What is This Thing Called Love?

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

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."

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."

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.

"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.

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:

What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?

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