The indelible Cole Porter: style, sophistication, and plenty of ooh-la-la

Cole Porter at the piano.
Cole Porter at the piano.Handout

Cole Porter’s middle name was “Albert.” Well, did you evah! “Cole” is just right: short, simple, regal (as in Old King), and close enough to “cool” without overdoing it. “Cool Porter”? As the French would say, de trop.

“Porter” is good, too: a little longer, a little less simple, and with that nifty near-assonance with the “o” in “Cole.” Even the man’s name almost rhymes. Porter is also a French verb — pronounced por-TAY, it means “to wear” or “carry” — an extra fillip. “I Love Paris” is one of his best-known songs. Two of his early musicals were “Paris” and “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” “Les Girls” was his last film score. Porter was easily the most Gallic composer in the Great American Songbook: suave, cosmopolitan, not-infrequently risqué.


Which brings us back to Albert. It’s so far from the glamour and swank and effortlessness associated with the name “Cole Porter.” More to the point, it’s so far from the sense of glamour and swank and effortlessness associated with his songs. Porter may or may not be first among equals as regards the Great American Songbook; but he was, without question, the most stylish of its creators.

The composer-lyricist of “Night and “Day” and “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” has never lost his cultural currency. But Porter has been even more visible of late. His fondness for the number 15 may be the single funniest anecdote in the 2018 documentary “Scotty and the Secret Life of Hollywood.” “Harry Connick, Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter” finishes up a three-week run on Broadway this Sunday. In November, Yale University Press published a handsome volume of Porter’s letters.

Cole Porter, second from right, in Venice, in 1923.
Cole Porter, second from right, in Venice, in 1923.courtesy Yale University Press

Porter’s stylishness comes with a twist. This supremely urbane man was not at all urban in background. He may have loved Paris and lived there for several years after World War I, but he was born and raised in Peru, Ind. PEE-roo, as it was pronounced back then, was a long way from Pare-REE, and mileage was the least of it. In 1924, Porter wrote to a Russian lover, “I’m a simple American from the Midwest.” That was a bit of a stretch, but close enough to the truth that Porter could write something as corny as “Don’t Fence Me In” — though even then, he couldn’t resist an internal rhyme, internal rhymes being second only to lists as a Porter trademark: “Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the Western skies."


The Porters were rich (or the Coles, his mother’s family, were). He was sent East to be educated: at Worcester Academy, then Yale, and — speaking of twists — Harvard Law School. Among his housemates on Mercer Circle, off Brattle Street, was the future US secretary of state Dean Acheson. Already, Porter’s affinity for glittering associates was on display. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are as likely to turn up in the index of “The Letters of Cole Porter” as Ethel Merman or Irving Berlin. A kind of social crescendo occurs in its pages when Porter invites the socialite Elsa Maxwell to his Waldorf Towers apartment for a “snack” before the opening-night performance of his musical “Can-Can,” in 1953. Among those in attendance are to be a countess, a duke, a baron, and (ho-hum) one of Porter’s Cole cousins. What a swell snack it must have been.


Thankfully, Harvard Law proved a dead end, as Yale had not. Elis are still singing at least two Porter-composed fight songs: “Bulldog” and “Bingo.” He first met with musical success in New Haven. So it’s fitting that Yale should be the new book’s publisher.

Cole Porter's Yale yearbook photo, 1913
Cole Porter's Yale yearbook photo, 1913courtesy Yale University Press

You may find yourself thinking, “How odd that it took this long to gather the letters of someone as witty and well-connected as Cole Porter.” That would be because the letters tend to be duds. Porter was a diligent if mostly uninspired correspondent. There are memorable exceptions. After the 1937 riding accident whose physical consequences would shadow the rest of his life, Porter joked to his friend the actor Monty Woolley, “Morphine simply made me want to give parties.” In 1953, he wrote to a musical colleague at MGM that “One day I want to give a big party and invite nothing but Censors, to find out how their minds work.”

The “Letters” extend beyond correspondence from Porter to include correspondence to him, articles about him, passages from his diaries (which, alas, are as much travel summaries as anything else). The occasional oddball biographical fact will crop up. Porter was a passionate collector of Grandma Moses paintings. In Los Angeles, he annually rented a house that was a hundred yards from where O.J. Simpson would later live.

