Cole Porter and the Gods of Gossamer
Cole Porter was born 124 years ago this week.
There’s no love song finer
But how strange
From major to minor
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.
The strange change from major to minor runs throughout Cole Porter’s life and work. Harmonically, it was the signature of his sound. Personally, he was the toast of town; even in a wheelchair, having suffered a crippling riding accident that would eventually cost him his right leg; or in shadow, his homosexuality not proper upper-set cocktail conversation.
Cole Porter was born into the privilege and constraints of middle-western wealth in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His overbearing grandfather, J.O. Cole’s, reach dominated most aspects of Porter’s early life, even giving the boy the maternal family surname as his first, lest he be somehow denied the privilege of being a Cole.
He showed early promise as a violinist and pianist and began composing songs as young as ten, although he was a mischievous child. At the age of eight, Cole was kicked out of the local movie theater for playing comical music on the house piano during a sad part in a film. During summers on Lake Maxinkuckee, he and his friends would climb aboard the passing steamship in their bathing suits and dive off the back before it moved on. While on board, Cole headed straight toward the piano, wet suit and all, and pounded away on the keys, keeping time with the rhythm of the engine, until the ship captain chased him away and Cole made his escape somersaulting into the clear lake waters beyond the captain’s reach.
There’s something wild about you child
That’s so contagious
Let’s be outrageous
Don’t Fence Me In
His mischievousness would remain most of his life. His lyrics were littered with suggestive imagery and double entendre, which often put the songwriter at odds with censors of the day who took objection to lines such as “I’d love to make a tour of you,” especially “the south of you,” from the Silk Stockingsnumber “All of You” (Ironically, the censors missed the most obscene thing about “All of You” – the song, about gaining “complete control” of a woman, is sung by a theatrical agent!) as well as entire compositions such as “Love For Sale.”
Anything didn’t always go.
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem,
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
At Yale he studied English and music and composed several football fight songs. His natural charm and musicality made him a social success among the children of the eastern elite, even as he defied the conventional conservatism of the Ivy League (“[He] wore salmon-colored ties and had his nails done,” one classmate observed). His grandfather never considered music a worthwhile pursuit and insisted Cole attend Harvard Law School where he earned the equivalent of straight D’s his first year. The dean of the law school encouraged Cole to transfer to the Harvard School of Music, against his grandfather’s wishes.
Defying his grandfather by pursuing his passion for music would (almost) cost him his fortune before it would gain him another. His grandfather cut Cole completely from his will; however, Cole’s mother split her inheritance with her son, each of them ending up with two million dollars.
People always say that so much money spoils one’s life. But it didn’t spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful.
Porter lived a life of luxury, but he was a disciplined writer. He never waited for inspiration; he wrote constantly, and surrounded himself with staff paper and pencils, rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools of the trade. Being left handed, he found it difficult to pencil in the notes of his compositions, so he would turn the staff paper on its side and write out the notes upward from the bottom of the page to the top, rather than left to right. No wonder then his best songs seem to take flight as they unfold, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. But there was another element that would permeate beyond the surface sheen of his milieu: hopeless longing.
It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights,
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
Just one of those things.
Porter found himself in Paris after World War I, when it seemed every young, modernist genius of the time – Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce – descended upon the City of Light like moths to a flame. And it was in Paris where he would meet his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, an American socialite eight years the songwriter’s senior.
Cole and Linda’s relationship was complex and sincere. They were companions in the truest sense of the word, but not lovers. Linda was essentially asexual by the time she met Porter. A previous abusive marriage had rendered her disinterested in men or sex. Some have speculated that she was a lesbian, and she did have lesbian friends, although there is no evidence that she herself was gay. Porter, obviously, was. And so their marriage became a marriage of convenience for both. Linda was able to avoid the pressures of becoming an old maid, and Porter had an escort on his arm. But their relationship was much more than that of mutual beard. They were a team, best friends, soul mates, confidantes.
