One Swell Party

Cole Porter's real secret was not the gay life a new film biography will highlight. It was how he made his songs

Cole Porter had the best ear in the history of American music. I'm not referring to his perfect pitch, which was only part of an innate musical talent that was the talk of Peru, Indiana, by the time he was ten and already turning out songs for friends and family. More important, he heard America singing, and talking, even when he was glamorously expatriated in Venetian palaces, Riviera chateaux, and South Seas luxury hideaways. Porter's swank settings, distant from the sources of American song, made his music chic, chichi, risqué, and artificial—and also, oddly, American. Whether abroad or at home, Porter was an acute observer. His songs are subtly distorting mirrors, parodies that isolate and intensify the rhythms of American speech along with its sexual subtexts.

Thanks to the new film biography De-lovely, this summer's air will most likely be filled with Porter's tunes—and what better music to listen to while sipping cocktails poolside? Porter's songs automatically put you in an imaginary musical of your own making. They are totally theatrical, complete with stage set and props. Tropical moons, swaying palms, winter-chilled stars, cozy fireplaces—pure pasteboard façades. The wonder, though, is the way Porter convinces us that the obviously artificial paradise is emotionally real. His songs are often as down-to-earth and all-American as those of his two favorite writers, Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan.

As a songwriter, Porter was anything but the smart-set dilettante he appeared to be, but keeping up appearances counted for a lot in his world. Every photograph shows him in tasteful surroundings, impeccably dressed and groomed, with never a hint of the chronic pain that resulted from a riding accident in 1937. In New York he lived in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria decorated by Billy Baldwin. We might assume that Porter was equally guarded about his sex life, but his homosexuality was an open secret, and his lyrics (in, for example, "You're the Top" or "I've Got You Under My Skin") were full of not very hidden double meanings—touches of "lavender," as he put it. The real secret life was the creative one.

Biographies have little to say about Porter's musical training, although his study of English literature and music at Yale obviously served him very well both socially and musically. His still popular football songs ("Bulldog," "Bingo Eli Yale") earned him a place in Scroll and Key, a top secret society. Later he took some music courses at Harvard and at the Schola Cantorum, in Paris. Unlike Irving Berlin, but like George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, Porter had classical musical training, though he did not call attention to it. His one foray into a classical form was the ballet Within the Quota, with sets and costumes designed by his friend Gerald Murphy. It was first performed in Paris in 1923, sharing the program with Darius Milhaud's pioneering jazz ballet La Création du monde. Porter's score was well reviewed and then forgotten, until recently. It is stylish but lacks the strong melodic profile of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which appeared a few months later. Porter, however, never developed his classical side; in a sense he never really developed at all. The songs he wrote from the late 1920s to the mid-1950s share a style and approach. Working alone on both words and music, Porter never had to broaden his stylistic scope the way, for instance, Richard Rodgers did when he began to work with Oscar Hammerstein.

When Porter finally had a success in New York, in 1928, critics and his fellow songwriters were surprised by two things: his style was unique, and yet despite his decade of transatlantic life it sounded perfectly at home on Broadway. Hosting extravagant parties in Venice during the twenties (on his grandfather's dime) was apparently an effective way to continue Porter's musical education. His lyrics were as sly and knowing as Lorenz Hart's; his rhythms were as hot as Gershwin's.

Porter's first Broadway hit song was "Let's Do It," an endless catalogue of zoological promiscuity (some critics called it a "habits of rabbits" song) that captured the "just say yes" spirit of the twenties. Its musical sophistication matched its verbal aplomb. Porter had immediately broken some of the basic rules of American popular-song writing. Though you hardly notice it, the melody, beginning with its hook, is highly chromatic, and the harmony constantly mixes the major and minor modes in a way surprisingly reminiscent of Schumann or Brahms. It sounds like a simple tune—but try finding the notes and chords on the piano.

Like other Broadway songwriters, Porter specialized in particular genres, most famously multiple-stanza list songs ("You're the Top," "Anything Goes") and smoldering, Latin-grooved romantic ballads ("Night and Day," "Begin the Beguine," "I Love You"). Other Porter specialties were songs that told dramatic or long stories ("Miss Otis Regrets," "Katie Went to Haiti") and simple swingers—such as "All of You" and "Just One of Those Things"—that quickly became jazz standards. But I think the defining Porter genre, which includes all the others, is the pastiche.

To parody a song, you have to listen to it with x-ray ears. You can tell that Porter was listening even when he appeared to be partying, and in particular he studied his rivals. Virtually the only untitled guests he entertained in Venice or Paris during the 1920s were other musicians: Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins. (He also invited, as an entertainer rather than a guest, the black singer Bricktop.) Even while on the far side of the Atlantic, Porter kept abreast of the latest developments on Broadway. So it's no accident that "Anything Goes" (1934) sounds like "Puttin' On the Ritz," which Irving Berlin wrote in 1929. This is not to say that Porter was derivative; each of his pastiches still sounds like a Porter song and only a Porter song.

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David Schiff is a composer who teaches at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

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