Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter from Peru, Indiana. His works include the musical comedies Kiss Me, Kate (1948) (based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew), Fifty Million Frenchmen, and Anything Goes, as well as songs like "Night and Day", "I Get a Kick out of You", and "I've Got You Under My Skin". He was noted for his sophisticated (sometimes ribald) lyrics, clever rhymes, and complex forms. He was one of the greatest contributors to the Great American Songbook.
Porter was a member of Scroll and Key and Delta Kappa Epsilon, 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 to this day. Cole Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale.
Porter spent a year at Harvard Law School in 1913 (where he was roommates with Dean Acheson), and then transferred into Arts and Sciences. An unverified story tells of a law school dean who, in frustration over Porter's lack of performance in the classroom, suggested tongue-in-cheek that he "not waste his time" studying law, but instead focus on his music. Taking this suggestion to heart, Porter transferred to the School of Music.
In 1915, his 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 (book by Lawrason Riggs), was a flop, closing after two weeks. He soon started to feel the crunch of rejection, as other revues for which he wrote were also flops. After the string of failures, Porter banished himself to Paris, selling songs and living off an allowance partly from his grandfather and partly from his mother.
He did not register for the draft, yet loved to tell the press that he had joined the French Foreign Legion. In reality, he went to work for the Duryea Relief Fund and maintained a closet full of various tailormade military uniforms that he wore when the mood suited him. The French Foreign Legion, however, claims Porter as an enlistee and displays his portrait in its museum in Aubagne.
Richard Rodgers, in his autobiography, Musical Stages, relates an anecdote about meeting Cole 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, not knowing Cole had already written several shows that had flopped.
In the late 1920s, Porter returned to Broadway, and made up for lost time.
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*, but has gone on to 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". (* Other than the Waring's Pennsylvanians 1930 version of the song, which featured The Three Girls Friends singing the chorus, all other 1930 recordings were instrumental!)
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", perhaps his ultimate "list" song "You're the Top", and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", as well as the title number. For years after, critics would compare most Porter shows — unfavorably — 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".
Porter also wrote for Hollywood, including the scores for Born To Dance (1936), featuring "Easy to Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin", and Rosalie (1937), featuring "In the Still of the Night". In addition, he had 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 hobnobbing with the likes of Elsa Maxwell, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Igor Stravinsky and Fanny Brice. In fact, some of his lyrics mention his 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 up front, apparently relishing the show as much as any audience member.
Then, in 1937, a riding accident crushed his legs and left him in chronic pain, largely crippled. (According to a biography by William McBrien and oral history by Brendan Gill, Porter himself has it that he composed the lyrics to part of "At Long Last Love" while lying in pain waiting to be rescued from the accident.) Doctors told Porter's wife and mother that his right leg would have to be amputated and possibly the left one as well. Porter underwent more than 30 surgeries on his legs and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. During this period, the many operations led him to severe depression. He was one of the first people who experienced electric shock therapy.
In 1948, Porter made a great comeback, writing what was by far his biggest hit show, Kiss Me, Kate. The production won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and Porter won for Best Composer and Lyricist. The score — generally conceded to be his best — 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". Porter was back on top.
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 a major hit. His last original Broadway production, Silk Stockings (1955), featuring "All of You", was also successful.
After his riding accident, Porter also continued to work in Hollywood, writing the scores for two Fred Astaire movies, Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), which featured "I Concentrate on You", and You'll Never Get Rich (1941). He later wrote the songs for the Gene Kelly/Judy Garland musical The Pirate (1948). The film lost money, though it does feature the delightful "Be a Clown" (intriguingly 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". 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 stereophonic LP of songs from the program.
Eventually, his injuries caught up with him. After a series of ulcers and 34 operations on his right leg, 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. The combined hardships Porter endured proved to be too much. He never wrote another song after 1958 and spent the remaining years of his life in relative seclusion.
Cole Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, at the age of 73 in Santa Monica, California, and is interred in Mount Hope Cemetery in his native Peru, Indiana. Porter is buried between his wife and father.
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 one hundred years since his birth. The program was called, "You'll Get a Kick Out of Cole".
In country singer Jo Dee Messina's song "These Are The Days", Porter is referenced as the protagonist reveals she sings old Cole Porter songs.
In 2008, pianist/vocalist Patricia Barber releases "The Cole Porter Mix," consisting of her take on 10 Cole Porter classics as well as three originals inspired by Cole Porter.
His life was made into Night and Day, a very sanitized 1946 Michael Curtiz film starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith. His life was also chronicled, somewhat more realistically, in De-Lovely, a 2004 Irwin Winkler film starring Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda.
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.
Shows listed are stage musicals unless otherwise noted. (Where the show was later made into a film, the year refers to the stage version.)
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