Linda was accepting of Porter’s extramarital needs, and he pursued these with her blessing, although friends did notice that she was a bit naïve. Her patience in this regard would wear thin in later years as they lived and grew apart, yet they remained married until her death from emphysema, which devastated him.
I Love Paris
In the 1920’s, Porter fell in love with Paris, and the city inspired many of his songs from this period. He adapted effortlessly to the moveable feast that was the excess of bohemian Parisian life, where he hosted hedonistic parties and was free in his sexuality.
One of Porter’s most beloved songs comes from this time. “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love” was written for the 1928 show, aptly titled, Paris. The song is a perfect example of Porter’s refined wit and naughty instincts. “It,” of course, is sex. And lest this be unclear for any reason, the song begins, “birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it.” But just as we feel the weight of the censors’ blue pen descend upon the page he reframes this declaration into, “let’s fall in love.” Love, of course, has been used as a euphemism for sex in song forever, but it has never been done with such a playful wink.
Porter unravels a cascading list of life forms that “do it.” After a trip around the world, where we learn that the Spanish, Finns, folks in Siam (think of Siamese twins!) and, naturally, the Letts do it, we move on to sea life, where it is observed that lazy jellyfish, English soles in shallow shoals, and even electric eels do it (though it shocks ‘em). The third verse covers insect life from moths in your rugs to sentimental centipedes. Everyone, it seems, is doing it.
“Let’s Do It” is not just a charming double entendre, it is an anthem, an awakening. After all, if goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it, what’s to get so hung up about?
There are many versions, and few that include every verse, but the definitive rendition is from the landmark 1956 album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook.
What Is This Thing Called Love?
Cole Porter wrote the way he lived, breaking all convention. His songs rarely follow the Tin Pan Alley standard 32 bar, AABA structure musically, and avoid gauche rhyming clichés of the “Moon” and “June” school. More importantly, Porter has something to say in his songs, whether celebrating upper-set bohemia, or confessing his most intimate thoughts as he clambered to the heights of sleep in his lonely room. Although written to accentuate specific plot points or characters, most Cole Porter songs – certainly the best ones – ring with universal truth.
There are essentially two distinct types of Cole Porter song: the amusing “list” songs, with their witty lyrics and effervescent, sophisticated charm (“Let’s Do It,” “You’re the Top,” “I Get A Kick Out of You”) and the mournful love songs with their elusive rhythmic melancholy, their sad and beautiful longing (“Night and Day,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”). Whether working in comedy or tragedy, Porter’s songs are loaded with personal insight and emotion. In an era where songs generally were not “about” any particular person or persons, Cole Porter peppered his amusing songs with references to his society friends. Similarly, his great wistful works were often written with a specific lover in mind.
Porter had his share of affairs with men, but was not necessarily a playboy. After living and working in New York, with its restrictive social protocol, Porter moved to the freer world of Hollywood to write for the movies, where his exploits with men became more brazen. Linda was fraught with health issues and spent much of this time in sanitariums and the dry desert climate of Arizona, leaving Porter unsupervised in his Brentwood manor. He hosted notorious pool parties with plenty of booze and young men in bathing suits; however, he usually sat on the sidelines, enjoying a cocktail and the company around him without taking part in the action.
He preferred instead the close companionship of a handful of men with whom he traveled the world and fell in love. Porter’s personal love letters, which often betray his vulnerability, indicate that these were genuine and meaningful relationships. While his marriage to Linda was certainly one of convenience for both, their mutual respect prevented Porter from developing a full and honest relationship with another man. This is the minor that counter balances the major of his high society wealth and status and this is the je ne sais quoi that elevates his love songs into timeless and universal portals into the human heart, emotionally drenched examinations of love and loss, longing and despair.
