Murray Ginsberg remembers a musical genius – Cole Porter
The Genius Who Wrote both Words and Music
by Murray Ginsberg
During his illustrious career Bob Farnon recorded so many great songs by most of the finest composers, that to list them all here would be an impossible task. However, some of Cole Porter's creations on which the Guv'nor wove his magic were Begin the Beguine (Geraldo's Orch.); Just One Of Those Things; Do I Love You?; Easy To Love (withEileen Farrell); I Am Loved (with Vera Lynn); / Get A Kick Out Of You; I Love Paris; In The Still Of The Night (Singers Unlimited), and I've Got You Under My Skin
A remarkable composer who produced hundreds of smash hits during a career that lasted for more than 50 years, Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, June 9, 1891, and died in Santa Monica, California, October 15, 1964. Perhaps the greatest songwriter of the century, he was the only one apart from Irving Berlin, who wrote both music and lyrics. Someone said Cole Porter was a Rodgers and Hart in one.
The genius of Porter rests not only in the brilliance of his writing the music and lyrics himself, but of the intricate interpretation of his lyrics. To try to distinguish the intent of his lyrics is to try to comprehend Porter the man. At least half a dozen biographers wrote glowing accounts of Porter's talents. "He was a master of subtle expression without sentimentality," one wrote. "A kinetic dash without vulgarity, and a natural blend of word poetry with the finest harmonious melodies," wrote another. Critic Dale Harris wrote, "Porter's songs offer sophisticated views of love; they express erotic feeling rather than tenderness or exhilaration; in them order is firmly controlled."
Coming from a wealthy background he took piano and violin lessons at an early age, and was educated at Yale University 1911-12, where he earned a B.A. He then took academic courses at Harvard Law School and later at the Harvard School of Music. While at Yale he wrote football songs and also composed music for college functions.
His grandfather, J.O.Cole, who was the source of the money, tried to stop him from being a composer and did not accept it even when he was obviously a success.
Because of his wealth Porter moved in American upper class society and in 1919 married "the most beautiful woman in Britain" and both spent the '20s in Paris. In the early '30s they moved back to New York but Porter never got Paris out of his blood.
Even though he was married, it was known to friends that he was a homosexual and that his marriage was one of convenience. His wife Linda's first marriage was a physically abusive one and sex to her became abhorrent, yet she fell in love with him. Porter, though he was sexually conflicted in the beginning, became more and more overt in his homosexuality as time went on. Yet he loved and adored his Linda, and they were devoted to each other.
I remember seeing a television documentary of Cole Porter on Canada's Bravo Channel in 1980 which left nothing to the viewer's imagination. In addition to presenting his many Broadway successes and the dozens of wonderful songs he had created for Hollywood films, a portion of the one-hour documentary showed scenes of more than twenty beautiful young men in bathing trunks lolling around his swimming-pool. I recognized some familiar faces from various movies I had seen earlier.
The documentary also showed Porter after his legs had been shattered in 1937 when a horse fell on him. The immensely sophisticated world traveller was a semi-invalid for the rest of his life and suffered countless operations to save the legs.
His first production in New York was See America First (1916). There followed a cascade of musical comedies which placed him in the front rank of American musical theatre.
The musical Paris, which opened in New York in 1928, produced his first big hit...
Let's Do It
"Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let 's fall in love."
Is it sex or is it love he's referring to? Or is it both?
In December 1929 in his musical Wake Up and Dream he wrote a song that went on to become a standard ... the poignant What Is This Thing Called Love
"What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called Love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?"
Porter said the song wrote itself and he wrote it all in a few hours The song was not a frivolous play on words that Porter was so adept at. . ..this was something more. The enigma of Porter is there in the lyrics.
The list of Porter's 1930s musicals is enormous:
Gay Divorce (1932); Nymph Errant (1933), Anything Goes (1934); Jubilee (1935); Born To Dance (a film) and Red Hot and Blue (both 1936).
In The New Yorkers he had a white prostitute sing Love For Sale and the critics blasted him, calling it smut. In order to placate them he changed the venue to the Cotton Club in Harlem. This seemed to calm them. Yet the lyrics could not be broadcast on radio. Porter was bewildered. "You can write a novel about a harlot, paint a picture of a harlot, but you can't write a song about a harlot."
"Love for sale,
Appetizing young love for sale,
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale."
In the Broadway production of Gay Divorce he wrote Night and Day. Ring Lardner praised Porter for this achievement:
"Night and Day under the hide of me
There's an Oh, such a hungry yearning
burning inside of me "
Yet later on, Lardner complained about the suggestiveness of songs on the radio that he felt were largely under the influence of Cole Porter.
"Night and Day", a motion picture musical biography of Cole Porter, starring Gary Grant, was produced by Warner Brothers in 1946.
There were so many brilliant songs he wrote that have been performed continuously by the greatest artists of our time: Begin the Beguine; You do Something to Me, Just One of Those Things, So in Love, I Love Paris, C'est Magnifique, It's All Right With Me, It's De-lovely; Night and Day; My Heart Belongs to Daddy; Don't Fence Me In; and Wunderbar
After Porter's wife died in 1954, and his right leg was amputated in 1958, he became reclusive.
Cole Porter can be understood through his music: Haunting, full of passion, longing, but always mischievous, sexy and provocative.
His songs will live forever.
Copyright Murray Ginsberg 2006: from ‘Journal Into Melody’ March 2006