisville, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior,[1] whom he married the following year. She was in no doubt about Porter’s homosexuality,[11] but it was mutually advantageous for them to marry: for Linda it offered continued social status with a partner who was the antithesis of her abusive first husband; for Porter it brought a respectable heterosexual front in an era when homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged. They were, moreover, genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 19, 1919 until Linda’s death in 1954.[3] Linda remained protective of her social status, and believing that classical music might be a more prestigious outlet than Broadway for her husband’s talents, she tried to use her social connections to find him suitable teachers, including Igor Stravinsky, but was unsuccessful. Finally, Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d’Indy.[2] Meanwhile, Porter’s first big hit was the song “Old-Fashioned Garden” from the revue Hitchy-Koo in 1919.[1]

Cole Porter singing, “You’re The Top”

Marriage did not diminish Porter’s taste for extravagant luxury. The Porter home on the rue Monsieur near Les Invalides was a palatial house with platinum wallpaper and chairs upholstered in zebra skin.[10] In 1923, Porter came into an inheritance from his grandfather, and he began renting Venetian palaces. He once hired the entire Ballets Russes to entertain his house guests, and for a party at Ca’ Rezzonico, which he rented for $4,000 a month ($51,000 in current value), he hired 50 gondoliers to act as footmen and had a troupe of tight-rope walkers perform in a blaze of lights.[10]

Unlike contemporaries such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Porter did not succeed on Broadway in his early years. Dismayed by his failures, he moved to Europe, living for some time in Paris and Venice on his family’s and his wife’s money. He was not idle, however, and continued to write. Many of the songs from this period would later be hits. He also wrote a ballet in 1923.[1] In his autobiography, Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers relates an anecdote about meeting Porter in Venice during this period. Porter played Rodgers several of his compositions, and Rodgers was highly impressed, wondering why Porter was not represented on Broadway. Rodgers didn’t realize that Porter had already written several shows that had flopped.

Natalie Cole singing, “Every Time We Say Goodbye”

Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway with the musical Paris (1928), which featured one of his greatest “list” songs, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)“. Continuing with this Gallic theme, his next show was Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), which included several popular numbers including “You Do Something to Me“, “You’ve Got That Thing” and “The Tale of the Oyster”. Finishing out the decade, opening on December 30, 1929, was Wake Up and Dream, with a score that included “What Is This Thing Called Love?

He started the 1930s with the revue The New Yorkers (1930), which included a song about a streetwalker, “Love for Sale“. The lyric was considered too explicit for radio at the time, though it was recorded and aired as an instrumental, but the song has now become a standard. Next came Fred Astaire‘s last stage show, Gay Divorce (1932). It featured a hit that would become perhaps Porter’s best-known song, “Night and Day“. In 1934, Porter wrote what is thought by most to be his greatest score of this period, Anything Goes (1934). Its songs include “I Get a Kick out of You“, “All Through the Night”, “You’re the Top” (perhaps his ultimate “list” song), and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, as well as the title number. For years afterwards, critics would unfavorably compare most Porter shows to this one. Anything Goes was also the first Porter show featuring Ethel Merman, who would go on to star in five of his musicals. He loved her loud, brassy voice, and wrote many numbers that featured her strengths. Jubilee (1935), written with Moss Hart while on a cruise around the world, was not a major hit, but featured two songs that have since become part of the Great American Songbook, “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things“. Red Hot And Blue (1936), featuring Merman, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, introduced “It’s De-Lovely”, “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)“, and “Ridin’ High”.

Cleo Laine as you have neer heard her!! Singing Cole Porter’s “Riding High” Listen to the song all the way through. Cleo hits some notes at the end that are almost “un-human!!”

Porter also wrote for Hollywood, including the scores for Born to Dance (1936), featuring “You’d Be So Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin“, and Rosalie (1937), featuring “In the Still of the Night“. In addition, he composed the cowboy song “Don’t Fence Me In” for an unproduced movie in the 1930s, but it didn’t become a hit until Roy Rogers and Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters, as well as other artists, introduced it to the public in the 1940s. Porter continued to live the high life during this period, throwing lavish parties and associating with famous people like Elsa Maxwell, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Igor Stravinsky and Fanny Brice. Some of his lyrics mention his illustrious friends. Now at the height of his success, Porter was able to enjoy the opening night of his musicals; he would make a grand entrance and sit in front, apparently relishing the show as much as any audience member.

On October 24, 1937, Porter was riding horses with the Countess Edith di Zoppola and the Duke de Verdura at the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York, when his horse rolled on him and crushed his legs, leaving him mostly crippled and in constant pain.[12] [13][14] Porter claimed that he composed the lyrics to part of “At Long Last Love” while lying in pain waiting to be rescued from the accident. Though doctors told Porter’s wife and mother that his right leg would have to be amputated, and possibly the left one as well, he refused to have the procedure. Porter underwent more than 30 surgeries on his legs and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. He was one of the first people to receive electric shock therapy. The many operations led him to severe depression.

