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What is This Thing Called Love?

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

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J. O. died in 1923, and Porter got a share of the family trust and $1 million in cash. Overnight, his wealth matched his wife's. "People always say that so much money spoils one's life," Porter said years later. "But it didn't spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful."

The couple became a fixture of the social circuit overseen by gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, for whom almost any occasion was worthy of extravagant celebration. Before long, the inseparable Linda and Cole became known as les Colporteurs. "They were more like a couple out of a Broadway play than a real couple," says biographer McBrien. They found a spacious home on the rue Monsieur not far from the EiffelTower, which Linda decorated in a staggeringly lavish style— Chinese lacquered tables, Art Deco furnishings, magnificent oriental rugs and generous bowls of freshly cut flowers, many from her own lush garden. She brought in a white grand piano and replaced a wall facing the garden with sheets of frosted glass so her husband could work in natural light.

"Their house in Paris was exquisite, one of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen," lyricist Moss Hart recalled in Red, Hot and Rich! "And Linda Porter, a legendary beauty herself, lent something of her own radiance and splendor to their life together, so that everything and everyone in their house seemed to shine and sparkle."

In spring, the Porters reserved several rail cars and transported their entourage to Venice, where they rented palaces and hosted dance parties on the canals. Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev, then in residence in Venice, was a favored guest at the Porters' parties, perhaps because Linda was courting him to hire her husband to score one of his ballets. Through Diaghilev, Cole met a young poet and ballet aficionado named Boris Kochno, for whom some biographers believe the composer wrote one of his giddiest paeans to love:

I'm in love again And the spring is comin', I'm in love again, Hear my heart strings strummin', I'm in love again, And the hymn I'm hummin' Is the "Huddle Up, Cuddle Up Blues!"

Inevitably, Linda learned that Kochno was much more than an acquaintance of her husband's, a revelation that led to the first significant test of their marriage. Linda, apparently needing to be alone, urged Cole to leave Venice and return to New York for a while. The couple told friends that she was exhausted by the social whirlwind, which may, in part, have been true. Linda had suffered since her youth from a variety of respiratory problems that only grew worse over time. In any case, the hiatus worked, and the couple were soon reunited.

For most of the 1920s, Porter's output had been limited to writing an occasional song or inconsequential musical, or entertaining friends at the piano. "In Paris, Venice, and London he found an enthusiastic private audience for his witty songs in an international set that included Noël Coward, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and Elsa Maxwell," wrote Philip Furia in his 1990 book Poets of Tin Pan Alley. Maxwell recalled to Furia that Porter performed some of the same songs that had bombed in See America First to an " 'enraptured' audience, 'straining to catch the droll nuances of his lyrics.' "

Linda hoped that Porter would put his gifts to more serious purposes and had urged him to study formal orchestration— to little avail. But another gesture of hers did help him. In 1926, while they were in Paris, she invited a recently married friend to stay with them. The friend's new husband, Irving Berlin, would become one of Porter's most ardent boosters. And when Berlin was approached to score a musical about Paris the next year, he referred the producer to Porter, saying his love of the city made him the better choice. Critics raved about Paris, lavishing praise on "the flaming star" songwriter and lamenting that he paid more attention to night life than his music. The show included "Let's Do It," one of Porter's biggest hits. "Porter's star was in its ascendency," William McBrien writes.

But as Porter's reputation soared in the 1930s, his clever melodies and witty, often suggestive lyrics did not sit well with censors and often could not be broadcast on the radio:

Love for sale, Appetizing young love for sale. If you want to buy my wares, Follow me and climb the stairs, Love for sale. "He was a risk-taker in his work," says Robert Kimball, editor of The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter.

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