Night and Day—You Are The One*


Regina Janes

“For I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theatre, hearing the orchestra tuning their instruments—oh, I am quite beside myself.”

— Mozart, Letters1

Cole Porter’s letters are a terrific disappointment. Superbly edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, the volume is ravishing. The dust jacket sports deco triangles in blue, maroon, pink, red, and chameleon-green, lizard-green horizontal lines, Porter’s name in a beige diamond, and one blue rectangle at lower right; the inside cover as bright flat white as Jean Harlow’s rugs or robes. Giddy with anticipation, in quest of words out of school, off the stage, behind the scenes, the reader expects incorrigible insouciance, cascading witticisms, clever wordplay, delightful tunes of different kinds, shapes, sizes, and energy that bubble off the page and into the stratosphere. None of that is here, and so Porter sent me to a composer whose letters do all those things, two hundred years earlier. Mozart wrote much better letters, more observant, witty, vulgar, and passionate about music. Cole Porter put it all in his songs, not in his letters to his friends or, as in Mozart’s case, his father.

That may be no accident. However tyrannical his father, Mozart’s at least took some interest in his son’s music. Porter’s relation to his father is one of the many mysteries these beautifully edited letters raise and do not resolve. The editors speak of Porter-père’s “lifelong…animosity” to his son. His antagonism rises to “disgust,” filtered through a headmaster’s reply to Porter’s mother’s account of his father’s attitude. “Disgust” is these days often code for a heterosexual father’s feelings about a homosexual son against an assertive mother. At the time (1909), Porter was eighteen, his mathematics grade had dropped from B- to C, and he had been playing piano during study hours. The head master saw no reason for Porter’s father to be “disgusted” or to bring him home, alternatives evidently mentioned in the mother’s letter. Earlier, in 1906, the Peru Republican reported that Porter’s father, S.F. Porter, set out at once for Portland to bring his son home after he broke his leg, falling through a hay mow to the barn floor on a school-organized vacation camping trip. One letter, the integrity of which the editors question, includes “my papa” in the love sent round to all at the end (February 1927). Father Porter was not only a prosperous druggist, but also a pianist, singer, guitarist, and fond of poetry, especially Browning. He died of meningitis in August 1927. Porter-fils was in Venice, living in the palazzo in which Browning died, and biographers report he arrived in Indiana a week after the funeral. The letters for 1927 and 1928 pass with no reference to Porter’s father or trips to Indiana, though letters in February 1928 (from NYC) and May (from Paris) to Harvey Cole, discuss financial arrangements with his mother, loans, increases in his allowance, and dispositions of royalties. His father does not reappear until Porter revels in the “five mothers… and any number of fathers” the studio has picked out for him to choose for the pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946). Dropped from the picture, father disappears once again, in favor of the rich and tyrannical grandfather, combatted and defeated by his own daughter over their competing plans for her son.

Unlike the usual scholarly edition of letters, Eisen and McHugh’s intends to be readable as biography. Rather than the biographer’s smooth-ing interpretive voice, it adds to Porter’s own words those of friends and reviewers. So the star-studded life unfolds: childhood riches in Peru, Indiana; prep school in Worcester, Mass.; failing first Greek and then algebra on the Yale entrance exams, but Yale nonetheless, where he wrote songs and shows; Harvard Law School, shifting to the study of music; his first New York flop, then World War I and France. There he met Linda Lee Thomas, the divorcee eight-years his senior whom he married the next year (1919).2 Bernard Berenson sneered to his art-collecting Boston friend Isabella Gardiner about the “little musical man from the Middle West” that his friend Linda had married; Berenson anticipated “in the blackest terms” what would be a long and happy-enough future. In Venice and Paris, the Porters entertained and were entertained by Spanish dukes, Russian dancers, American writers, and the Prince of Wales. The marriage was enduring and devoted; his gay sex life was active and passionate; her sex life remains obscure. A relationship “bordering on infatuation” is reported with Alice Garrett, art and theatre-collecting ambassador’s wife, whose Evergreen House is now a Johns Hopkins University museum. The Garretts had two portraits of Linda, while the Porters had one of Alice. In 1926 Porter met Richard Rodgers, who claimed to recognize his hidden talent, when he, Noël Coward, and Porter played some of their own music at a Porter fete. By then, three Porter scores had reached Broadway. In 1928 began the string of successes, some more, some less, that saw at least one (and sometimes two or three) new Porter musicals on Broadway or films in the theatres for thirty years from 1928 to 1958. The Paris house given up in 1939, the stars of European royalty blinked out as stars of the silver screen and theatre rose; the dukes give place to Merle Oberon and Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall and Cary Grant. The only years with no new film or play were 1931, 1945, 1949, 1951, 1952. Since many years saw two or three openings, Porter averaged better than one a year. In 1937, he was left permanently crippled and condemned to scores of surgeries by the riding accident at the Countess di Zoppola’s in Mill Neck, New York (American woman, Italian title), where his horse threw him and then fell on both his legs.

