What is This Thing Called Love?

A new movie explores composer Cole Porter’s consummate musical gifts and his remarkable, unorthodox marriage

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

A stand of logs burns brightly in the fireplace, snowflakes flicker at the window, and servants attend the gentlemen and ladies gathered around a grand piano played by a young Cole Porter, on holiday break from Harvard law school. Carolers, joined by his female cousin, sing:

In the still of the night, While the world is in slumber, Oh, the times without number, Darling, when I say to you, "Do you love me as I love you? Are you my life-to-be, my dream come true?"

Porter gazes across the room at Linda Lee, the cousin's roommate who has come to celebrate Christmas on the Porter family farm in Peru, a humble town on the plains of northern Indiana. Porter and Lee have only just met, but the intensity in their eyes suggests that the seeds of a profound passion have already taken root in their hearts.

Pure Hollywood. The 1946 movie Night and Day, starring Cary Grant as Porter, was a grand deception. After seeing the film, Porter pronounced with obvious satisfaction: "None of it's true."

To begin with, Porter, who left Harvard law school in 1914 without graduating, didn't write "In the Still of the Night" until 1937. And he didn't meet Linda Lee until 1918—in Paris. Far from being the demure debutante who roomed with Porter's cousin, Linda Lee, 8 to 14 years Porter's senior (accounts differ), was a wealthy divorcée. And while it was true that Linda and Cole would marry, theirs was an unconventional relationship. Porter was homosexual, and some biographers think "In the Still of the Night" was written for one of his lovers. "It was tradition in olden Hollywood to chuck the truth—to bend, twist and invent a new truth that made for better, more homogenized entertainment," film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says of Night and Day.

Changing mores have set the stage for a more accurate cinematic rendering of Cole Porter's life. De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, released last month, is more musical than biopic, which is only as it should be for the story of a songwriter routinely listed with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern as among America's greatest composers. In Porter's lifetime—he died in 1964 at 73—he amassed more than 800 original songs. His works displayed astonishing diversity and depth, beginning with the quirky fight songs he wrote for the Yale football squad and maturing into the lyrics and music for such classic musicals as Kiss Me, Kate and Can-Can, as well as such enduring standards as "Anything Goes," "Begin the Beguine," "You're the Top" and "From This Moment On."

The movie's producer, Irwin Winkler, is a lifelong devotee of Porter's music, and hit on the idea of casting Elvis Costello and Alanis Morissette in supporting roles as a way to introduce a younger generation to Porter's genius. But Winkler, an Oscar-winning producer (Rocky) who also directed De- Lovely, wanted to tell a love story. "The music is fabulous," he says, "but the relationship between Cole Porter and his wife, Linda, is the heart and soul of the film."

Porter's marriage to Lee was rife with contradictions, and the film complicates matters by depicting events that are more speculation than verifiable fact. (For instance, the film posits that Lee miscarried a child fathered by Porter.) But as unconventional as their relationship may have been, it proved to be Porter's lifeline. "Whatever else you can say about their marriage," says Margaret Cole Richards, a cousin, "theirs was a loving, nurturing, caring, devoted relationship."

The first love of Porter's life was his fashionable and well-educated mother, Kate, who fawned over her only child, born June 9, 1891, and encouraged his passion for music. He wrote his first piece, called "Song of the Birds," when he was 10. By contrast, her husband, Samuel Fenwick Porter, a taciturn pharmacist who died at age 69 in 1927 either of meningitis or from complications of a nervous breakdown, paid scant attention to his son.

At first, Cole was close to his grandfather, J. O. Cole, the family patriarch and a savvy entrepreneur who amassed a fortune with investments in waterworks, brewing, lumber, cold storage and other businesses. Young Porter was sent to WorcesterAcademy, a preppy Massachusetts boarding school, breezed through Yale and promptly entered Harvard law school. But when Cole came home for Christmas break in 1913, he announced that he was transferring to Harvard's school of music. J. O. lectured Cole about the importance of money, a commodity the young man had enjoyed spending at a brisk clip but had not given much thought to earning. In years to come, the young Porter seemed to drift farther and farther away from his family. "Cole had an aloofness that I believe was just his nature," says Margaret Cole Richards. "It wasn't that he didn't care. I think he was uncomfortable. He was more comfortable in the international society set than he was at home."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus