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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Linda gave up remonstrating with Porter about his affairs, perhaps out of sympathy for his physical affliction. She also closed their beloved Paris house and, as a retreat from Manhattan that they could both enjoy, bought a property in the western Massachusetts town of Williamstown. She redecorated the main house and transformed a carriage house into a cottage where Porter could work undisturbed.

Linda attended to Porter as best she could, but her worsening respiratory ailments made ministering to him difficult. Though at times she couldn't travel herself, she encouraged her husband to indulge his lifelong wanderlust. In 1939, having seen a magazine article about the ruins of Peru's Machu Picchu, Porter resolved to visit the site, despite having to negotiate precarious mountain trails. He made much of the journey on horseback and was carried over especially difficult terrain by his valet and Ray Kelly, a former sailor whom the Porters had met on a cruise and later hired to be Porter's assistant. According to biographer McBrien, "Kelly considered Cole a person of great physical courage, sometimes verging on foolhardiness."

In early 1949 Linda, by now a near invalid, developed pleurisy and sought refuge in Arizona. Porter resumed his work in Hollywood and traveled frequently to Arizona to help care for her.

When she recovered sufficiently, they returned to New York and their adjacent apartments at the Waldorf. Except to lunch with her husband (a comforting ritual), Linda rarely left her suite, which came to resemble a hospital ward, complete with an oxygen tent. When the end neared, she seemed almost to welcome her release from her suffocating existence. She died in May 1954.

Porter was devastated. "I've had two great women in my life," he later said, "my mother, who thought I had this talent, and my wife, who kept goading me along, in spite of that general feeling that I couldn't appeal to the general public." Though Linda had wanted to be buried on their Williamstown estate, Porter had her body taken to Peru, Indiana, and placed in the family plot. At her funeral service, says Kimball, "he cried like a baby."

In the months that followed, Porter commissioned horticulturists to develop a hybrid rose, which he patented and named the Linda Porter rose. But he never again set foot in the main house in Williamstown, which he had always considered Linda's home. Instead, he stayed in his cottage, and if he needed something from the main house, waited while servants fetched it. When Porter returned to the Waldorf, he moved to a lower floor and had his apartment decorated by one of Linda's friends. It was said that only one picture graced the apartment walls: a portrait of Linda.

Porter briefly resumed a hectic social schedule, hosting dinner parties for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Judy Garland, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Orson Welles, George Cukor and Claudette Colbert. But he lacked his former stamina. "He might be having a lovely dinner party, behaving perfectly charmingly, then all of a sudden it would be as if a curtain came down over his face," recalls Patricia Morison, who played the lead in the original Kiss Me, Kate. "Some people said, 'Oh, he can be so cold.' It wasn't that. He was in pain. That's when his valet would say, 'It's time, Mr. Porter has to go to bed.' He would grow tired easily, though in the theater he appeared always to be tireless."

In 1958, he finally lost his right leg to bone disease. He refused to be seen without his prosthesis, and depression, which had shadowed him for more than a decade, settled over him like a dark veil. "We didn't see the pain that I later read about," recalls Joey Cole Kubesch, Margaret Cole Richards' sister. "We didn't see the suffering, or the dulling of the pain with alcohol and pills. He hid it. But the amputation did him in. He felt he had no reason to live without that leg." He wrote no new songs in the six years that followed the operation. After fracturing his hip and suffering from a bladder infection, pneumonia and other ailments, Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964.

For more than 30 years, Linda and Cole Porter had been each other's companion, inspiration, comfort, protector and guiding light. In a way, their relationship was so conventionally "successful" that even family members had a difficult time accepting Porter's sexual orientation. "At first, my dad denied that Cole was gay," says Margaret Cole Richards. "That was just my dad's era."

While Porter may be best known for witty lyrics as frothy as champagne, in his most thoughtful songs he seems to stand in awe, both confounded and captivated, by an emotion that defies understanding:


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