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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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"He was very candid about love and sex in his lyrics and he went against the censorship of his day. He made it easier for other writers to follow suit." Music historian Citron agrees. "The other great composers didn't have the depth of imagination in terms of music," he says. "Porter's musical execution was so avant garde that it's still fresh. It will never get clichéd; no matter how badly it's played, it will never become trite. He wrote lyrics about love and romance, but he also wrote about homosexuality, cocaine, brutality, gigolos—subjects that were défendu at the time, but things that we talk about all the time today. That's why audiences today still find excitement and newness in Porter's work."

Porter's succession of near-hits and blockbusters included Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), Gay Divorcee (1932), Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935) and Red, Hot and Blue! (1936). In New York City, Linda held a dinner party each opening night at her apartment, which adjoined his, on the 41st floor of the WaldorfTowers on Park Avenue. The couple's arrival at the theater was timed so the buzzing crowd could behold them as they strode down the aisle moments before the lights dimmed. For each debut, Linda presented her husband with a one-of-a-kind cigarette case inscribed with the production's name and date. Her devotion to Cole's career was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the vast scrapbooks she kept, preserving ticket stubs, reviews, photographs, theater programs and other show business paraphernalia. (They now repose at Yale.)

In December 1935, Cole and Linda ventured to Hollywood, where he wrote the music for such films as Anything Goes (1936) with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman and Born to Dance with Eleanor Powell and James Stewart. There, Porter became more indiscreet about his affairs. He also had his own coterie, from which Linda felt excluded. "She felt that he was jeopardizing his incredibly wonderful, talented career," says Peter Felcher, a trustee with the Cole Porter Trust.

If low bars you like, If old hymns you like, If bare limbs you like, If Mae West you like, Or me undressed you like, Why, nobody will oppose. When ev'ry night, the set that's smart is in- Truding in nudist parties in Studios, Anything goes.

In 1937, having failed to convince Cole to leave Hollywood, Linda fled to their Paris house and, for the first time, contemplated divorce. Cole pursued her, but friends characterized their reunion as icy. That fall, a despondent Porter sailed to New York alone.

Visiting a friend's farm on Long Island shortly after his return, he went riding at a nearby riding club. His horse fell and rolled over him, crushing both of his legs. Porter later told friends that as he writhed in the dirt waiting for help, he composed lyrics in his head.

Linda arranged passage to the States and rushed to his side. When one doctor told her that Porter's right leg, and possibly his left, should be amputated, she took over the case, bringing in another physician, who also recommended amputation. Linda said no. Ironically, she had faced a similar dilemma years before. Her first husband had been in a car accident that had mangled his leg, and doctors urged that it be amputated. She and her husband refused, hoping for the best, and his leg eventually healed.

Cole and Linda were now as close as ever. "Their marriage had been on the skids," says Margaret Cole Richards, "but after he had his accident, Linda came to his side and never left. And later, when she got sick, he stood by her."

Despite frequent surgery on his legs and almost constant pain, Porter went on to write some of his most enduring Broadway musicals: Leave It to Me (1938), in which the showstopping "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" made an overnight star of singer Mary Martin; Can-Can (1953), which would be remade as a popular film starring Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra and Louis Jourdan; and Kiss Me, Kate (1948), a spoof on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Broadly acclaimed as Porter's most popular work, Kate featured such toe-tapping tunes as "I Hate Men," "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Tom, Dick or Harry," "Too Darn Hot" and "Always True to You in My Fashion," with its complex brand of faithfulness that one is tempted to say expresses Cole's devotion to Linda:

There's a wealthy Hindu priest Who's a wolf, to say the least, When the priest goes too far east, I also stray. But I'm always true to you, darlin', in my fashion, Yes, I'm always true to you, darlin', in my way.

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