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Down In The Dumps On The Ninetieth Floor

On the letters of Cole Porter


The Letters of Cole Porter

Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (editors)

Yale University Press, pp.672, $35.00

Being accorded the Collected Letters treatment reinforces the reputations of certain artists; it largely destroys the reputations of certain others. In the first category rests Evelyn Waugh, who gave so generously of himself to all but the most tiresome cranks that his correspondence would still be worth reading even if the rest of his oeuvre had vanished. In the second category rests Philip Larkin, whose own correspondence first saw print in 1992 and, far from enriching public appreciation of his verses, made such appreciation almost an act of defiance. Readers who dutifully endured Larkin’s epistolary narratives—continuing almost until his final illness—of frantic onanism and sex-shop addiction found it hard to persist thereafter in ascribing to the poet moral authority. 

Somewhere between these two extremes dwell, it turns out, Cole Porter’s letters. They cannot leave the author’s good name permanently soiled, as Larkin’s do. But no more can they provide unexpected literary delights, as the best of Waugh’s do. Hence, perhaps, the fact that only now have they reached publication in bulk, though Porter has been fifty-six years dead. They abound in gossipy references which depend so much upon editorial annotations to be intelligible that the result constitutes a de facto biography in itself. Both editors, despite being based in England (Dominic McHugh is an academic in Sheffield, Cliff Eisen in London), exhibit an archival diligence more readily associated with America than with Britain. Their labors notwithstanding, Porter’s essence remains elusive. A variant of the epigram attributed to Oscar Levant becomes applicable: the phony tinsel of Porter’s publicity legends has been stripped off, leaving the real tinsel behind. One suspects that the single-word encomia which the dustjacket sports from Michael Feinstein and Kevin Kline—respectively “Revelatory” and “Perfect”—are the products of more than usually ingenious abridgement by Yale’s copyeditors.

Mythmaking began almost from the start of Porter’s artistic existence, when his alarming mother shaved two years off his birthdate, crediting him with having been born in 1893 rather than in 1891, that his youthful brilliance might shine all the brighter. Well into middle age, he displayed the unappealing—some would be blunt enough to say creepy—habit of referring to his mother by her given name: she is the “Katy” whom his letters so often cite. She seems to have been the sole person who ever moved him to fear. As late as March 1948 he is found entangled in demands for unpaid tax ($100,000—the equivalent of $1,042,000 now—through income from the recent Night and Day movie alone) and admitting to his accountant (and cousin) Harvey Cole the extent to which he still, approaching sixty, depended upon maternal largesse. 

Very little went consistently right for Porter once “Katy” had died in 1952. Thereafter—despite such late successes as Silk Stockings and High Society—his physical and mental health, always delicate after a 1937 riding accident in which he suffered compound fractures to both his legs, became worse. Amputation of the legs might have helped in the long run, and would certainly have limited the pain which he suffered, but for two decades he refused to countenance any such thing. (In 1958 he did consent to having his right leg removed: too late for any benefit.) Earlier, he had combined his hedonism with a singularly intense work ethic. His boast of having written no fewer than three hundred songs during his Yale days appears to have been truthful. But with “Katy” no longer around to provide even the hint of a restraining influence, the high life became higher and higher. 

Porter’s devoted secretary Madeline P. Smith—whom he always, in his letters, addressed as “Mrs. Smith or “Mrs. S.”—submitted to hotel management in Philadelphia (whither Porter had gone for Can-Can’s staging) a diktat itemizing “Mr. Cole Porter’s needs,” these to be in place before his arrival. They included enough crockery and cutlery to keep Downton Abbey’s servants on double shifts, but also

2 large bottles of Witch Hazel 3 Bromo Selzer dispenser 2 Large Eno Fruit Salts 2 large Phillips Milk of Magnesia 1 large Nivea Skin Oil 2 1-1b Anhydrous Lanolin 2 4-oz Noxema Shaving Cream 6 Aromettes—assorted scents 1 carton pocket Kleenex 1 Carter’s Little Liver powder 2 Roger Gallet White Pomade 1 Carton Gillette Red Razor Blades—20 pkg. size 1 pint Alcohol—90% proof …

Etc., etc., etc. It all reads like the sort of imperious and abstruse wish-list that High Society’s own Tracy Samantha Lord would have imposed on Philadelphia’s hired help. Perhaps twenty-first-century divas are equally inordinate in their demands. But none of those divas can boast one-fiftieth of Porter’s satiric gift, and it is sad to see here his own capacity for satire falling into such obvious abeyance.

Which, away from his work-desk, it quite often did. Much of this book consists of Porter’s notes and telegrams to agents, lawyers, creative colleagues, actors, actresses, and journalists: bread-and-butter communications, in other words. He associated so completely with “the rich rich”—his own phrase—that he would have found avoidance of name-dropping impossible even if he had considered it desirable. Two randomly-selected pages covering 1932’s events mention Irving Berlin (who wrote to Porter “I am mad about ‘Night and Day,’”), George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Clare Boothe Luce, Fred Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, and the London impresario C.B. Cochran, whose manner of death echoes some of Porter’s more venomous lyrics. (The seventy-nine-year-old Cochran, so arthritic as to be almost incapable of moving in his bathtub, screamed with pain when the unexpectedly hot water scalded him; his wife, mistaking his anguished cries for bursts of joyous singing, did not think to intervene.) Elsewhere Porter is more casual about his dealings with Ethel Merman, Noël Coward, and Orson Welles than the rest of us would be about our dealings with pest exterminators.

