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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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Porter moved to New York City in 1915 to take his chances on Broadway. His first musical, 1916's See America First, was a sendup of the kind of patriotic shows popularized by George M. Cohan. One critic called it "the worst musical comedy in town."

Don't leave America, Just stick around the U.S.A. Cheer for America And get that grand old strain of Yankee Doodle In your noodle. . . .

With a newly acquired aversion to New York theater critics, Porter set out for Europe in 1917. He would later claim to have seen action with the French Army in World War I, but that remains dubious.

He yearned to belong to high society, yet his Midwestern pedigree and the $500 monthly stipend grudgingly allowed him by J. O. weren't enough to gain entree to a tight circle of old money and raucous royals. He was, at first, a hanger-on, a dashing young rake who dazzled with his élan, wit, piano playing and good looks. Paula Laurence, who would be cast years later in Porter's Something for the Boys, said he was "a small man, very dapper, with a very round head like a doll and huge eyes which seemed to shut out the rest of the world when he looked at you, which was very flattering." It was on the arm of Bessie Marbury, a producer who had backed See America First, that Porter was introduced to the Parisian party circuit.

At a January 1918 wedding reception at the Paris Ritz Hotel, Porter met Linda Lee Thomas, a Kentucky beauty who had suffered through a miserable marriage to Edward R. Thomas, the combative heir to the New York Morning Telegram newspaper fortune. As part of their divorce two years earlier, Thomas had agreed to pay her $1 million to keep quiet about his cruelty and infidelities. To Linda, the well-mannered and witty Cole must have seemed the flip side of her macho ex-husband. At the Ritz that night, Cole and Mimi Scott, a friend of his, performed, and an enchanted Linda invited them to her home for dinner the next evening. Most accounts say that Porter and Scott were offended, thinking that Linda had mistaken them for hired help. But given Porter's love of practical jokes, it's also easy to imagine that he was just having some fun when he and Scott arrived decked out as music-hall entertainers, she in a jet dress and large-brimmed hat, Porter with his hair slicked down, wearing a dreadful tailcoat with high collar. Whatever the intent, Linda was charmed.

Little is known about their courtship. Unattended by family, the couple married in Paris on December 18, 1919, around the time Porter wrote "Alone with You."

I want to go a flitting Here, there, everywhere. Dancing to bright lights, Stay out all night lights. . . . I feel left on the shelf All alone with myself, When I might be all alone with you.

What Porter saw in Linda was sophistication, security and someone to help him satisfy his voracious social appetite. She saw him as a ticket to a world equally remote to her. "What Linda wanted was to be a patron of the arts," says music historian Stephen Citron, who is writing a novel about Porter's days in Venice. "She tried desperately to get Cole to compose classical music, which she thought was the entry into fame. She finally gave up that quest. She really loved him and stuck by him because he was her passport to a kind of enduring fame."

"Together they made a greater whole," says William McBrien, author of the 1998 biography Cole Porter. "They had a brilliant social life in the first years of their marriage, and someone once suggested to me that Cole Porter may have been well suited to Linda because women who are great beauties don't want to be mauled by men."

Like Cole's mother, Linda believed deeply in Cole's music. "Because she was so worldly she taught him a lot," Brooke Astor, the doyenne of New York City's high society, concluded in David Grafton's 1987 oral history Red, Hot and Rich! "He could never have written the type of songs he wrote without her. She launched him into that set. . . . It was not the fast lane, it was the chic, intercontinental, European set. That is how and when it all began."

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