Graphic without self-pity, Porter wrote to Monty Woolley of the bones mashed to pulp, blebs forming on his legs like jellied lava, phantom sensations, and illusions under morphine. Inexplicably, parts of the letters are omitted. For twenty years thereafter, work enabled him to forget or overcome pain. Linda died in 1954; he arranged for a rose to be named for her. In 1958, his right leg was amputated, on account of “chronic osteomyelitis,” that is, infection in the bone. The expectation was that the operation would end his pain. Instead, it finished him, slowly. “Phantom pain,” experienced in a limb that is not there, remains very imperfectly understood. In Porter’s time, no one yet knew that the more pain associated with a limb before amputation, the worse will be the phantom pain after the limb is cut off. Porter’s leg pain had been enough ten years earlier, in 1948, to make him pass out. A few weeks after the operation, his secretary wrote hopefully, “The osteo-myelitis is all gone, which means that all the pain is also gone.” His editors, too, describe the operation as “successful, ”and Porter initially tried the old “back-to-work” trick. His secretary thought religion would help and regretted his lack of it: “Even a Buddhist…a Jehova’s Witness, anything to take the place of ‘just nothing.’” Amputating a limb to cure pain, however, is a fool’s or sadist’s errand. For the pain worsening after amputation, modern medicine has found some meliorative methods, but no certain cure or prevention. Porter, and his California secretary, knew the name for what ailed him, but that was no relief. Porter used the term in 1962, in a letter to Anita Loos, explaining why he was not interested in a project she had proposed and returning the Bourdet play she had sent, “I am returning it to you as I couldn’t consider working on it at the present as I have too much phantom pain.” His last six years, after the amputation until his death in 1964, are strangely moving. Others worry and flutter around him; Vivien Leigh comes to lunch. He remains polite, grateful, silent about himself, attentive to others. The stoicism of the final letters is extraordinary, though of course it was a stoicism with secretaries, valets, cooks, etc., who saw to his needs even as his entertaining slowed and his letters became as brief as his telegrams had once been. Other sources paint a bleaker picture of self-medication with alcohol, but in writing Porter preserved his dignity and his affections.

The contest between Mozart’s vulgarity and Porter’s is probably a draw. Mozart has nothing quite like Porter’s series of requests to a friend that end by advising the friend to stick it up his ass after he has carried out the commissions requested. Porter and his friends shared blithe sexuality and high spirits, as in a joint letter from Porter and Monty Woolley to Charles Shaw. Writes Cole, “Monty and Sturge and I are all lying here together in my lit d’amour. And in spite of the fact that it is very hot and crowded I miss that great giant body of the boy I love.” Monty Woolley adds a postscript five times the length of the letter: “Now that is the letter that Cole just dictated to me for you. Is it by any stretch of the imagination a decent letter? Or isn’t that sort of thing prohibited by law from being carried in the mails? Come over here at once. Don’t lag around … .’” Monty Woolley, the original Man Who Came to Dinner (1939), Porter’s contemporary at Yale, appears in the pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946) as a roistering law professor to Cary Grant’s undergraduate Cole. He had stayed on at Yale after Porter left, directing and acting in plays as an assistant professor of English, until he was ousted by a new regime in the theatrical department. Porter credits him with “de-lovely” as climax after others’ “delightful” and “delicious,” in both versions of a twice-told anecdote, one in Rio at dawn, the other in Java with mangosteens.