Porter has been the subject of two biopics, neither of which succeeds in capturing the essence of the man, or retelling the facts of his life accurately. In the unfortunate Cary Grant vehicle Night and Day, Porter’s homosexuality is not even hinted at. The film went through a series of screenwriters whose work left them unsatisfied. “Where’s the struggle?” they wanted to know. “Where’s the conflict?” Orson Welles quipped, “What will they use for a climax? The only suspense is – will he or won’t he accumulate ten million dollars?” (An interesting comment from the man whose magnum opus proves that no amount of money can buy happiness. Couldn’t the same be said of Charles Foster Kane?)
Of course the conflict was there all along – and everyone in Hollywood knew it – but it was impossible for a film about an American celebrity in 1946 to acknowledge, let alone depict, his homosexuality.
The 2004 film De-Lovely portended to set the record straight but also missed the mark. It depicts Porter’s exploits with men as mere asides in an otherwise fully functioning marriage to Linda, as if the occasional physical release was the extent of his being gay. (The music direction is equally sloppy. Sheryl Crow’s all-minor-key rendition of “Begin the Beguine” completely misses the point, rendering an otherwise brilliant song impotent.)
“You wrote that about Linda, of course,” says the Gabriel character as Porter plays “In the Still of the Night” on his piano. Porter responds, “Did I? Songs don’t have to be about someone, you know.” But then the song reprises at the end of the film as Porter plays and Linda emerges to sing along with her husband, happily ever after, in the ever after.
It is true that songs don’t have to be about someone, but this song was. “In the Still of the Night” was not written about Linda but about Ed Tauch, an architect who one friend described as “the great love of Cole Porter’s life.”
In the still of the night,
As I gaze from my window
At the moon in its flight,
My thoughts all stray to you.
In the still of the night,
While the world is in slumber,
Oh, the times without number,
Darling, when I say to you,
‘Do you love me as I love you?
Are you my life-to-be, my dream come true?’
Or will this dream of mine
Fade out of sight
Like the moon
On the rim
Of the hill
In the chill,
Of the night?
A later lover, dancer Nelson Barclift, was the inspiration for “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”
Under stars chilled by the winter,
Under an August moon burning above,
You’d be so nice,
You’d be paradise
To come home to and love.
Cole Porter never did find paradise in one he could come home to. Instead, his affairs were fueled with all the passion and transience of a burning August moon. His “great love” Ed Tauch would inspire at least one other Cole Porter masterpiece; a song he wrote for the 1932 show Gay Divorce called “Night and Day.”
Because songs of this era were written for stage shows, they all have an introduction, what is commonly called the verse. Cole Porter was unquestionably the master of the verse. Such to a point that otherwise exquisite records – Frank Sinatra’s 1957 recording of “Night and Day,” for example – somehow suffer for its loss. Not only does the opening verse to “Night and Day” enhance the song, the song is almost dependent on it for full effect.
Porter was also a master of prosody, marrying the perfect musical moment with the perfect lyrical one. The opening verse to “Night and Day,” a song about obsession, is a single repeated note that harkens an almost hypnotic madness, a sort of musical water torture with each “tick tick tock of the stately clock” set against ominous imagery of jungles and rain, climaxing into a single word repeated over the final three beats that says more than the rest of the lyric combined: “You. You. You.”
Sinatra, who always worked with a sincere reverence for the songwriter, must have realized his prior error when he re-recorded “Night and Day” in 1962 for his Reprise album Sinatra and Strings. This time he and arranger Don Costa made sure to include the verse, which Sinatra interprets with sublime awareness of its power and purpose. As great as the swinging Nelson Riddle arrangement is, Sinatra’s Reprise “Night and Day” is the definitive version of Porter’s masterpiece because it captures the song’s true essence unlike any other.
Like the beat beat beat of the tom-tom
When the jungle shadows fall,
Like the tick tick tock of the stately clock
As it stands against the wall,
Like the drip drip drip of the raindrops
When the sum’r show’r is through,
So a voice within me keeps repeating
Night and day you are the one,
Only you beneath the moon and under the sun,
Whether near to me or far
It’s no matter, darling, where you are,
I think of you, night and day.
Day and night, why is it so
That this longing for you follows wherever I go?
