The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen & Dominic McHugh (edd) - review by Oliver Soden

Oliver Soden

Writing Night & Day

The Letters of Cole Porter


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In 1937 a horse fell onto Cole Porter’s legs. The left leg was fractured, the right ‘mashed to such a pulp’ that the nerves were permanently damaged. The blistered skin, Porter wrote to a friend, ‘looked like a flowing mass of lava and it sorta made me sick’. Eleven years later, it took only an enthusiastic greeting from a playful dog for his shin bone to splinter through to the air. The dog, Porter thought, was ‘charming’. Stoicism in the face of agony and wit in the face of melancholy are two of the qualities that make Porter good company in this baggy volume, which puts his correspondence into print for the first time. But the book only comes to life when Porter is in love or in pain, which for him were often the same thing.

Cole Porter (1891–1964) was a mass of contradictions. He was raised in rural Indiana and became the toast of Broadway. A classically trained composer, he put his talent to glittering use writing the music and words for popular songs such as ‘Night and Day’, ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Let’s Do It’. He was a passionate homosexual whose most secure and devoted relationship was with his wife, Linda; and he wove feather-light lyrics from a life of chronic pain. Dapper and quietly spoken, his fabulous wealth both inherited and earned, he was a Gatsby-like figure at the centre of lavish and occasionally orgiastic parties held in his Venice palazzo, where the ballroom dwarfed the grand piano and the walls were hung with Tiepolos. The Second World War, Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in a world far from the one that Porter wrote in and wrote about.

The editors of this volume state that their aim was ‘to assemble as much of Porter’s extant correspondence as possible’. And goodness, do they mean it. The research is meticulous, even flamboyant. This is an amazing feat of collation, bringing together letters not only from numerous archives, but also from auction sales and eBay listings. One is transcribed from its brief appearance on Antiques Roadshow. Much has been lost, but everything discoverable has been faithfully reproduced: every postcard, every telegram, every travel itinerary and every thank-you note (one for a ‘beautiful toilet seat’). The result is a volume padded out with cheerfully dreary banalities. The book suffers badly from its admirable, exhaustive, near-fatal completeness.

Page 351 is indicative. ‘The next two letters concern [the film] Adam’s Rib’, the editors write. The first letter reads: ‘Dear Sam: – Thanks a lot for the publicity sheet on “Adam’s Rib”. Love, Cole’. And on and on, for nearly seven hundred pages. Porter claimed to ‘love long letters’; if only there were more here. The shortest is just two words, referring to the success of Kiss Me, Kate after a series of flops: ‘Smash – Cole’. It does not take long to realise that his surviving correspondence is not sufficiently dazzling or interesting to withstand publication in its entirety. There is little to help the reader develop an eye and ear for Porter’s linguistic inventiveness, and nothing of the man who could rhyme ‘Fred Astaire’ with ‘Camembert’ and ‘brandy’ with ‘Gandhi’, or begin ‘Night and Day’ by repeating a single note thirty-five times.

The letters are organised chronologically across eleven chapters. They are interspersed with an extensive commentary that, alongside short biographical interludes, offers up a vast mosaic of documents in which Porter need be only cursorily mentioned for inclusion to be merited: articles, interviews, contracts, diaries, even flyleaf inscriptions. Survival or loss of material dictates the focus and priority of the editors’ narrative. This volume is not intended as a biography of Porter – there are already five – but it can read like the work of a bad biographer. Almost two pages are devoted to descriptions of Porter’s music studio in Paris, and an advertisement for his lost dog is reproduced in full. The death of his mother, by contrast, is covered in fifteen lines.

If only the epistolary undergrowth had been thinned out so that the best of the correspondence had room to breathe. Porter’s love affairs – transitory, illegal, his passion unreciprocated – are primarily charted here in letters to the choreographer Nelson Barclift (a ‘frivolous moth’) and to the Russian poet and dancer Boris Kochno. ‘The only thing that I really want to do’, Porter told Kochno, ‘is to climb to the top of the Campanile and announce to the piazza that I’m in love to the point of dying with someone who has taken this evening’s train to Naples.’ The original is in French and shows Porter, even in his second language, setting his words adance with one another: ‘Je suis amoureux a mourir de quelqu’un…’. Seven years before he wrote ‘Night and Day’, he dreamed of Kochno’s beautiful eyes, ‘nuit + jour, mon Boris’.

Porter’s accounts of the pain he suffered, and the doctors’ endless attempts to ease it, are distressingly readable and free from self-pity. He emerges as a model of stoicism and fortitude, generous and extravagant, rarely a diva or a quarreller, and attentive to the tiniest details of his lyrics. Work saw him through and he pined for it in its absence, although the stolid professional letters endlessly chase their own tail: preparation, rehearsal, opening, reviews, repeat. It does not help that so few of the shows to which Porter contributed songs are described or precised.

The footnotes, nearly two thousand of them, are by contrast a miracle of scholarly diligence – sixteen names are glossed on page 241 alone – as the editors map the constellation of stars that formed Porter’s social whirl, some (Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Noël Coward) more predictable than others (Peter Brook, Erich Maria Remarque, Igor Stravinsky). Money is a constant theme, but figures are never translated into their current value. The index does not list individual letters, while editorial methods are not outlined and prove frustrating: Porter’s slapdash French and laissez-faire grammar give rise to frenzies of sic-ing (four in as many lines on page 77).

The volume concludes with a long adagio in which, after nursing his wife through what turned out to be fatal emphysema, Porter finally succumbs to his own ill health. His loyal valet dies slowly of cancer; his beloved dog dies of heart failure. The piano goes untouched, the letters dwindle and finally Porter’s secretary, Madeline Smith, takes over, turning out to be a memorable writer: ‘uremic poison set in and he lapsed away … it was a dreary, drizzly day – even the skies were weeping’.

Porter wrote letters as a means of bridging absences, of drawing near to him distant friends and faraway lovers. Few to his wife survive. Tolerant, troubled, she hovers sadly between the lines of his correspondence. But it is Porter who proves the most unknowable figure, muffled by the comprehensiveness and often brilliant scholarship of this edition, with nothing but footnotes for company.

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