The recipient of Porter’s good advice about not skipping v.d. treatments, Woolley was the first of the men with whom Porter shared the plain, horrific details of his injury and subsequent surgeries from 1937 forward. Such correspondence contrasts handily with Porter’s love letters to Boris Kochno and others. “The Beard” vanishes from these letters in 1947, as Porter shares the praise he has heard for Woolley’s performance in The Bishop’s Wife. Woolley had retired with his lover (who died in 1948) to a modest domicile in his native Saratoga Springs, NY, in 1942, across the Taconic Mountains from the Porters’ cottage and mansion in Williamstown, Mass.

Porter is at his most amusing in the Letters not when he writes letters but as he practices a strange narrative dead-pan, often in diary form. The Born to Dance diary, begun in December 1935 running to June 1936, follows an always happy but sometimes mildly concerned protagonist through months of writers who have no story, directors who enthuse over songs, then throw them out, producers who propose a Sonja Henie skating waltz and motorboats full of girls, last minute decisions by the director and dance director that the finale does not work and must go—resisted manfully by the hero. He claims boldly, at last, that in the theatre if the director and dance director say the finale does not work, they get a new director and dance director, not a new finale. But all ends happily when the protagonist signs to make another film for $90,000. The same year, his “Notes after the Opening” for the New York Times runs changes on the banality “I’m feeling fine” as it circulates from producer through stars to press agent on the morning after.

Porter’s good nature was such that the occasional harsh or unkind remark jars. Ordinarily he finds everyone and thing “swell.” F. Scott Fitzgerald comes in for the most negative personal remark in the volume. Writing in 1949, nine years after Fitzgerald’s death and a year after Zelda’s, Porter sums up, “I knew him first when he was a most attractive cock-teaser. Later I knew him with Zelda. They were both exhibitionist drunkards + when I saw them anywhere in Paris, I always made a quick exit for I knew that if I stayed, this would implicate me in a possible police raid. They were all that is tawdry. And the dégringolade [tumbling down] of Scott was horrible to watch as he had so much talent.” Rejoicing in the success of “Don’t Fence Me In,” he “resent[s] that the Japs sing it too” in May 1945, three months before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Irving Berlin was the contemporary among his peers whom he loved best, and whose ethnicity may explain the secret that Porter whispered to Richard Rodgers, that to succeed he would “write Jewish tunes.” (Critics argue whether Porter’s minor key melodies owe more to Jewish sources or to French cabaret.) But even if he “hate[d] Pal Joey” (Rodgers and Hart, 1940), he wanted his friend Bray to be with “a lady, not a tramp.”

The other odd dislike that warrants teasing out is for the Spewacks. Bella Spewack wrote the book for Kiss Me, Kate. As everyone knows, KM,K is the greatest American musical (deny it who will, fans of other contenders, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Carousel, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Show Boat, et al.). At any rate it was the first American musical staged by the Vienna Volksoper (1956). Bella and her husband Sam had written the book for Leave It to Me (1938), but after “A Porter Biopic and Two Flops, 1945-1947” (so the chapter title has it), a Lunt-Fontanne back-stage squabble put a producer in mind of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and the producer contacted Bella, who recommended Porter as collaborator for what became Kiss Me, Kate. Bella Spewack wrote the book (“your wonderful book” says Cole), and Sam and Bella Spewack are credited with the book. Bella did not play Mary II in this story, refusing to reign alone without her William III; she wanted sole credit, but Porter telegraphed Sam insisting that Sam share the billing. Eisen and McHugh chart the progress of Bella’s book and then credit both Bella and Sam in spite of the absence of evidence for Sam’s participation. To Sam, Porter telegraphed: “IT WILL MAKE OUR PUBLIC MUCH HAPPIER TO READ QUOTE BOOK BY SAM AND BELLA SPEWACK UNQUOTE WILL YOU DO THIS GREAT FAVOR FOR ME.” The same day, he wrote to Bella urging her to fly to California to vet the actresses contending for roles and to come to him at once with any book complications, so he could back her up.

