Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 11: Cole Porter, Songwriter

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"LET'S DO it." Has there ever been a less ambiguous mission statement? When the song of that title first appeared in Cole Porter's show Paris in 1928, it served as a kind of anthem of liberation for the closing years of the decade, while for Porter himself they were the words by which he lived his extraordinary life.

In deference to America's moral watchdogs, the parenthetical qualification "Let's fall in love" had to be added, but that did not seem to be a priority at the composer's opulent parties and costume balls, which defined the roaring Twenties.

Present-day ravers, who may feel that hedonism is somehow a modern invention, should note that William McBrien's new biography of Cole Porter describes the elaborate parties the composer threw on two continents as "marked by much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a surplus of recreational drugs".

Sadly, none of that featured in the 1946 film Night and Day, a hilariously bowdlerized version of Porter's life. The only thing the film gets right is the casting. While Cary Grant bore only a spurious physical resemblance to the great songwriter, he was the only Hollywood figure whose screen persona could come close to matching Porter's for wit, elegance and sophistication.

Wit is the first word that comes to mind when writing about Porter, but it would be wrong to characterise the composer with the wealthy Ivy League background as some sort of epigram-dripping dilettante. As a child Porter, encouraged by his doting, ambitious mother, practised on the piano for several hours every day, and was writing songs by the age of 10.

The work ethic stood him in good stead in later years. As one of the few composers from the golden age of American popular song to work alone (Irving Berlin was another), Porter ploughed a lonely furrow as he married the brittle brilliance of his lyrics to the sinuous melodies that were an equal part of his genius, and are often unfairly overlooked. It could be said that Porter's task was harder than that of his peers since, unlike most of them, he was not of poor immigrant stock, and had to look inward for motivation.

That Porter, the bon viveur and supposedly effete dandy, had great reserves of inner strength was established when his legs were crushed in a riding accident in 1937.

Over the next 21 years he underwent 31 operations, but the increasing pain and growing paralysis were never hinted at publicly, or in his work. In 1958, when his right leg was amputated, he wrote his last song, Wouldn't It Be Fun?

Never for a moment, through all the years of pain, was Porter diverted from his unflagging endeavours to give America's theatre and film-going public tunes they could hum and jokes they could repeat. In 1939, for instance, as doctors fought to save his crushed legs, he came up with this zinger, "It Ain't Etiquette": "When the Chinese ambassador's wife unfurls/After three drinks of anisette/Don't ask if it's true about Chinese girls/It ain't etiquette."

To the end of his life in 1964, Porter remained resolutely gay, in both senses of the word. Despite 35 years of reputedly happy marriage to Linda Thomas, a wealthy socialite, Porter had countless lovers, exclusively male. Rarely was an eyebrow raised. Perhaps even Hollywood and Broadway recognised that in Porter they had a genius to be cherished. In the greatest era for popular song, Porter may have been the greatest.

Two phrases coined by Noel Coward, a kindred spirit, probably sum up Cole Porter best.

The composer undoubtedly and heroically had both "a talent to amuse" and "a design for living".