Friday, June 9, 2017

Birthday: "It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely."

Cole Albert Porter (1891-1964)
Composer, songwriter

The boy's father was a druggist in Peru, Indiana but he married well, very well: the daughter of the richest man in the state. They wisely called the boy Cole after grandpa.

His dad was conventionally distant for the time; his mother a bit of a stage mom. When Cole showed talent at the piano, she got him classically trained and knocked a couple of years off his age to make him seem more precocious.

Grandpa Cole wanted Cole to be a businessman and shipped him- along with an upright piano the boy wheedled out of him- to prep school in Massachusetts, then to Yale.

Porter came into his own in New Haven, writing 300 songs and musical reviews, and leading most of the campus musical groups. After graduating in 1913, he entered Harvard Law School, where after his first year the dean suggested he might be happier in the school of music.

Somehow Grandpa was first, kept in the dark, then mollified. Porter saw his first song on Broadway in 1915; he tried a Gilbert & Sullivan-style review the year after. It closed after a fortnight.

When America entered World War II, Porter moved to Paris, let a luxury apartment, indulged his homosexuality, and worked for a war relief agency. He also met a wealthy divorcee, Linda Thomas, who'd escaped an abusive first marriage with a $25 million settlement.

The two hit it off and found marriage mutually beneficial. She needed a social peer as a husband; he needed a wife as a cover story. They loved travel and parties and going to shows. In short order, they had a mansion in Paris and $50,000-a-month villa in Venice. Grandpa died in 1923 and a shipload of money arrived. Porter thought nothing of hiring the entire Ballet Russe company to entertain his guests, or dispatching an armada of liveried gondoliers to get them home.

Under no pressure to earn a living, Porter was a gentleman songwriter through the Twenties. He didn't finally get a hit on Broadway until 1928, with Paris. Then came the Depression, and he started doing work for Hollywood, newly gifted with sound.

In 1930 The New Yorkers smashed records in New York; a song for a streetwalker character, "Love for Sale," was banned from radio for years. It wouldn't have played at all well back in Peru.

Porter met a producer who thought up assembling a creative team for Broadway shows- story writers, songwriters, performers- who worked collaboratively to use the team's strengths to create the plays. Out of that came some of his best work, including The Gay Divorce, which Fred Astaire packed up and took with him to Hollywood; and 1934's Anything Goes. Ethel Merman's vivacity and ability to project his songs out to the street made his music come alive. Here's a sample from the 1936 movie version, with a bewhiskered Bing Crosby:

The Porters moved to LA in 1935. Cole banked huge weekly checks for movie songs of uneven quality. He loved studio parties where he could perform intricate patter songs, many of which he extended, extemporaneously, into dozens of increasingly ribald verses. He wasn't much of a singer, and you can still hear the boy from Peru in his intonation:

Linda didn't like LA, nor the increasingly indiscreet life Cole led there. He always liked hiding in plain sight; some of his most ardent love songs were written for other men, but applauded and bought up by straight audiences who had no idea.

The 2004 biopic, De-Lovely, gives a glimpse of the duality of Porter's work- and the importance of context- as he coached an actor, played by John Barrowman:

Unhappy, and fearful Cole would pull down their public life, Linda returned to Paris and remained there until the war broke out; in 1937, riding in New York, Cole was caught beneath his horse and sustained a severe injury to both legs. He refused the amputation of one, living in pain for another twenty-seven years and over fifty surgeries. He and Linda reunited when she sailed home and lived contentedly until her death in 1954.

His health affected his work and through the 1940s it was pretty uneven. Sometimes the songs weren't up to the story; others, they were yoked to a poor plot. But he made a comeback with Kiss Me, Kate (1948); Can-Can (1952); and Silk Stockings (1954). In 1958 his leg finally had to be removed; he fell into a depressed seclusion that lasted until his death in 1964.

Few have had so many works remain standards, the earliest now nearly a century old. Yet even now, the man and his work travel uncomfortably, and slightly apart. The coded yearning of his words elicits disapproval or denial by many; his cause has not been helped by two big budget but #AltFact Hollywood biopics. Night and Day (Warner Bros,1946), morphed Porter into the imaginery workaholic but devoted husband played by Cary Grant:

The 2004 version won plaudits from Roger Ebert:
"De-Lovely" is a musical and a biography, and brings to both of those genres a worldly sophistication that is rare in the movies. (If you seek to find how rare, compare this film with "Night and Day," the 1946 biopic which stars Cary Grant as a resolutely straight Porter, even sending him off to World War I). "De-Lovely" not only accepts Porter's complications, but bases the movie on them; his lyrics take on a tantalizing ambiguity once you understand that they are not necessarily written about love with a woman: 
It's the wrong game, with the wrong chips/ Though your lips are tempting, they're the wrong lips' They're not her lips, but they're such tempting lips/ That, if some night, you're free/ Then it's all right, yes, it's all right with me. 
It would appear from "De-Lovely" that on many nights Porter was free, and yet Linda Lee Porter was the love and solace of his life, and she accepted him as he was. One night in Paris, they put their cards on the table. 
"You know then, that I have other interests," he says.
"Like men."
"Yes, men."
"You like them more than I do. Nothing is cruel if it fulfills your promise." 
Dialogue like this requires a certain wistful detachment, and Kevin Kline is ideally cast as Cole Porter: elegant, witty, always onstage, brave in the face of society and his own pain. Kline plays the piano, too, which allows the character to spend a lot of convincing time at the keyboard, writing the soundtrack of his life. But who might have known Ashley Judd would be so nuanced as Linda Lee? In those early scenes, she lets Porter know she wants him and yet allows him his freedom, and she speaks with such tact that she is perfectly understood without really having said anything at all. Yet their relationship was by definition painful for her, because it was really all on his terms. Many of his lyrics are fair enough to reflect that from her point of view: 
Every time we say goodbye, I die a little/ Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little/ Why the Gods above me, who must be in the know/ Think so little of me, they allow you to go.
But overall, the effort won mixed reviews. This one summed it up best, and wistfully, like a Porter song:
Steve Persall of the St. Petersburg Times graded the film C- and observed, "The movie is actually an ugly compilation of clashing cinematic styles occasionally salvaged by musical numbers that essentially are part of the problem. You can't make a good movie about a 1930s composer using a 1970s film conceit while hiring 21st century recording artists to perform Porter's classic songs. A tribute CD, maybe, but not a movie . . . [it] plays like a cabaret review rather than a motion picture, a sublime collection of songs linked by scripted banter barely scratching the surface of its subject. Not delightful, not delicious, just disappointing."
But the all works of genius, they are, at once, of their time and yet independent of them. They speak across time and we find new meaning from them in ours.

Here is an example. In 1990, as AIDS ravaged the United States, a fundraising album called Red Hot & Blue was created from Porter's works to raise money for the research the US government would not fund. First of a series, and the first of its kind, the album sold over a million copies.

Annie Lennox recorded one of the songs and later did a video. The home movie footage in it was of the gay film director Derek Jarman, who was slated to direct the video but fell ill and had to resign the project. He died of AIDS in 1994.

The result was a moment of solace, regret, and fear as, like Allan Ginsberg a generation earlier, we saw the greatest minds of ours swept away and looked for someone to hold on to in a world that mostly turned its back.

It's all in the words.

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