Changing the credit took a while. At the Philadelphia tryouts the book was still credited to Bella, but eventually Sam was persuaded to put his name to her work. The New York Times had always referred to the Porter-Bella Spewack musical, but they came round to the Sam-and-Bella-Spewack musical. Thereafter Porter pined for a new proposal from her and rejected every proposal she sent his way. Work started on Boy Meets Girl for Ray Bolger, but Porter withdrew from the project in December 1951. When Sam and Bella put in for a bigger credit line for a 1956 revival, Porter ruled it out and brushed them off: “NEVER CONCESSIONS TO SPEWACKS.” What happened? The editors say he was still irate over the introduction they had written to the 1953 published script of KM,K, and they quote the Spewacks’ defense: they had not intended to offend and always spoke of Porter with the utmost respect. He continued to object that they should not have published something about him without sharing it with him first.

Why should he have taken offence? Why should they have written an account that gave offence? The crediting quandary and other adventures may have had some impact. The producer who thought of the project claimed that at the time of writing Bella was distraught and Sam was shacked up with a ballerina. Bella, everyone agrees, proposed Porter as the composer, against the better judgment of the producers, and she persuaded Porter to participate, against his initial skepticism about Shakespeare on Broadway. (Doing Shakespeare on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein disappeared him [West Side Story 1957, suggested by Jerome Robbins in 1949, the year after Kate]. The failure to disappear Voltaire may lie behind Candide’s troubles.) Thereafter, according to the producer, her drafts were terrible.3 He, and others, credit Sam with the crucial invention of the gangsters, who certainly have no Shakespearean precedent. Porter wrote a show stopper for them, though it had been agreed there would be no songs for the gangsters, and he expected Bella to disapprove—she would cut her throat, he fantasied. Porter also wrote another odd little song, that was not used, but that if Bella and Sam were estranged, she might have found grating, viz.”A Woman’s Career.” Some of it recalls Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun (1946): “A woman’s career, ev’rybody agrees, Can equal a man’s with the greatest of ease.” But, it goes on, whatever she achieves, she’s a flop if she can’t hold her man. The final verse runs: “She can write plays for Broadway, acclaimed and adored, /She can win, if they give it, The Critics’ Award, /But alone in her bedroom she’s critically bored/ If she can’t hold her man, / If she can’t hold her man.” (The EMI recording with Josephine Barstow and Thomas Hampson, John McGlinn conducting, includes it.) These are all, of course, just little jokes, like the students at New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology who emailed among others their Jewish female fellow student a picture of one of them stretched out smiling above “I H8 Jews” scrawled in the sand.4

But what in Sam and Bella Spewacks’ “we”-written introduction could have given offence? The first image describing collaboration with Porter is strangely violent. Unlike collaborating with a paperback Shakespeare, one cannot cut him up, flatten him, mark him up, and spread him out: ”You can’t attack him with shears and paste, and you can’t spread him out on the bed or the floor.”5 The Spewacks turn Porter into a comic object of precisely the sort Porter delighted in playing in his own writing. He asks naïve and sentimental questions about Lois Lane, “not a bad girl?…she’s really in love….isn’t she? …she really cares for him?” He calls at 2 am to play a song to us in bed; can’t remember who wrote the poem about always being true to you in my fashion (Ernest Dowson, gender-switched by Porter); has to be tempted by song titles from Shakespeare to take on the project. The account veers close to single authorship only twice, when Porter supposes “Bella will probably cut her throat when she gets [‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’].” (The edition has the less evocative “kill herself,” from a copy at the Cole Porter Trust rather than Columbia’s Spewack papers.) Also signaling single authorship, Porter addresses his collaborators as “Bellissima Carissima,” and then complains that trying “to talk sense to Bella … is like trying to talk sense to Russia.” Bella quotes her own hurt reply, “Russia will now… retreat into Mongolian silence.” This exchange, couched as though it is written down somewhere, does not appear in the edition; it is cited in the McBrien biography as from an interview with the producer Saint Subber, rather than from correspondence or even Bella’s essay. For the rest, the introduction’s “we” allows no space to insert a ballerina.

