The great - and amazingly prolific - American songwriter Cole Porter had a deceiving style, writing snappy tunes that sound easy but are actually complex in rhythm and form, with lyrics characterized by clever rhymes, sly innuendo, and veiled sexual humour. If you think you don't know any Cole Porter tunes, think again - just look at that amazing list below and I'm sure you'll find more than a few that you recognize.
He was born in 1891 in Peru, Indiana to Sam Porter, a druggist, and Kate Porter, nee Cole. Kate's formidable father J.O. was a self-made man who had become one of the richest men in the state; though he hadn't consented to his daughter's marriage, he subsidized the couple and their only son, Cole, and was a major force in the boy's early life.
Cole's parents encouraged him to pursue an interest in the arts, and he chose music, learning piano and violin by age six and writing his first tune at ten. His mother seems to have been a major supporter, subsidizing the publishing of his early compositions, sponsoring student orchestras in exchange for Cole Porter violin solos at concerts, and falsifying his school records by subtracting two years from his age to make him appear even more musically precocious than he was. As a teenager he was enrolled in the Worcester Academy, a boarding school, where he received formal musical training and became class valedictorian. He then went to Yale, at first studying law as his grandfather wished, but soon switching to music. At university he wrote musicals that were performed by his fraternity, the glee club, and the drama club, and penned individual songs, including two of Yale's most enduring football songs ("Bull Dog" and "Bingo Eh Yale"). He formed strong friendships, many of which would stay with him through life, and may have already become open about his homosexuality. Cole Porter was voted "most entertaining" of his graduating year.
In 1916 he put on his first Broadway show, "See America First", which was a flop. Perhaps stinging from this defeat and looking for a change, he moved to Paris in 1917. He liked to tell the American press stories about his time working with the French Foreign Legion, earning a reputation as a war hero back home, but in fact he had no military involvement, instead living the life of a rich playboy. He sold some tunes but was largely subsidized by his mother and grandfather, and moved in glittering circles, surrounded by fabulous people, and a party lifestyle that included lots of champagne, recreational drugs, homosexuality and music. In 1919 he met and quickly became very close to a rich and beautiful American divorcee eight years his senior, Linda Thomas, who had fled an abusive marriage. In spite of Porter's homosexuality, the two married that same year, and remained together, except for one separation, until she died in 1954. Among their friends were many famous and talented people such as Irving Berlin, Igor Stravinsky, and Fanny Brice.
Linda believed in Porter's talent, and pushed him to take his work more seriously; together, they moved to Hollywood in the late twenties. Over this decade his tunes and revues began to become more well-known, and he had his songs performed on the stage and the screen, but it wasn't until the thirties that he really hit his stride. His successful shows during this latter decade included "The New Yorkers", "Gay Divorcee", "Jubilee", "Dubarry was a Lady", and "Red Hot and Blue"; his musical scores for movies included "Born to Dance" and "Rosalie". But things were not going so well in his relationship; Linda left him for a time, apparently worried about Cole's increasingly open sexual escapades and their impact on his career and on his (and her) reputation. But she later returned, and the two moved to a house away from liberal Hollywood society.
In 1937 Porter fractured both his legs in a horse riding accident; Linda refused to allow the doctors to amputate, and over the next several years Porter endured dozens of unsuccessful operations to try to heal him. It was a severe blow to this most social of men to have his life so curtailed; he suffered from depression, lived the rest of his life crippled and in chronic pain, and finally lost one of his legs to amputation in 1958.
Post-accident, Porter continued to write, but he did not enjoy the popularity of the pre-fall years. Musically, if not creatively, notable was the movie "Night and Day", supposedly based on Porter's life (with Cary Grant in the starring role) but having little relationship to the actual thing (for example, no homosexuality, plenty of war bravery); peaks included the 1948 musical "Kiss Me, Kate" (based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and 1949's "Anything Goes". Cole Porter received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1960, and died in 1964.
To find out more about Cole Porter, I recommend the movie De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. It presents a much more nuanced and true-to-life account of Porter's life than "Night and Day", and will remind you, if you'd forgotten, about all the great songs he wrote. See also http://www.coleporter.org.