In the roaring traffic’s boom,
In the silence of my lonely room,
I think of you, night and day.
Night and day under the hide of me
There’s an, oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me,
And its torment won’t be through
Till you let me spend my life making love to you
Day and night, night and day.
I Concentrate on You
Porter would tailor his songs to specific singers when writing a show. “I Get a Kick Out of You” was written for Ethel Merman to perform in 1934’s Anything Goes and is one of Porter’s great lyrical feats.
My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically ev’rything leaves me totally cold.
The only exception I know is the case
Where I’m out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face.
I get no kick from champagne.
Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,
So tell me why should it be true
That I get a kick out of you?
Some get a kick from cocaine.
I’m sure that if I took even one sniff
That would bore me terrific’ly too
Yet I get a kick out of you.
I get a kick ev’ry time I see
You’re standing there before me.
I get a kick though it’s clear to me
You obviously don’t adore me.
I get no kick in a plane.
Flying too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do,
Yet I get a kick out of you.
The hard double “k” sound in “kick” is complemented by the “k” sound in “alcohol,” in the first stanza, “terrific’ly” in the second, and “sky” in the third. In the second stanza there is a much-heralded triple internal rhyme, “if, “sniff,” “terrific’ly,” ending with the nice alliteration of “terrific’ly too” setting up the refrain rhyme “you.”
Careful not to overload the song with too many cutesy internal rhymes, Porter matches the same word (“me”) against itself in the bridge as a sort of pallet cleanser between courses, although the lines are supported with the internal rhyme of “you’re,” “before” and “adore,” and he throws in a tasty internal rhyme to the “me” sound with “see” and “obviously” just for flavor.
In the final stanza he doubles down on his three-way triumph of stanza two with a six-part internal rhyme tour de force, “FLY-ing,” “high,” “guy,” “sky,” “my,” “I-dea.” Each syllable is placed perfectly in time with the meter to transform an otherwise cumbersome set of rhymes into an effortlessly sing-able lyric. It should also be noted that each stanza explores a different stimulant: champagne, cocaine and flying in a plane; each a way of getting “high,” all of which rhyme.
His songs are a singer’s best friend for obvious reasons, but they are also a favorite among jazz instrumentalists who find endless terrain for exploration over his modulating major-minor motifs and intricate harmonies. The most popular recording of (arguably) Porter’s most popular song, for example, is an instrumental.
Porter was an avid world traveler and he would incorporate the rhythms of the indigenous folk music he heard wherever he traveled, giving many of his songs their unusual feel. Somewhere in the Lesser Sunda Islands or French West Indies (his recounts vary) Porter observed a native dance of slave liberation with an alluring rhythm. The leader commenced with a call of “Beguine!”
Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw’s stamp is all over his iconic 1938 recording of “Begin the Beguine,” which sold over 6.5 million copies. The innovative and ambitious Shaw was drawn to the song’s major-minor modulation and unusually long 108 bar, AABACC structure.
The great songwriter met the great clarinetist at one of the former’s famous parties. “Happy to meet my collaborator,” Porter said. The ever business minded Shaw quipped back, “Does that involve royalties?” “I’m afraid not,” Porter answered.
Shaw’s arrangement of “Begin the Beguine,” with its abrupt brass intro and his uncannily fluid clarinet helped to define the swing era. All without singing a single word.
If one must declare the single greatest interpretation of a Cole Porter song, it would be Frank Sinatra’s 1956 recording of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” arranged by Nelson Riddle.
It may be the coolest chart in the history of arranged popular music. Sinatra and the whole band, especially trombonist Milt Bernhart, who comes charging through the door like a wailing elephant, can barely contain their exuberance. The following excerpt from Will Friedwald’s scholarly tome, Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art, pretty much says it all:
Was there ever a more perfect, more powerful or goose-bumb-raising record than Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’?…Never was angular dissonance put to such effective use in mainstream popular music, Riddle here displaying a capacity for multistylistic juxtaposition akin to that of Charles Mingus…For half a chorus the trombonist [Milt Bernhart] plumbs depths of emotion that, at the end of his sixteen bars, we tell ourselves that no mere words could ever reach. But then Sinatra returns for an outchorus to end all outchoruses: he starts by using Bernhart’s highest emotional peak as his own lowest note and builds from there to a musical dramatic climax that fully exploits Cole Porter’s lyric as meaningfully as his melody, combining pure swing with caveman machismo, capable of grabbing even the most Frank-resistant listener way down at the bottom of the soul.
