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Cole Porter Biography written by JX Bell

Cole Porter's name derives from the surnames of his parents, Kate Cole and Sam Porter. Kate's father, James Omar (known as J. O.), was an influential man both in the community and in Cole's early life. J.O. started from humble beginnings as son of a shoemaker, but his business savvy and strong work ethic made him the richest man in Indiana. Despite J.O.'s obsessive drive for making money, he took time off to marry Rachel Henton, who had several children with him.

Kate Cole was born in 1862, and was spoiled during her youth as she was throughout her life. Kate always had the best clothes, the best education, and the best training in dancing and music. Kate's father expected to marry her off to a man with a strong business background, a strong personality, and the potential for a good career. As it is for many filial presumptions and expectations, Kate married someone who was quite the opposite -- a shy druggist from their small town of Peru, Indiana.

The couple married without the full consent of J.O., but he financially supported their wedding and subsidized the couple. As one of the richest men in Indiana, he thought his daughter should be seen doing and wearing the right things without financial fears. These subsidies from J.O. financed the rest of Sam and Kate's life, as well as that of their son born on June 9th, 1891: Cole Porter.

Cole's Early Years

Cole learned piano and violin at age six. He became very good at both, but he disliked the violin's harsh sound and so his energy turned to the piano. During his formative years, he played piano two hours per day. While Cole practiced, he and his mother would parody popular tunes on the piano in order to increase Cole's patience with such long practice sessions.


J.O.

Kate

Cole

Appearing to surpass his peers was easier due to deception on the part of Cole and his mother. When he was fourteen, his mother falsified his school records so it appeared that he was extra bright "for his age" because his age was falsely decremented one year. The power J. O. Cole wielded within the small town of Peru, Indiana allowed Kate many such unusual favors by community officials. For instance, Kate financed student orchestras in exchange for guarantees of Cole Porter violin solos and apparently influenced the media's reviews or billing surrounding such concerts. She also subsidized the publishing of Cole's early compositions.

Cole composed songs as early as 1901 (when he was ten) with a song dedicated to his mother, a piano piece called Song of the Birds, separated into six sections with titles like The Young Ones Leaning to Sing and The Cuckoo Tells the Mother Where the Bird Is. His mother ensured that one hundred copies were published so that the song could be sent to friends and relatives.

He enrolled in the Worcester Academy in 1905, where he was lauded as the precocious youngster who became class valedictorian. There Cole met an important influence in his musicianship, Dr. Abercrombie. His teacher taught him about the relationship between words and meter, and between words and music in songs. Cole later quoted from Ambercrombie's lessons: "Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one."

The Yale Years

Cole's Yale years included many adventures, many musicals, and the forging of relationships that he carried with him for the rest of his life. Most students soon knew him for the fight songs he would write, many of which continue to be Yale classics.

It might be worth noting that it was during the Yale years when Cole's homosexuality likely became a powerful, if not fully public, part of his life. The Cole Porter biographies I have read do not reveal compelling proof of his gay sex life until after college, so some this may be partially conclusions based on Cole's well documented gay liaisons soon after college. And perhaps the number of Yale football fight songs he wrote in college and his post-college sexual preference for large strong men were not entirely coincidence.

Perhaps the biggest influences in his musical development were the full scale (for college) productions designed for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, the Yale Dramatic Association, and solo performances in the Yale Glee Club.

Despite an Ivy League academic workload and social obligations, he composed several full productions per year in addition to individual songs. Most of the shows for the Yale student groups were zany musicals that were always complicated and often rallied around the superiority or sexual (heterosexual, by the way) prowess of Yale men. These shows were primarily intended for a Yale audience, although some of them charged admission when intended for a non-college crowd. Cole did not necessarily contribute to the "book" (the script) of the musicals, but he did have an influence on how the plot was strung together, the high energy, and the witty surreality that marked all of Cole's musicals.

Cole wrote musicals for clubs and alumni associations, which allowed Cole and his friends to tour the country and be showered with attention and party invitations. Some of these Yale connections were helpful when he started his career on Broadway. The Yale ties lasted beyond his graduation. Even as he was graduating, he was promising more musicals for his student organizations to be written after leaving Yale. He left Yale with a legacy of approximately 300 songs, including six full scale productions.

Cole spent the years immediately after Yale flailing in an unsuccessful Harvard law career. The man who paid all of Cole's bills, his grandfather J.O. Cole, disapproved of men choosing careers in the arts and tried hard to convince Cole to become a lawyer. Even when Cole was young, J.O. tried to instill a sense of rough individualism and business savvy that was lost on the over-pampered young Porter. Cole did indeed start attending Harvard Law but his primary attention was always to music (including writing musicals for his Yale friends). Although Kate knew, J.O. was not told that in his second year Cole switched from the law school to the school of arts and sciences at Harvard in order to pursue music. Eventually, he abandoned his studies, moved to the Yale club in New York, and began his serious music career.

Career and Travel

His first Broadway show was See America First, which was a 1916 flop despite the social luminaries in the early audiences -- a feature of hiring Bessie Marbury as theatrical producer. It was described by the New York American as a "high-class college show played partly by professionals." Cole later claimed to be in hiding after the failure of the show but he actually was prominent in the New York social scene and continued to live at the Yale Club in New York.

