If Harold Arlen built a reputation for chronicling love on the rocks, Cole Porter gained lasting fame and the adulation of a grateful culture for his celebrations of successful romance. Oh, the man worked the cloudier side of the street, with “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” for instance, though if you’re in a position to say goodbye repeatedly the two of you must be doing something right. “Love for Sale” is no walk in the clouds and Porter built “Miss Otis Regrets” around a murder by a jilted lover.
Still, we venerate him more for asking us to use our mentality, for taking us on trips to the moon and for sharing the timeless advice to declaim a few lines from Othella. You could conduct a very long love affair, even a marriage, just quoting from him, and it would be years before you had to repeat yourself, which is more than must of us can say about our own relationships. That said, be careful about when you shout out, “You’re Ovaltine!”
In the new UIP book A Cole Porter Companion, a parade of performers and scholars offers essays on little-known aspects of the master tunesmith’s life and art. Here are Porter’s days as a Yale wunderkind and his nights as the exemplar of louche living; the triumph of Kiss Me Kate and shocking failure of You Never Know; and his spinning rhythmic genius and a turkey dinner into “You’re the Top” while cultural and economic forces take “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” in unforeseen directions. Other entries explore notes on ongoing Porter scholarship and delve into his formative works, performing career, and long-overlooked contributions to media as varied as film and ballet. Prepared with the cooperation of the Porter archives, A Cole Porter Companion is an invaluable guide for the fans and scholars of this beloved American genius.
One of the most interesting facets of Porter explored in the book is his under-appreciated work as a performer. Perhaps it remains under-appreciated because he played less at concert halls and in auditoriums than he did at parties. But isn’t that what you’d expect, indeed, hope for from Cole Porter? These performances, while not recorded, were essential. Porter used playing for friends, admirers, and other performers to workshop many of his classics. Eric Davis, one of the contributors to the Companion, tells us:
No doubt much of his diffidence about playing in public in later years can be attributed to his physical condition following the accident and the multiple surgeries he endured in order to preserve his legs. Considering all the evidence, though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even before the accident he was a modest, even shy, performer even within the friendlier confines of his home and other private locations where he demonstrated his music and entertained. The amusing irony of the confession, “I hate parading my serenading,” is that in fact he really did like performing, but mostly when the company was intimate (at least as intimate as an Elsa Maxwell party could be) and his gesture of feigning reluctance was appreciated in its fullest sense.|
Had he had the drive or the financial need to play music in public for a living, early accounts of his mastery suggest that a career as a performer was his for the taking. But Cole Porter’s life in Europe among the social and artistic elite ensured that his talents were not cut out for vaudeville or Tin Pan Alley, as they were for so many aspiring songwriters in the 1920s. Instead, as he lingered in Europe, he cultivated a sophisticated style of songwriting and performance more suited to the aristocratic salons of Paris and Venice than the publishers’ and producers’ offices of Manhattan; and he maintained this style throughout his life, even after Broadway developed a taste for Cole Porter and his career took off.