“You’ve Got That thing”

Despite his pain, Porter continued to write successful shows. Leave It to Me! (1938) (introducing Mary Martin singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy“), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Let’s Face It! (1941), Something for the Boys (1943), and Mexican Hayride (1944) were all hits. These shows included songs such as “Get Out of Town”, “Friendship”, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please”, and “I Love You“. Porter liked to use as many as four different orchestrators to cover the various arrangements he envisaged for his scores.[15] Nevertheless, Porter was turning out fewer hit songs and, to some critics, his music was less magical. After two flops, Seven Lively Arts (1944) (which featured the standard “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”) and Around the World (1946), many thought that his best period was over.

In 1948, Porter made a great comeback, writing his biggest hit show, Kiss Me, Kate. The production won the Tony Award for Best Musical (the first Tony awarded in that category), and Porter won for Best Composer and Lyricist. The score includes “Another Op’nin’ Another Show”, “Wunderbar”, “So In Love“, “We Open in Venice”, “Tom, Dick or Harry”, “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”, “Too Darn Hot“, “Always True to You (in My Fashion)“, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. Though his next show, Out Of This World (1950), was not greatly successful, the show after that, Can-Can (1952), featuring “C’est Magnifique” and “It’s All Right with Me“, was another hit. His last original Broadway production, Silk Stockings (1955), featuring “All of You”, was also successful.

Judy Garland Medley of Cole Porter Songs

Meanwhile, Porter continued to work in Hollywood, writing the scores for two Fred Astaire movies, Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), which featured an old hit, “Begin The Beguine,” and a new one, “I Concentrate on You”, and You’ll Never Get Rich (1941). He later wrote the songs for the Gene Kelly and Judy Garland musical The Pirate (1948). The film lost money, though it features the standard “Be a Clown” (echoed in Donald O’Connor‘s performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” in the 1952 musical film Singin’ in the Rain). High Society (1956), starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, had Porter’s last major hit, “True Love“.[1] He wrote songs for Les Girls (1957) with Gene Kelly. His final score was for a CBS color special, Aladdin (1958). Columbia Records issued a recording of songs from the program.

Eventually, his injuries caused a series of ulcers on his right leg. After 34 operations, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb in 1958. The operation followed the death of his beloved mother in 1952 and his wife’s death from emphysema in 1954. Porter never wrote another song after 1958 and spent the remaining years of his life in relative seclusion.

Frances Langford sings “You’d Be So easy To Love”

Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, at the age of 73 in Santa Monica, California. He is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana, between his wife and father, even though Porter was not close with his father.[16]

In 1956, the album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook was released by the American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by a studio orchestra conducted and arranged by Buddy Bregman. The Swedish pop group Gyllene Tider recorded a song called Flickan i en Cole Porter-sång (That girl from the Cole Porter song) in 1982. In 1990 Dionne Warwick released an album called Dionne Sings Cole Porter. In that same year Red Hot + Blue was released featuring 20 Cole Porter songs recorded by artists such as U2, Annie Lennox and Shane MacGowan as a benefit CD for AIDS research. In country singer Jo Dee Messina‘s song “These Are the Days”, the protagonist reveals that she sings old Cole Porter songs. John Barrowman, who played “Jack” in the 2004 film De-Lovely released “John Barrowman Swings Cole Porter,” a collection of Cole Porter songs in October 2004. In 2004 jazz and electronica producer Billy Paul Williams released an album named The Porter Project. In 2008, pianist/vocalist Patricia Barber released The Cole Porter Mix, consisting of her take on 10 Cole Porter classics as well as three originals inspired by Cole Porter.

Carmen McRae singing “I Concentrate On You” (I must confess, she is my favorite jazz singer!)

Judy Garland performed a medley of Porter’s songs at the 37th Academy Awards, the first Oscars ceremony held following Porter’s death. Porter’s life was made into Night and Day, a very sanitized 1946 Michael Curtiz film starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith. His life was chronicled more realistically in De-Lovely, a 2004 Irwin Winkler film starring Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda.[17] The Cole Porter Festival is held every year the second weekend of June, in his hometown of Peru, Indiana. The festival fosters music and art appreciation by celebrating Porter’s life and music. In 1980, Porter’s music was used for the score of Happy New Year, based on the Philip Barry play Holiday. He is referenced in the song “The Call of the Wild” (Merengue) by David Byrne on his 1989 album Rei Momo. He is also mentioned in the song “Tonite It Shows” by Mercury Rev on their 1998 album Deserter’s Songs. At halftime of the 1991 Orange Bowl between Colorado and Notre Dame, Joel Grey led a large cast of singers and dancers in a tribute to Porter marking the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. The program was called, “You’ll Get a Kick Out of Cole”.

Artie Shaw’s Band performing, “Begin The Beguine”

The French Foreign Legion honors Porter with a portrait that hangs in the Legion’s official museum. Porter was a Steinway Artist, which means that he chose to perform on Steinway pianos exclusively, and he owned a Steinway piano. Porter’s piano is currently in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.[18][19]

Sources: Wikipedia, youtube,,

Shows listed are stage musicals unless otherwise noted. Where the show was later made into a film, the year refers to the stage version. A complete list of Porter’s works is in the Library of Congress (Complete List of Cole Porter works, and Cole Porter Collection at the Library of Congress).


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