The pseudo-biopic Night and Day (1946) becomes especially amusing after these letters. Composers usually have to die to get made into movies, but in Porter’s case the 1937 accident did the trick. The biopic also precedes Kate, by two years, so its subject is not our Porter, but another artist of the same name, famed for scattered songs in nameless musicals (apart from the luckily eponymous Anything Goes). Adam Gopnik describes Porter’s collaboration on the film as “reluctant.”6 Certainly some suggestions proposed by the makers horrified him: “In the Still of the Night” to be sung in church while his mother and grandfather look fondly on and young Porter plays the family-donated organ. Instead, some caroling children sing it outside the Porter mansion bay-window that frosty Christmas, lyrics garbled. For the most part, the project thrilled him: “I can’t tell you how happy I am that Mike Curtiz will direct Night and Day.” Porter got everything he wanted, Cary Grant and technicolor. He wanted to know how soon production would start, to arrange his dates; to gather the stars who had appeared in his musicals, from Fred Astaire to Mary Martin. Ethel Merman was cut loose because she wouldn’t photograph well and was just opening another show. He did jib a bit at having to get stills for his mother of the actress playing her, but “my mother clamor[ed]” for them, so he asked three times. Usually what is remarked about the film is its avoidance of Porter’s homosexuality, but the homosexuality is abundantly, tenderly clear compared to what is done to his wife and his money.

With the wife and money, biographical truth vanishes without leaving a trace, swallowed up in enduring, and evidently transparent, American ideology. No one ever objects. The rich older divorcee is traded in for a rich young visiting debutante. The family fortune and maternal allowance vanish as Cole refuses to accept money from his family and works hawking songs and playing piano in a department store. Linda and Cole separate because Cole neglects her for his work composing musicals. (The usual account is that she disliked the energetic sexual style of California.) She goes off to Paris on her own, but returns after the accident (his grandfather’s horse, not a countess’s, does him in), and the film ends in their embrace. Porter described it as “the wonderful love story of Linda and Cole” to his lover Nelson Barclift.

Surely the film was made for those in the know, with great deliberation. There could scarcely be a better example of John Toland’s exoteric and esoteric readings. In the “Begin the Beguine” production number, that Cole listens to over the phone from his sick bed and we watch, a male dancer in bright white finally dances; a woman in a green bra keeps throwing herself at and across him, but we ignore her, looking past and through her to the lines of the gorgeous boy behind. The hero Cary Grant kisses his beloved only on the cheek, calls his mother (no one else) “Darling” when he phones her, never makes passes at chorines (as they complain), and in the final scene looks beyond his adoring, clinging wife with his expression drawn or agonized, trapped, without joy.

Enough gossip, onto music. Richard Rodgers complimented Porter’s knowledge of classical as well as popular music in 1926, but sadly the index to the letters does not share Porter’s interest in classical composers and genres. It is true that he could not spell “coloratura” when he claimed that Kate’s music is “all musical comedy” except for the “colaratura” in the first act and final finales. (In defense of his Yale and Worcester Academy education, Porter does use “whom” correctly, from “tell me whom you select” in 1912 to “the Richard whom I know and for whom I feel great affection” in 1955, while his editors talk about “who he is writing to”: that would not have pleased him.) Porter queried a friend’s allusion to “Klinsor’s [sic] Magic Garden,” and was “most embarrassed not to have known about Klingsor’s Magic Garden” from Wagner’s Parsifal. Neither Wagner nor Parsifal makes it into the index. In 1953 he described his routine as work in the daytime, “a show or an opera or a party at night” and the new Tannhauser at the Met as the “best presentation” he had seen since he “was a child, in Munich.” The New York Times reviewer heard “an occasional suggestion of Puccini” in the music for Kiss Me, Kate; for Can Can, Porter proposed that four boys dance in the studio “as they do in La Boheme.” In 1957 he lifted a “trick” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or. He was keen on seeing the Met’s 1953 Gounod’s Faust, updated to the nineteenth century with a Mephistopheles in tails, to be followed by supper with the King and Queen of Greece. He saw Maria Callas at La Scala in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, but the trip’s highlight was Renata Tebaldi, “magnificent” at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo in Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell. “[B]ut the opera is a dud.” (Good to know, since at the time of writing, April 2020, I will probably miss the performances I booked in Vienna for 7 and 10 May.)

