A sublime lyricist, but no letter writer: Cole Porter’s correspondence is sadly wit-free

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

‘In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking’, carolled the company of Cole Porter’s 1934 Broadway smash musical Anything Goes. Eighty-five years on, in this age of Love Island and Naked Attraction, what wouldn’t you give for a retooled version?

Not that the song is wholly out of date. When the show opened at the Palace Theatre in London the following year, the lyric to ‘Anything Goes’ was nationalised. Out went Porter’s lines about Rockefeller and Max Gordon and in came two couplets on current parliamentary antics: ‘When in the House our Legislators/ Are calling each other “Traitors”/ And “So and So’s”/ Anything goes’. Hmmm. Let us note in passing that ‘Bercow’s’ rhymes with ‘goes’, and that Porter, as devout a worshipper of the double-entendre as Sid James, would have had a ball with the current PM’s surname.

In point of fact, those amended London lyrics were the work of P.G. Wodehouse. But it’s a measure of the level of Porter’s humour that it was Jeeves’s man who was drafted in for the translation. Many a Broadway lyricist could crack wise. But none of them, not even Lorenz Hart, had wit to burn. Porter did. He slotted gags into the most torrid and tremulous numbers. Hart might conceivably have come up with ‘All of You’s lines about how the singer loves ‘The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you/ The north, east, west and the south of you’, but he would never have thought of working them into a straight love song.

Whether by accident or design, this technique ensured that Porter got away with things other writers might not have. Though the censors insisted that the reference to his beloved ‘snow’ — ‘Some get a kick from cocaine’ — be removed from ‘I Get a Kick out of You’ (‘perfume from Spain’ was the effete substitute), they let the follow-up lines pass: ‘I’m sure that if/ I took even one sniff/ It would bore me terrif/ ically too’. And while the blue pencil brigade at the Motion Picture Code insisted that mention of ‘Marilyn’s behind’ be removed from Silk Stockings’ song ‘Stereophonic Sound’, they left intact the line about the (female) singer’s having ‘licked an anchovy’.

Both those stories are taken from The Letters of Cole Porter — but don’t go getting the idea the book’s a laugh a page. Suavely edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, this hefty collection is a lot less fun than Porter fans might expect. For one thing, it’s full of tales of his — generally bad — and his wife’s — terrible — health. For another, a bit of wordplay with enemas aside, the letters are virtually wit-free. I’m happy that Porter was happy when his friend Sam Stark gave him a washing machine. But do we really need to see the thank you note calling it ‘sensational!’? Granted, Porter was contemporaneously working on High Society’s ‘You’re Sensational’ (a song that includes a white goods reference to ‘The fair Miss Frigidaire’). But if there’s a link between gizmo and number, Eisen and McHugh don’t mention it.

Which is odd, because they mention everything else. As well as averaging a footnote a page, their book has 28 pages of endnotes to boot. ‘Our goal,’ they say in a prefatory note, ‘was not to write a biography.’ Nonetheless, their editing is so detailed and precise that anyone wanting to write the story of Porter’s life could start —and at a pinch end — their researches here.

The trouble is, several such books already exist. What we don’t have is a properly critical Porter biography, and we need one. Not because he was the best lyricist of the Great American Songbook era (that award goes to Johnny Mercer). Not because he was its best melodist (that’s Richard Rodgers). Not even because he was unique in writing words and music (Irving Berlin did too). The reason Porter’s music demands serious study is simply that he was the Songbook’s most serious student of music. Unlike Berlin, who could play and compose only in the key of F sharp, Porter knew what he was doing.

A graduate of Paris’s Schola Cantorum, Porter orchestrated Schumann sonatas and even wrote a ballet —with quadruple counterpoint inversions — to run alongside one by Milhaud. Truth be told these weren’t very good, but Porter profited from them nonetheless. Unlike the average show-tune writer, he was never reliant on the standard-issue 32-bar form. ‘Begin the Beguine’ goes on for 108 bars, with accidentals on almost every phrase. His modal switches (most famously as the words ‘from major to minor’ are sung in ‘Ev’ry Time We say Goodbye’) have been compared with those of Brahms. ‘So in Love’, the knockout swooner from Kiss Me Kate, is as intricately structured as a German lied. ‘To paraphrase an old bar-room ballad,’ Berlin once joshed Porter, ‘anything I can do, you can do better.’

Eisen and McHugh couldn’t have done a better job of editing these letters. Still, Cole Porter deserves a better book than this.

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