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 (with
Eileen 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
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
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
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
"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
Gay Divorce (1932); Nymph Errant
(1933), Anything Goes (1934); Jubilee (1935);
Born To Dance (a film) and Red Hot and Blue (both
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
"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
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