That latter fact is nowhere to be found here, which is representative of how overdone yet unhelpful the editorial apparatus is. A passing reference to Coty eau de cologne inspires a footnote describing the company’s subsequent business history: “Coty was purchased by Pfizer in 1963 and by Joh. A. Benckiser GmbH in 1992.” Noted. Conversely, a footnote about the nightclub owner Lou Walters leaves unmentioned that he was the father of Barbara Walters.


Cole Porter at work.
Cole Porter at work.Sasha/Getty Images

Maybe the most characteristic remark in all the letters comes when Porter offers birthday wishes to Berlin: “your copyrights aren’t staying as young as you are.” Wit, business, and friendship coincide. Again and again the letters confirm what the sheer quantity of Porter’s musical output indicates: He was a demon for work. The best thing about the “Letters” is the light cast on his working procedure.

Work meant payment as well as productivity. For someone born wealthy, and who married even wealthier, Porter kept a close eye on financial matters. But it’s the window on Porter as craftsman that’s most interesting. He kept close at hand dictionaries in three languages, a medical dictionary, an atlas, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Roget’s Thesaurus, a book called “Words, Ancient and Modern,” and Andrew Loring’s “The Rhymers’ Lexicon.” A dozen pages detailing the back-and-forth on “Can-Can” between Porter and Abe Burrows, who wrote the musical’s book, is illuminating. It took a lot of effort to set the stage for that opening-night “snack.”

Cole Porter, right, with CBS television host Ed Sullivan, 1952
Cole Porter, right, with CBS television host Ed Sullivan, 1952courtesy Yale University Press

Hard work is measured not just in effort and output but also duration. In 1915 a theatrical agent declared, “I am convinced that Mr. Porter is the one man among the many who can measure up to the standard set by the late Sir Arthur Sullivan.” That’s the world Porter came from. The year he died, 1964, Bob Dylan released “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”


Porter wasn’t good at earnestness, as Berlin was (their odd-couple friendship is the letters’ nicest leitmotif). Ironists never are. He lacked the hipness of Johnny Mercer or ebullience of Frank Loesser. Ebullience is energy married to naivete; and there was nothing naïve about Cole Porter. Naïve can be a good thing, though; witness Berlin’s songbook. So can sweetness, as in Ira Gershwin’s lyrics. Naivete and sweetness can keep sophistication from curdling. Porter was no stranger to curdle. He’d no doubt rhyme it with “girdle."

Porter had no capacity for grandeur, as George Gershwin or Harold Arlen did. His composing an equivalent to “Summertime” or “Come Rain or Come Shine” is unthinkable, not that he’d have much cared for writing one. Richard Rodgers was an even better melodist, and Lorenz Hart an even more dazzling lyricist (though too much dazzle can be as detrimental as too little).

One of the more amusing rewards of reading the letters is feeling the temperature drop whenever Porter mentions Rodgers and Hart’s stentorian successor, Oscar Hammerstein II. In a 1949 New York Times interview, he says, “The word for Dick Rodgers’ melodies, I think, is holy.” That’s very insightful — and from Porter’s cafe-society perspective also a putdown. Were Reno Sweeney ever to meet Nellie Forbush, it would lead to some disenchanted evening.

With “Oklahoma!,” in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein transformed the Broadway musical. Porter fared well enough in that stout new world. “Kiss Me, Kate” (1948) won the first Tony for best musical. “Can-Can” and “Silk Stockings" (1955) were also hits. But they were Porter adapting to newfound conventions rather than making his own, as he had in the late ’20s and throughout the ’30s. Both his songs and his person helped define a looser, more knowing, less-carpentered musical world — one with Fred Astaire providing the vocals, not Alfred Drake.

Or if Astaire seems too distant in time, there’s Frank Sinatra. You want more knowing and less carpentered? Listen to Sinatra, a hammer in no need of nails, singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin" or “From This Moment On” or “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” Call it fate, or the bond of the birth certificate: Francis Albert Sinatra was born to sing the songs of Cole Albert Porter.

