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.

Porter's imitative flair is most obvious in Kiss Me, Kate, where almost every song is a parody. "Another Op'nin,' Another Show" echoes Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business," though the gentile Porter gave his tune a very Jewish "Freylakh" rhythm. "Wunderbar," of course, is imitation Lehár; "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" mimics George M. Cohan. And "So in Love" leans heavily on Schumann's "Ich Grolle Nicht." There are subtler parodies as well: "We Open in Venice" sounds at times like Vivaldi. "Always True to You in My Fashion" sounds like, well, Cole Porter.

Porter offered a frequently cited account of his method that doesn't say much but is certainly demystifying.

First I think of an idea for a song and then I fit it to a title. Then I go to work on a melody, spotting the title at certain moments in the melody. Then I write the lyric—the end first—that way it has a strong finish ... I do the lyrics the way I'd do a crossword puzzle. I try to give myself a meter which will make the lyric as easy as possible to write, but without being banal ... I try to pick for my rhyme words of which there is a long list with the same ending.

He makes it sound as if any of us could have written "Anything Goes." In fact, though, Porter was the most artful of the great tunesmiths: Alec Wilder, the author of the still definitive book on American popular song, even accused him of working from a blueprint. Unlike the apparently simple melodies of, say, Richard Rodgers, which took the edge off Lorenz Hart's lyrics (Porter summed up their formula in four lines: "It's smooth! / It's smart! / It's Rodgers! / It's Hart!"), Porter's tunes match the psychological and social complexity of his words.

The Tin Pan Alley ideal was a song that was easy for people to sing. From the start, though, Porter's songs called for trained, theatrical singers like Ethel Merman, who could put over his tongue-twisting lyrics and make challenging melodies appear effortless. Broadway composers usually kept their melodies within an octave or so; Porter's often extend that range an additional half octave, demanding an almost operatic vocal technique. A typical Porter move—you can hear it in "Begin the Beguine" and "I Love Paris"—is to start a song in a low register and then push the line ever upward until it has an almost Wagnerian intensity. Most of the time Porter managed to disguise his classical impulses with topical lyrics and touches of syncopation, which lighten the music when it threatens to become sentimental.

Porter's use of pastiche unites the artificial and real elements in his songs. His most obviously contrived works are the extended romantic ballads, such as "Night and Day." Longer in form than the usual thirty-two bars, bigger in vocal range and more melodically chromatic than the Broadway authorities would normally allow, these are quasi art songs or arias. And yet two elements undercut the kind of pretentiousness that some critics dislike in Jerome Kern's artier numbers, such as "The Song Is You": the vaguely Latin beat keeps at least one foot of the music on the dance floor and out of the opera house, and the lyrics subtly (at first) let some fresh air into the hothouse. We start onstage.

Night and day you are the one,

Only you beneath the moon and under the sun,

After the next phrase we move away from the potted palms into a real setting.

In the roaring traffic's boom,

In the silence of my lonely room,

Then the words get a little racy.

Night and day under the hide of me

There's an, oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me,

And then, finally, we get down to earth with plain English.

And its torment won't be through

'Til you let me spend my life making love to you.

Porter's command of innuendo and inflection in both music and speech gives his songs life where you don't expect to find it. Listen to a song that offers us a peek into high society—"Well, Did You Evah!" The joke starts with the tempo, marked "Tempo di Polka." There's nothing very high-society about a polka, but in fact the music sounds like a silly, giddy gavotte.

Have you heard the coast of Maine

Just got hit by a hurricane?

Since, as the verse tells us, society people "musn't show anxiety," the required answer is

Well, did you evah!

What a swell party this is.

For the words "swell party" the music suddenly syncopates, like ragtime. This is American "society," after all—not far from an Elks Club meeting. Gavotte to polka to ragtime: it's a triple play of social nuance worthy of Sinclair Lewis.

Philip Furia, my favorite scholar of Broadway lyrics, says that Porter's wit turned into schmaltz whenever he wrote a romantic ballad. Call me a sap, but I find songs like "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and "I Concentrate on You" —or even that parody of itself, "I Love You"—as psychologically compelling as the snappier "Just One of Those Things" or "It's All Right With Me." Because so much of his music is about façades, Porter has a unique ability to get beneath the surface; but it's a shock when a dandy walks emotionally naked. The self-conscious theatricality of the "Ev'ry Time" lyrics

Why the gods above me

Who must be in the know

Think so little of me

They allow you to go

emphasizes the warmth of the melodic lines, and musical wisdom always trumps verbal wit. Porter tells us that he knows what he is doing in the lines

There's no love song finer

But how strange

The change

From major to minor ...

It is another form of pastiche—a song about songs, music about music.

From the archives:

"The Many Faces of Ives" (January 1997)
This year's Charles Ives is another illustration of how protean our most American composer remains. By David Schiff

And so back to Cole Porter's perfect ear. Like Charles Ives, the "rich-rich" (Porter's term for the truly rich, as opposed to provincial trust-fund babies like himself) Yale composer of the previous generation, Porter must have listened closely to the whole sweep of American music, from the circus ("Be a Clown") to the Met ("Wunderbar"), from the bandstand to the boudoir. There are even cowboy songs ("Don't Fence Me In") and gospel songs ("Blow, Gabriel, Blow"). Musicological archaeologists of the distant future will be able to reconstruct much of our musical culture—and throw one swell party—out of just his songbook.