Sinatra and Bernhart perfectly illustrate the inseparability of Porter’s words and music, the intertwined genius of his songs as complete, self-contained gems.
Fighting Vainly the Old Ennui
In 1937, while visiting the Countess di Zoppola at her estate near Oyster Bay in Long Island, the horse that Cole Porter was riding fell and crushed his legs, breaking both. The doctors recommended amputation, but Linda fought for alternative treatment, knowing her husband’s spirit was far more fragile than his lower extremities. Although he was reduced to a wheelchair Porter, at least outwardly, took it all in stride. The accident did not keep him from his great pleasures: parties, travel and writing songs, which he continued to pursue with gusto. He traveled the world, was carried wherever he went, even on horseback, and much of his best work – including the most successful show of his career, Kiss Me Kate – still lay ahead. Eventually osteomyelitis set in and his right leg was finally amputated in 1958. After his leg was removed, Cole Porter never wrote another song.
With aging comes a more refined appreciation of the simpler and slower things – sunsets linger a little longer over the lonely sea – and with it wisdom. Older writers say more with less. For example, Bob Dylan who, like Cole Porter, revolutionized the way songs were written has reduced his lyrics in his later years to simpler, singular lines such as “it’s not dark yet but it’s getting there,” that conjure as much depth as his earlier lyrical riddles.
One of Porter’s final hits is a modest song written for the 1956 film, High Society. The simplicity of “True Love” almost masks its authorship. But it is a powerful rumination. True love was something Cole Porter always sought and was never able to hold. The song became a cross-genre hit, recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Patsy Cline, and was nominated for an Oscar.
I give to you and you give to me
True love, true love.
So on and on it will always be
True love, true love.
For you and I
Have a guardian angel on high
With nothing to do
But to give to you and to give to me
Love forever true.
There is no love song finer than “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” With Porter, who was not religious, it was always “the gods” who were to blame for his plight and to whom he held out for redress. Those mythical, petty creatures who must be in the know. Although, sometimes, not even the gods could cause or cure such longing; sometimes it was just one of those things. Goodbye, dear, and amen.
The power of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is in its deceptive simplicity. It is a gentle, plaintive song. It never veers from its tonic key and the lyric is lean. But in many ways it is the perfect Cole Porter song. It stays with us after one listen; it haunts us, lingers softy around the lobes like the echo of a whisper. It may not declare itself with the authority of “Night and Day” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” but it needn’t. It isn’t the full throttle thrust of orgasmic pleasure; it is the fine hairs that tickle the lips as they brush past in that moment before one lover walks down the hall, out the door, and the other is left behind with a puzzled grin and a knot inside where a heart used to be.
In one of the great moments of 20th century popular songcraft, Porter scores the major IV chord down to a minor over the passing lyric: “how strange the change from major to minor,” as if to underscore the point he had been making with his music for decades. Here it is, spelled out for you, in all its clever, honest truth.
Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I die a little,
Ev’ry time we say goodbye
I wonder why a little,
Why the gods above me
Who must be in the know
Think so little of me
They allow you to go.
When you’re near there’s such an air
Of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere
Begin to sing about it.
There’s no love song finer
But how strange
From major to minor
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.
Again, Ella gives us the definitive version.
