American composer Cole Albert Porter (1891-1964) wrote songs (both words and music) for over 30 stage and film musicals. His best work set standards of sophistication and wit seldom matched in the popular musical theater.
Cole Porter was born in Peru, Ind., on June 9, 1891, the son of a pharmacist. His mother was as determined that her only son become a creative artist as his wealthy midwestern pioneer grandfather was that he enter business or farming. Kate Cole's influence proved stronger, and Porter received considerable musical training as a child. By 1901 he had composed a onesong "operetta" entitled The Song of the Birds; then he produced a piano piece, "The Bobolink Waltz, " which his mother published in Chicago.
Porter attended Worcester Academy, where he composed the class song of 1909. At Yale (1909-1913) he wrote music and collaborated on lyrics for the scores of several amateur shows presented by his fraternity and the Yale Dramatic Association. Porter then entered Harvard Law School; almost at once, however, he changed his course of study to music. Before leaving Harvard he collaborated on a comic operetta, See America First (1916), which became his first show produced on Broadway. It was a complete disaster.
In 1917 Porter was in France, and for some months during 1918-1919 he served in the French Foreign Legion. After this he studied composition briefly with the composer Vincent d'Indy in Paris. Returning to New York, he contributed songs to the Broadway production Hitchy-Koo of 1919, his first success, and married the wealthy socialite Linda Lee.
The Porters began a lifetime of traveling on a grand scale; they became famous for their lavish parties and the circle of celebrities in which they moved. Porter contributed songs to various stage shows and films and in 1923 composed a ballet, Within the Quota, which was performed in Paris and New York. Songs such as "Let's Do It" (1928), "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1929), "You Do Something to Me" (1929), and "Love for Sale" (1930) established him as a creator of worldly, witty, occasionally risqué lyrics with unusual melodic lines to match.
In the 1930s and 1940s Porter provided full scores for a number of bright Broadway and Hollywood productions, among them Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935), Rosalie (1937), Panama Hattie (1940), and Kiss Me Kate (1948). These scores and others of the period abound with his characteristic songs: "Night and Day, " "I Get a Kick out of You, " "You're the Top, " "Anything Goes, " "Begin the Beguine, " "Just One of Those Things, " "Don't Fence Me In, " "In the Still of the Night, " and "So in Love."
Serious injuries in a riding accident in 1937 plagued Porter for the remainder of his life. A series of operations led, in 1958, to the amputation of his right leg. In his last years he produced one big Broadway success (Can-Can, 1953). He died on Oct. 15, 1964, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Porter's songs show an elegance of expression and a cool detachment that seem to epitomize a kind of sophistication peculiar to the 1930s. He was also an authentically talented creator of original melodies. Like George Gershwin, he frequently disregarded the accepted formulas of the conventional popular song (usually a rigid 32-measure framework) and turned out pieces of charm and distinction.
Further Reading on Cole Albert Porter
Porter's life and career are comprehensively covered in George Eell, The Life That Late He Led (1967); the author's acquaintance with Porter, his access to documents, private papers, and music manuscripts, and his sympathetic yet detached approach give the book an authoritative stamp. Robert Kimball, ed., Cole (1971), contains a biographical essay by Brendan Gill, a good selection of Porter's lyrics, and many interesting illustrations.
Additional Biography Sources
Citron, Stephen, Noel and Cole: the sophisticates, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Grafton, David, Red, hot & rich!: an oral history of Cole Porter, New York: Stein and Day, 1987.
Howard, Jean, Travels with Cole Porter, New York: Abrams, 1991.
Morella, Joe, Genius and lust: the creative and sexual lives of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1995.
Schwartz, Charles, Cole Porter: a biography, New York: Da Capo Press, 1979, 1977.