Cole Porter’s admirers will approach this collection of his correspondence eagerly, anticipating the same sophisticated wit that sparkles in the lyrics of “Anything Goes,” "Let’s Misbehave,” or “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (to name a small sampling of his prodigious output). Behind-the-scenes accounts of Porter’s work on such classic Broadway musicals as “Gay Divorce” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” as well as movies like “High Society,” may reasonably be expected. Since Porter was also famous for his sumptuous lifestyle, financed by a family fortune, readers can also hope for tales of fabulous parties and luxurious travel, with perhaps some discreet allusions to the homosexual affairs that co-existed with his marriage to Linda Lee Thomas.
Those elements are all there in “The Letters of Cole Porter,” but in fairly small doses substantially supplemented by other people’s words. Porter was generally a businesslike correspondent, brisk and to the point. Even his impassioned, surprisingly frank 1925 missives to Boris Kochno of the Ballets Russes rarely exceed a few short paragraphs.
There aren’t many long, gossipy letters of the sort that make fellow composer/lyricist Noël Coward’s published correspondence such a delight. Porter’s letters mostly buttress the reputation he acquired early in life of being difficult to know, despite his affable manner and nonstop socializing. The collection’s editors, two British musical scholars, compensate with extended commentary giving biographical context, some contemporary press coverage, and a considerable number of letters from friends, collaborators, and business associates. The result, appropriately published by a university press, is an informative but patchy volume that will appeal more to scholars and extremely dedicated fans than to casual readers.
The editors sketch Porter’s Indiana childhood in a page-and-a-half. His years at the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts are chronicled in a few letters to his mother from the academy’s principal, who judged young Cole as lacking “concentration and steady purpose.” The first letters from Porter himself, written in 1912 to Yale classmate Almet Jenks, demonstrate that he had both qualities in abundance once he discovered his calling. The pair were collaborating on a musical, Porter’s third at Yale, and his detailed descriptions connect the songs he was composing to the development of the script Jenks was writing. Later letters to Bella Spewack, who wrote the book for “Kiss Me, Kate,” and a firm note contesting changes producer Arthur Schwartz intended to make to a movie score further demonstrate how carefully Porter crafted his songs to fit a story’s dramatic needs, and how protective he was of his work.
Porter’s first Broadway show opened in 1916 before he turned 25, but he slowed his career by spending the next 12 years in Europe, where he met and married Linda in 1919. The collection’s brief section covering that period contains much of his most intimate correspondence: in addition to the letters to Kochno, some entertainingly campy missives to actor Monty Woolley and painter Charles Green Shaw, both friends from Yale and both also gay. References to Linda make it quietly clear that she was aware of her husband’s sexual orientation; letters from both Porters across the decades make palpable the spouses’ mutual devotion, perhaps nourished by the amounts of time that they regularly spent apart.
The bulk of the book is devoted to the years 1928-54, during which Porter composed a string of classic songs for a parade of hit Broadway shows (from “Paris” to “Panama Hattie”), experienced a spell of artistic and commercial doldrums in the 1940s, then triumphantly bounced back with “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Can-Can,” and “Silk Stockings.” The most extended discussions of Porter’s creative process come not in his letters but in excerpts from several reflective press interviews, and the push-pull of collaboration is most comprehensively addressed in extracts from Porter’s 1935-6 diary concerning the film “Born to Dance,” a hilarious account of Golden Age Hollywood’s profligate production process.
There’s a lot of business correspondence with lawyers, agents, and accountants; Porter was perpetually worried about money (unsurprising when you read accounts of world tours and multiple residences extravagantly renovated), and he kept a close eye on the commercial exploitation of his songs in recordings and sheet music. A few grim letters to trusted friends describe the pain and gruesome medical treatments he endured after a 1937 riding accident fractured both his legs, but until the 1950s, when Porter mentions using a wheelchair in Italy and being carried to a hilltop fortress in Syria, he seldom discussed the crippling injuries that finally resulted in his right leg being amputated in 1958.
Coming on the heels of Linda’s death in 1954, the amputation left Porter increasingly withdrawn and depressed. The chapter on his final six years is mercifully brief, composed primarily of tender, extremely short notes to friends he surely knew he would not see again and poignant letters to the closest of these friends from his secretary Madeline Smith, who gives a fuller, franker portrait of his physical and emotional state. If Porter occasionally comes across in earlier correspondence as a spoiled rich man, complaining about high taxes and shiftless servants, his stoicism in the face of such suffering amply counters that impression.
It’s possible to wish that Porter had been a more loquacious and self-revealing correspondent, but his editors have done their best to provide a framework that enables readers to appreciate the letters we do have as intermittent glimpses into the life and craft of a legendary American songwriter.
THE LETTERS OF COLE PORTER
Edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh
Yale, 672 pp., $35
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.