Cole Porter: Biography, Songs & Musicals

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

American composer Cole Porter (1891-1964) was a creative genius whose life was marked by wealth, secrecy, struggles, triumphs, and tragedy. Learn how he made an impact on popular music during the first half of the 20th century.

Wealth and Secrecy

The 2004 film biography De-Lovely marked the 40th anniversary of Cole Porter's death with Kevin Kline in the starring role. An earlier, somewhat fictional film from 1946, Night and Day, starred Cary Grant as the composer. Since Porter was still actively writing for Broadway and Hollywood, this first movie attests to the popularity of his music to that point. Over the next 12 years, Porter continued to produce musicals full of additional hit songs.

Cole Porter
Cole Porter

Porter was born into a wealthy family in Indiana. Encouraged by his mother, he began studying piano at age 6, wrote his first piano piece at age 10, and had his first work published the following year. He went to Yale University, where he wrote school fight songs and tunes for musical productions. After graduation in 1913 he studied law at Harvard University for a year and then switched to study music.

Porter's first complete Broadway show, See America First, was a flop and he moved to Paris in 1917. On a return trip to New York in 1919, Porter promoted some of his songs that were then used in the successful revue Hitchy-Koo. Later that year he returned to Paris and married the wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas, who was from Kentucky. She was ten years older and, in many ways, it was a marriage of convenience for both of them. Thomas was recently divorced from an abusive husband and Porter carried on discreet affairs with men. Both adored one another but some observers described it as more of a mother-son relationship.

Struggles and Triumphs

For several years, Porter moved back and forth between New York and Paris, trying unsuccessfully to promote his productions. In 1923, Porter received a sizable inheritance and he and his wife went to Venice, Italy. They traveled frequently over their years together, often visiting exotic locales and maintaining several residences in both France and the United States.

One of Porter's first truly successful songs was the highly suggestive 'Let's Do It', written for the 1928 musical Paris. The following year, Porter achieved significant recognition with the show Fifty Million Frenchmen. The 1932 production Gay Divorce with Fred Astaire featured a hit that became one of Porter's best-known songs, 'Night and Day'. Two years later, the show was made into the film The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Recording of the musical Anything Goes
Anything Goes, recording

Porter's 1934 musical Anything Goes was his first huge success and featured several hit songs including 'You're the Top,' 'Anything Goes' and 'I Get a Kick Out of You'. That same year saw 'Don't Fence Me In~, which was actually written as a spoof on cowboy songs for a movie that was never made. It is also unusual in that Porter based it on lyrics he purchased. The work was set aside and became popular ten years later when Roy Rogers sang it in the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen.

Other hit songs from this time included 'Begin the Beguine' from the unsuccessful show Jubilee, 'De-Lovely' from Red, Hot and Blue, 'I've Got You Under My Skin' from the film Born to Dance, and 'In the Still of the Night' from the film Rosalie.

Tragedy and Recovery

In October 1937, Porter was in a near-fatal horse riding accident that left him crippled. An amputation of his right leg was recommended at the time, but was refused. Some 30 surgeries followed over the years to save both legs. Porter focused on composition as a way to ignore the constant pain.

In the years that followed, Porter had mixed success with both Broadway and Hollywood. Of note was the 1939 show Du Barry Was a Lady with its hit song 'Friendship,' along with several projects that were tributes to wartime patriotism.

With his earlier triumph Anything Goes, the acclaimed 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate was the other major highlight of Porter's career. This clever production is really a 'show within a show' based on Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew. It featured several memorable songs including 'Wunderbar,' 'I Hate Men,' and 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare'.

Recording of the musical Kiss Me, Kate
Kiss Me, Kate - recording

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