But the man who personified continental elegance and Manhattan sophistication grew up in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Wabash River. Its only distinguishing feature was as the winter home for a circus, and it was watching circus acts rehearse for the next season that young Cole got his first taste of show business.
His maternal grandfather had made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother, Katie Cole, was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, now a ghost town.
His grandfather insisted he go on to law school, but after Porter’s disastrous first semester, the Dean of the Harvard law school himself suggested Cole pursue songwriting, and sent him over to the Harvard School of Music.
He continued his musical studies in Paris, where he met and married another American, Linda Lee (a descendant of Robert E. Lee.) Though Cole Porter was actively gay and this marriage was in part a cover in an intolerant time, he and Linda remained devoted to each other until her death. He relied on her judgment for every song. Said Saint Subber, producer of Kiss Me, Kate, “Linda was the air that made his sails move.”
The Murphys loved the place, and returned for many summers afterwards, bringing with them such friends as Picasso, Stravinsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Eric Satie. The Murphys (celebrated in Calvin Tomkins’ book, Living Well Is The Best Revenge) essentially created the Riviera. But Cole Porter had discovered it.
Murphy also helped Porter’s musical education. He arranged with Jimmy Durante’s drummer to send him the latest American jazz records every month, and he knew and sang still obscure American folk songs and spirituals.
|The Murphys and Porters in Venice 1923|
Porter’s ballet score and his songs for various theatrical events won the enthusiasm of the artistic community and wealthy sophisticates in Paris and New York, but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway in the 1920s.
Then popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 30s. He got his first Broadway revues thanks to recommendations by Irving Berlin, and a string of hit shows followed, notably the enduring classic Anything Goes.
He transitioned to Hollywood with the star of one of his Broadway shows, Fred Astaire. Porter alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, often doing one show and one movie a year. His movie work continued into the 1950s.
But in the mid 1940s he’d hit a dry spell. Though it had been nearly 10 years since a riding accident crushed his legs, he was still in near constant pain. He saw that musical theatre was changing, and he wondered if he could change with it.
Then he was presented with an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare. Kiss Me, Kate became his biggest hit and as a complete show, his most enduring success.
By this time, Cole Porter was deeply involved in all aspects of his Broadway productions--he raised money, participated in casting, attended rehearsals and largely staged the show. This makes the success of Kiss Me, Kate even more the success of Cole Porter.