Porter developed a deep depression as the 1950’s brought the death of his mother, then Linda, and the increasing pain from his infected legs became more and more intolerable, until the right one had to be cut off. Friends noticed his weight loss, insomnia and irritability. He became uncharacteristically reclusive as the champagne sparkle of the old days was replaced with scotch at lunch, until his valet could wean him onto gin or vodka for the remainder of the day so that the quantities he consumed could be more easily, discreetly diluted. As he spiraled further into the widening gyre of alcoholism and depression and blind physical pain he reluctantly left Hollywood, the one place besides Paris where he felt at home, to live in virtual isolation in his six-bedroom apartment at the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan.
I love California so…I always feel tops in the sunshine.
Cole Porter escaped back to California when he could during these final years and it was there where he died, in a Santa Monica hospital, in 1964 at the age of 72. He was rushed into surgery to remove a life-threatening kidney stone. His regular doctor was out of town and the attending surgeon, unaware of Porter’s alcoholism, assumed he had Parkinson’s disease, as Porter shook incessantly and uncontrollably from the delirium tremens of alcohol deprivation. A simple drink may very well have saved, or at least prolonged, his life.
In the higher echelons of the great American Tower of Song there is Gershwin, Rodgers and Berlin. Even among such esteemed company, Cole Porter’s songs stand out as something special, something different. But his work is not outside of this tower; it is the top. As critic Walter Clemons noted, “A Porter song is a luxury item, expensively made…and extravagantly rhymed.”
No song better exemplifies this than “You’re the Top,” from the 1934 show Anything Goes.
The opening verse:
At words poetic, I’m so pathetic
That I always have found it best,
Instead of getting ‘em off my chest,
To let ‘em rest unexpressed.
I hate parading
As I’ll probably miss a bar,
But if this little ditty
Is not so pretty,
At least it’ll tell you how great you are.
Cole Porter knew how great he was at words poetic, and by 1934 this had already been well established. Even though the song was not written for him to sing personally, he must have taken great satisfaction in composing these lines. The self-deprecation in the chorus is equally charming.
You’re the top!
You’re the Colosseum
You’re the Top!
You’re the Louvre Museum.
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss,
You’re a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse.
You’re the Nile,
You’re the Tow’r of Pisa,
You’re the smile
On the Mona Lisa.
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top!
Far from the bottom, “You’re a Porter chorus” could fit seamlessly into the litany of world achievement referenced in the song, which goes on to include Mahatma Gandhi, “Whistler’s mama,” a Waldorf salad, and Jimmy Durante’s nose.
Cole Porter recorded a handful of piano-vocal demos that allow us a rare insight into the original sound of his songs as they were first heard in penthouses and at cocktail parties. For all the Sinatras and Fitzgeralds, there is something magical about hearing the man himself sing and play. Most demos by non-performer songwriters are utilitarian; they exist, as the word implies, to demonstrate to the singer how the song should go. But Porter’s demos sparkle with a certain charm and buoyancy. His steamship piano rhythm is evident in his recording of “You’re the Top.” Listen to the clever little accents on the upper keys after each phrase in the chorus, or the way he runs up the keyboard, building and building, higher and higher, as he sings “but if, baby, I’m the bottom you’re the top” as if his fingers and his voice are racing each other to finish the phrase.
Some work stands best alone. With writers such as Irving Berlin, for example, his personal life adds little to the appreciation or study of his songs. Cole Porter was not this kind of writer. Cole Porter wrote his songs from real emotion and experience and dressed them up as show tunes. His personal life – his social status and, especially, his sexuality – is the key to understanding his artistry, and this is where most of the biographies and both of the biopics fail. In this regard, Cole Porter is one of the most personal writers of any time, especially of his time. This earnestness is what makes his songs accessible and lasting to so many, resonating still with all who encounter them, and is what will propel them for all who are yet to encounter their poignancy and grace, for as long as there is civilization. They are truly great works of art because they can be studied for all their intricacies but, more importantly, they can be heard and simply felt as genuine slices of the human experience. They are for all, and for all time.
(c) Matt Powell 2014
*All lyrics are printed as they appear in The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter (Robert Kimball ed., Da Capo Press 1992).
Originally written for humorinamerica.com on August 21, 2014.