Such hobnobbing did not impart to him any serious amount of psychic toughness when adversity struck. Two of his most cherished friends, Sam and Bella Spewack, made the error of seeming insufficiently deferential in their introduction to the published edition of Kiss Me, Kate. Their prose’s reference to Porter’s “wonderful music and lyrics” did not prevent the thin-skinned creator from resorting to icy legalese: 

I have your letter of November 18, 1953. Naturally I accept your word that you had no desire to hurt me … I assume that you will instruct Knopf that no other edition of the book will be published without my approval of any reference to me. 

When Coward enjoyed a hit with Quadrille, Porter took gleeful pride in observing that this comedy had opened “to unanimous panning by the London critics.” “Panning” is not a word that could fittingly be applied to the newspaper reviews of Porter which Eisen and McHugh quote. Journalists who discussed Porter seldom if ever failed to be civil; when they offered praise, they did so heartily; when they offered criticism of a particular show, they did so regretfully. (A typical instance: “Cole Porter’s songs for Miss Merman [in Du Barry Was A Lady] are not quite as effective as usual.”) Even Porter’s warmest admirers found themselves wondering, during and after the Second World War, whether their hero might have passed his peak. Many a musical of his from that post-Du Barry, post-Panama-Hattie period—You’ll Never Get Rich; Let’s Face It; Something to Shout About; Mexican Hayride; Around the World; The Pirate—boiled down to one or two beloved numbers, until Kiss Me, Kate announced the return of Porter’s genius over an entire evening’s span. Since as early as 1939 Porter told the New York Herald Tribune that “one really big hit song is all any show should have,” there can be no avoiding the suspicion that he later tried to make a virtue of necessity. 

The good side of Porter’s touchiness over (genuine or imagined) reproaches was his habitual reticence concerning a private life which had, as Churchill might have put it, a good deal to be reticent about. The émigré Russian dancer and poet Boris Kochno, fresh from his affairs with Sergei Diaghilev and Karol Szymanowski, became Porter’s lover during the 1920s. Few suspected the existence of this relationship until after Kochno’s death, aged eighty-six, in 1990. Porter’s surviving missives to Kochno, all in French, indicate a furious craving that he seldom hinted at anywhere else. Eisen and McHugh are scathing as to the veracity of Kochno’s own two subsequent accounts (which they call “anodyne and self-serving”) of his affair; their chronology is garbled, and they “can only be considered fabrications.” Beyond dispute is Porter’s devotion to his wife Linda, née Lee, formerly Thomas, the divorced, astonishingly beautiful ex-wife of the New York Morning Telegraph proprietor Edward Russell Thomas. “Always true to you, darling, in my fashion” sums up Porter as husband, just as it sums up the contemporaneous union of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. When long-standing heart disease ended Linda’s life in 1954, Cole’s telegram to the Pulitzer-winning director Abe Burrows and the latter’s wife Carin indicates, by its very terseness, his stony grief: “LINDA DIED TODAY. PLEASE NO FLOWERS. COLE.” (Flowers came afterward: the Linda Porter Rose was, at Cole’s instigation, named in her honor via the Bobbink and Atkins nursery.) 

After the 1958 surgery, those closest to Porter retained high hopes for his rapid convalescence. One report ran: “He is now doing so nicely, that we want to keep him improving and hasten the day when he can leave the hospital.” Such optimism did not last long. His 1936 line “Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor” became less a paradox than a prophecy. Sam Stark, a jeweler friend of long standing, fretted to Madeline Smith: “Confidentially I am very worried about him as he seems very depressed … His mind seems to be far away and although he is always the usual gracious host, I know him too well for him to fool me.” Electroshock therapy, which he underwent several times for his increasing melancholia, brought him no benefit. Eisen and McHugh refer bleakly to the post-operative Porter’s “imploding social life.” Madeline Smith confided in Stark with touching candor:

I understand only too well how almost impossible it is to strike a responsive note, or to reach him [Porter] at all. I regret so much that he has not the strength that comes in time of need, of a bolstering religion. Even a Buddhist, a Seven [sic] Day Adventist, a Jehova’s [sic] Witness, any thing to take the place of “just nothing.” Without faith—one is like a stained glass window in the dark.

Since the 1958 operation Porter had been, he complained, only “half a man.” He never wrote another song. At one point, near the end, Mrs. Smith heard him ask: “How am I going to meet my God?” But his final religious views, if any, are unclear. They comprise yet another riddle in Porter’s life. 

“You would pluck out the heart of my mystery”: thus Hamlet’s complaint to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with an obvious allusionunmistakable for Shakespeare’s contemporariesto bodily parts of the Elizabethan Catholic martyrs being likewise “pluck[ed] out” by Tyburn’s hangman. Similarly ruthless attempts to gain enlightenment from eviscerating Porter are equally futile. 

Why, for example, did Porter (not, it is fair to suggest, one of nature’s swashbuckling militarists) insist that he had fought in the French Foreign Legion? “There is no concrete evidence to back up his assertion,” Eisen and McHugh remark; but it might not have been an outright lie, since the Legion’s website does include someone of that name in its list of members at the relevant period. Why, again, did Porter become a composition student (as it seems he did) at Paris’s Schola Cantorum? Not an obvious move for anybody with dreams of Broadway triumphs. History, moreover, does not relate how the Schola Cantorum’s directorVincent d’Indy, most intransigently stern of Catholic monarchistsreacted to the man who would give the world “Let’s Misbehave,” not to mention “Love for Sale.” With the enforced leisure of his final years, Porter might have solved these enigmas; but he chose not to do so, and perhaps had become too forgetful even to attempt answers. At any rate, his will to live had faded long before, on October 15, 1964, he drifted into “the still of the night.”

R. J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times and has been a contributing editor at the American Conservative since 2004.

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