On the popular music front, Porter most loved, revered, and envied Irving Berlin, whose “No Business Like Show Business” (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946) inspired “Another Opening, Another Show” two years later. (Berlin’s letter of congratulation on Can Can, 1953, is missing: “Anything I can do, you can do better.”7 These letters are selected, not complete, and one yearns for a catalogue.) Gilbert and Sullivan have their own index entries, one for Gilbert and Sullivan, the other for Sullivan. Porter complained of Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein that their “book” musicals made life harder for people like him. He had to “book hunt” while they made their own, and he also had to find better books, but it changed musical theatre for the better. It is difficult for someone raised on plays, opera, and The Beggar’s Opera (1727) to comprehend how rag-tag was the plotting of early twentieth-century American musicals and how random the relationship of song to action and character. Suffice it to say that the movie Anything Goes, first made in 1936with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman, when remade in 1956 with Bing Crosby and Mitzi Gaynor, changed the plot completely but managed to fit in most of the songs, and some others. Although Linda Porter resented the competition South Pacific created for Kiss Me, Kate, there is no evidence that Porter repined at Rodgers or Hammerstein or Hart, except for Pal Joey, where his dislike of the lizard lothario scamming a rich older woman may have been what was once called “over-determined.” The incidental music from The Third Man he sent to a friend before its U.S. release. Most endearing, however, was Porter’s excitement over My Fair Lady. He had been in Sicily when it opened; in Athens he looked forward to seeing it, and he was thrilled when Lerner secured him a Wednesday night subscription for the first fall season. So for a time in NYC, Cole Porter could be found every Wednesday night applauding My Fair Lady.

The pleasure of Porter’s music, like the pleasure of his lyrics, is the confident mix of high and low, and the graceful sliding from major to minor modes and back. The lyricist who rhymed “a symphony by Strauss” and “Mickey Mouse” is the composer who in Kiss me, Kate combined a music hall “Bowery waltz” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with Viennese operetta “Wunderbar,” blues “Why Can’t You Behave,” jazz “Too Darn Hot,” a pavane, a tarantella, a catalog aria (“Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”), and a full-fledged da capo aria, “Were Thine That Special Face.” After the bridge, the same words return in the repeated A section with their meaning transformed and their delivery altered in intensity and color, just like Handel, though admittedly with fewer ornaments. Sadly, the original cast recording omits the Act 1 finale, with its extravagant coloratura, the flute leading the soprano on and up, and then imitating her, just like Donizetti’s Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), who is mad in a different way. Perhaps Patricia Morison could do the finale in the theatre, but preferred not to have her version preserved for posterity. Or perhaps the producers dropped it because you and I could not sing along to it. Kelli O’Hara does right by that finale in the 2018 revival (Youtube), and it can also be heard on the Josephine Barstow/Thomas Hampson recording, along with “Hattie,” Karla Burns, who opens the show as in the book. (The original cast recording gives male voices, not “Hattie,” the lead in opening “An-other Opening.” The EMI recording is brighter and more stirring.)

