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 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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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