Cole Porter (1891-1964) American composer & lyricist Biography Cole’s family 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 well as later in life). She always had the best clothes, the best education, and the best training in dancing and music. Her father had every expectation of marrying 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.
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 a extra bright for his age. 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.
Ambercrombie. 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 became a force in his life. Some biographers have speculated that his later preference for large strong men and the number of Yale football fight songs was no coincidence.
The Cole Porter biographies I have read do not reveal actual evidence for his gay sex life until after college, so some of this may be based on conjecture based on his more well documented liaisons soon after college. Perhaps the biggest influence 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 which were always complicated, and sometimes rallied around the superiority or sexual (heterosexual) 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 parts of the plot was strung together, the high energy, and the witty unreality that marked all Cole musicals. Cole wrote musicals for clubs and alumni associations, which allowed Cole and his friends to tour the country and showered with attention and parties. 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 surplus of recreational drugs. 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 …