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Porter, Cole (1891-1964)  
 
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For more than thirty years, Cole Porter was as well known for the (often scandalously) witty and urbane music that he crafted for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, as for being one of the leaders of international cafe society. Because he feared that the music-buying public would not take seriously love songs written by a homosexual, he lived the paradoxical life of an openly closeted gay man.

Married to socialite Linda Lee Thomas, one of the most beautiful women of her generation (but variously reported as from eight to fourteen years Porter's senior), he publicly maintained a heterosexual facade while privately indulging in weekend all-male gatherings that included chorus boys, wartime servicemen, and Hollywood bit players, in addition to conducting intense, short-lived love affairs with Ballets Russes designer Boris Kochno, architect Eddy Tauch, dancer-choreographer Nelson Barclift, and actor Robert Bray, among others.

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Thus, even while giving, as the author of some of the most popular love songs of the day, deeply memorable voice to his culture's romantic longing, Porter was repeatedly forced to obscure his own.

Porter's Life

Porter was born June 9, 1891, the only child of three to survive infancy. His maternal grandfather was the wealthiest man in Peru, Indiana, which both fostered in Porter a sense of entitlement and guaranteed his financial independence in early adulthood. At age fourteen he was sent east to boarding school, and from there to Yale University, where he distinguished himself in the Glee Club and dramatic society.

In 1917 Porter escaped the embarrassing failure of his first professionally staged musical revue, See America First, by departing for Paris, purportedly to volunteer as a wartime ambulance driver. He quickly fell in with the smart set, marrying the beautiful and socially well-connected divorcee Linda Lee Thomas in 1919. He remained at the center of international society for the rest of his life.

Porter's love of travel and of urban life is suggested by the titles of many of his songs ("You Don't Know Paree," "I Love Paris," "I Happen to Like New York," "Take Me Back to Manhattan," "Please Don't Monkey with Broadway," "A Stroll on the Plaza Sant'Ana," "Martinique," "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking," and "Siberia," not to mention the witty rondel of Italian cities mentioned in "We Open in Venice").

Porter's life was severely circumscribed in 1937, however, by a horseback riding accident that crushed both his legs; a resulting bone marrow infection only complicated his recovery. Despite an eventual 34 operations, he suffered severe pain much of the remainder of his life, walking only with the help of a cane or crutches, and requiring permanent assistance. One leg was eventually amputated, which caused him--following the deaths of his mother and wife--to sink into a depression exacerbated by alcoholism.

He died on October 15, 1964, following an emergency surgery, when the attending physician, unfamiliar with Porter's personal circumstances, mistook the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal for Parkinson's disease and failed to prescribe a necessary medication.

Porter's Plays and Films

For nearly thirty years--from his first success with Paris (1928) until his last show, Silk Stockings (1955)--Porter was one of the most successful composer-lyricists on Broadway. The greatest stars of his generation, and not a few of the next--among them, Franny Brice, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Clifton Webb, Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Martin, Sophie Tucker, Beatrice Lillie, Bert Lahr, and Gwen Verdon--scored personal triumphs in his plays and/or in the films subsequently made of many of them.

Those films adaptations include Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), The Gay Divorcee (1932), Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935), Red, Hot, and Blue (1936), Leave It to Me (1938), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Something for the Boys (1942), Mexican Hayride (1944), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Out of This World (1950), and Can-Can (1953).

In addition, Porter wrote original scores for such Hollywood successes as The Pirate (1947), in which Gene Kelly and Judy Garland introduced "Be a Clown"; and High Society (1956), in which Bing Crosby crooned "True Love" to Grace Kelly.

As a result, Porter's name became synonymous with songs that were as linguistically sophisticated as they were musically rich. Indeed, discussing the popular songs that tuned his own ear as he was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem praised Porter's songs for being "equal in vocal arch and harmonic ingenuity to the songs of Monteverdi and Schumann."

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Cole Porter in 1942.
  
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