In July of 1917, he set out for Paris and war-engulfed Europe. Paris was a place Cole flourished socially and managed to be in the best of all possible worlds. He lied to the American press about his military involvement and made up stories about working with the French Foreign Legion and the French army. This allowed him to live his days and nights as a wealthy American in Paris, a socialite with climbing status, and still be considered a "war hero" back home, an 'official' story he encouraged throughout the rest of his life.

The parties during these years were elaborate and fabulous, involving people of wealthy and political classes. His parties were marked by much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs.


Cole and Linda

By 1919, Cole was spending time with the American divorcee Linda Thomas. The two became close friends quickly. Their financial status and social standing also made them ideal candidates for marriage -- as a business contract, not for passion. The fact that Linda's ex-husband was abusive and Cole was gay made the arrangement even more palatable. Linda was always one of Cole's best supporters and being married increased his chance of success, and Cole allowed Linda to keep high social status for the rest of her life. They married on December 19, 1919 and lived a happy friendship, a mostly successful public relationship, but a sexless marriage until Linda's death in 1954

For those interested in the poets, politicians, patricians, and places Cole knew in the next two decades, they were fairly well documented. See the Cole Wide Web Books page for details.

The Later Years

After early success with one-off songs like Don't Fence Me In, which was re-released in a World War II musical called Hollywood Canteen, Cole signed some contracts with the film industry. The first film with a Cole Porter song was The Battle of Paris from 1929, but his two tunes from that movie had little impact on his career because of the film wasn't very good overall.

Cole was happy with many aspects of the Hollywood community, including the liberal gay enclave called the movie industry population. Although there is some dispute about the reasons why Linda did not like the Hollywood home, my research indicates that the primary friction was Cole's relatively more public sexual escapades. At the time, it was much less acceptable to be an eccentric gay artist and Linda feared for Cole's reputation and career. And her social standing was threatened by such activities, since it reflected poorly in hushed rumors within upper-crust social circles.

In 1937, Cole was involved in a horse riding accident and fractured both of legs. This was a personal tragedy for a vain man who placed an enormous value on looks for both social and sexual reasons. His vibrant energy and obsession to maintain his looks through elaborate daily rituals could not (in his opinion) compensate for such a debilitating blow at his health and his ego. He was in the hospital for months, but his mental and physical health waned. It got worse with the eventual amputation of one of his legs. This did not stop Cole from writing music. During this period were Cole's popular songs Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love, From Now On, and Get Out Of Town.

In 1945, he lent his permission but minimal creative energy to the movie Night and Day, allegedly about the life of Cole Porter. Although great for his ego and likely hysterically funny for his friends, history suffers because this movie had very little relationship to the actual life of Cole Porter. The movie purposely left out important parts of life, like his overly pampered and controlled youth, his gay life, his sexless marriage of convenience, his 'business' marriage, and furthered the fantastic tall tales that Cole spread about himself. For instance, although he had never served in the French Army, the movie faithfully "showed" his exploits and his fake war injuries. Cole reportedly enjoyed the movie's wildly fictional account, and he had the privilege of seeing movie superstar Cary Grant play a well-hyped heroic (and straight) version of himself.

After this point, he had one major production, Kiss Me Kate, which was based on the Shakespeare classic Taming of the Shrew. Cole was very skeptical of this production but eventually lent his hand to the production and it became very successful, eventually spawning a moderately successful movie. Porter produced fewer successful productions in the later days, but Cole wrote songs for the musicals Can Can and Silk Stockings during this period.

Doctors amputated Cole's injured right leg in 1958. After the amputation, Cole's creative productivity, his social power, and his happiness plummeted. He died on October 15, 1964. In accordance with his wishes, official reports say that he was buried between his wife Linda and his father Sam Porter. Howver, perhaps because of his father's trivial role in Cole's upbringing, other reports circled that he was actually buried between his mother Kate and his wife Linda.

The popularity of his individual songs lasted far beyond the common knowledge of the man himself. Many of his most famous songs were presented to the public only in the context of musicals or movies which contained non-Cole Porter songs. Other famous songs have come from Cole Porter musicals or revues that failed miserably, but made up their exposure via sheet music and recordings from popular singers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. For more information about Cole Porter albums, see the CD section of Cole Wide Web. Sometime in the 1990s, ASCAP reported that the sales of the song Night and Day from the musical Gay Divorce were the highest numbers of all time.

A 1990 album brought Cole Porter music to many younger listeners as the fundraising album Red, Hot, and Blue. The album features Cole Porter songs sung by popular musicians of the 1980s and 1990s. Porter songs still maintain a strong presence in movie soundtracks (from Woody Allen Movies, to Tank Girl), with the most popular songs Lets Do It (Let's Fall In Love) and Night and Day.

The 2004 movie De-Lovely, named after a silly Cole Porter song title, rekindled the nation's love for Cole Porter's music due to the beautiful sets, all-star actors, famous musicians, and a well-hyped Hollywood marketing campaign for the movie and the soundtrack.

Let's hope that we all keep the talent of Cole Porter alive!

For More Information

There are many full biographies of Cole Porter on the Cole Porter Books page.

There are many CDs of Cole Porter music on the Cole Porter CDs page.