Ten essential Cole Porter tracks

Billie Holiday
Billie HolidayDecca Jazz

Billie Holiday, “Love for Sale” (1952) Porter’s most unsettlingly risqué lyric gets the world-weariest of treatments from this least-illusioned of singers. The way that Lady Day’s voice breaks just before the final syllable when she sings “Who’s prepared to pay the price/For a trip to paradise” is a clinic in terse expressivity.

Fred Astaire, “Night and Day” (1952) Astaire introduced it in 1932, in “The Gay Divorce.” Twenty years later, with Oscar Peterson’s rhythm section, Flip Phillips on tenor, and Charlie Shavers on trumpet, he reasserts ownership of Porter’s most enduring standard.

Frank Sinatra, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1956) “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is the ultimate Sinatra down song. This is his ultimate up song. Nelson Riddle’s arrangement is almost ridiculously suave and assured. So’s the vocal, of course.

Ella Fitzgerald, “Just One of Those Things” (1956) “If we thought a bit of the end of it/ When we started painting the town/We’d have been aware that our love affair/Was too hot not to cool down.” Wisdom doesn’t come any wiser — or wittier. The arrangement swings almost as effortlessly as Ella does.

Louis Armstrong, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” (1957) The most spectacular Porter list song (“Lithuanians and Letts do it”!) gets a treatment that wondrously balances salaciousness, innocence, and something like grandeur. When Pops sings “Waiter, bring me shad roe,” it’s two parts wink to one part royal command.

Blossom Dearie, “Give Him the Ooh-La-La” (1958) Lesser Porter, it’s a song only he could have written — oh, that winking Gallicism — and it’s one that only Dearie, she of the peerless post-Betty Boop delivery, could do justice to. She doesn’t just give the ooh-la-la. She does so with a pirouette or deux.

Ray Charles and Betty Carter, “Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye” (1961) One of Porter’s finest internal rhymes leads to his cleverest musical pun (“how strange the change from major to minor,” “minor” rhyming with “finer”), but what matters most is the mahogany-toned yearning in Charles’s and Carter’s duet.

Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, “Dream Dancing” (1977) That magnificently relaxed voice is at its most relaxedly magnificent, all the more secure for knowing it has had no finer musical partner. “Yeah, beautiful,” Tony laughs, when Bill finishes. “What an ending that was: bam!”

Bobby McFerrin, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (1986) Instead of his trademark vocal gymnastics, McFerrin sings more or less straight. He also sings this standard as no one else has, as a kind of ecstatic dirge. Ecstasy ultimately wins out, a victory insured in no small part by Herbie Hancock’s piano accompaniment.

Shirley Horn, “Get Out of Town” (1989) Another lesser-known Porter number gets performed with such laidback yet potent velocity it’s worthy of Porter-standard status. Horn’s contribution is double-barreled, as pianist and vocalist both.

Five Cole Porter movie moments

Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dance to Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" in "Broadway Melody of 1940." (AP Photo)
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dance to Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" in "Broadway Melody of 1940." (AP Photo)AP/Associated Press

“Begin the Beguine" (“Broadway Melody of 1940”) Once they start dancing, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell don’t touch. They don’t need to: They are in such effortlessness synch it’s tangible for us even without tangibility for them.

“You’re the Top” (“Night and Day,” 1946). It’s the one number in this Porter biopic that isn’t an overproduced waxworks. Cary Grant, as Porter, and Ginny Simms duet. Who knew he had such a thing for vibrato?

“Be a Clown” (“The Pirate,” 1948). It’s performed twice. With Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, the number’s terrific. With Kelly and the Nicholas brothers, it is glorious beyond the power of human speech. Just watch it!

“The Ritz Roll & Rock” (“Silk Stockings,” 1957) Astaire again, peerless as ever, but saddled with Porter doing a rock’n’roll knockoff, sort of. It’s really — weird. Watch it b/w with the “Rock Around the Clock” sequence from “Cold War” (2018).

“Let’s Misbehave” (“Pennies from Heaven,” 1981) Lip-synching to Irving Aaronson and His Commanders’ 1928 version, Christopher Walken vamps, tap dances, performs a strip tease, and . . . it . . . is . . . fabulous.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.