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

The Independent (London, England), October 24, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 11: Cole Porter, Songwriter


"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.

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