When Dorothy Kirsten was being considered for Kate, Porter noted that the only tunes she really liked were “Were Thine That Special Face” and “I Am Ashamed.” The producer of the Kate album yearned for Helen Traubel to be singing “Were Thine That Special Face,” “but things happen slowly in the world of divas.” We are still waiting for more ornamentation on the repeat. Discussing his own music, Porter thought in genres, “a rather slow polonaise” will be succeeded by “a real polonaise”; “this song is a lively, faintly Viennese, waltz”; dance forms not used lately, “In ‘Born to Dance’… . an old-fashioned hornpipe, and in ‘Red, Hot and Blue’ the Szardas… [and] always… my favorite tempo… the paso doble.” Silk Stockings’ overture parodies the Russians. The Strauss of the symphony is of course Richard, not the waltz king Johann: Cole was discovered in his college dorm room studying the score of Der Rosenkavalier before the opera had been produced in the U.S.

If Porter did not pride himself as Mozart did on making a song fit a singer as perfectly as a well-made suit of clothes, he was always willing to change a key or a tune to accommodate “the singer we pick.” To David Wayne, for Out of This World, “let me know what key is the best for you to sing it in. You must be sure of this because I have to make a transmission [sic] into another key for the soprano who …will sing it after you.” Others orchestrated his tunes, of whom the letters mention only Robert Russell Bennett. Shows constantly rewritten, new songs demanded, old songs recycled, songs written without any place in the book for them: Porter worked. A special category is songs written because they had been forbidden—no song for the gangsters in Kate, it had been agreed; no song that banally praised Paris (and so “I Love Paris”), no song possible on the theme “I Love You.” He wrote songs for the sake of songs, an occasion, or a production whether or not the songs would find a place. Of twenty-five songs written for Kate, seventeen were used. That ebullient generosity extended to his thesauri and rhyming dictionaries—he had them in many languages, and he credited them with his rhymes. He also prided himself on letting a show go once it opened, turning from author into audience, and then going to work on something else. Every gesture towards immortality turns ephemeral, in that eternal starting all over again.

It is difficult to imagine another composer who composed nothing the last six years of his life. Rossini, famously, notoriously, wrote no more operas for forty years (1829-1868), once he had his French pension secured, but he still wrote small pieces for amusement and a Stabat Mater. Too many tournedos for Rossini, perhaps. Tunes come into tunesmiths’ heads, unless the body contrives to drive them out with too much other noise of its own. Embarking on Silk Stockings in 1953, Porter wrote, “I have started work on a new show and, as usual, am scared to death.” That terror is inseparable from the excitement that the young Mozart felt thinking about an opera, and that Porter put into a song to share more widely, for theatre people especially and metaphorically for the rest of us: “Another job that you hope, at last, Will make your future forget your past… . The overture is about to start, You cross your fingers and hold your heart, It’s curtain time and away we go! Another opening of another show.”



*Review of The Letters of Cole Porter, ed. Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (New Haven: Yale UP, 2019).




  1. Munich, 1777, Mozart’s Letters, ed. Eric Blom, trans. Emily Anderson (Baltimore: Pelican, 1968), 45.

  2. After running through every old man in Hollywood—William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison—Audrey Hepburn finally had a co-star “her own age” in perhaps her best film, Two for the Road (1967). She was, however, seven years older than Albert “Tom Jones” Finney, b. 1936 to her 1929.

  3. Anne Melissa Potter, “The Taming of ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’” American Theatre, January 2019, recounts Bella’s attempts to make Kate more Rosalind and less punching bag. According to Potter, Bella credited Sam with revising the gangsters; Potter does not specify who invented them.

  4. Sharon Otterman, “She Was Excited for a New School. Then the Anti-Semitic ‘Jokes’ Started,” New York Times, March 8, 2020, MB, 1.

  5. Sam and Bella Spewack, “How to Write a Musical Comedy,” Kiss Me, Kate (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), x.

  6. ‘From Minor to Major: The pleasure and pain of being Cole Porter,” The New Yorker, 20 January 2020, 70.

  7. Quoted in William McBrien, Cole Porter: A Biography (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) 347. Also absent is Monty Woolley’s fulmination against unappreciative critics over the same production, 346.