Cole Porter: The Devil Divine
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were Lord Byron,
I’d write you, sweet siren,
A poem inspirin'...
bad I’m no poet . . .
happen to know it . . . .
—Cole Porter, “Ev’rything I Love,” (a song not included in the Selected Lyrics)
years ago, a soon-to-be-famous professor of Milton studies quoted
“You’re Just Too Marvelous for Words” to his class and attributed it
to Cole Porter. After class, I walked up to him and told him he should
check his sources on that attribution. “You mean it’s not Cole
Porter?” he asked. I nodded. “Well, then,” he went on, “it must be
the other one.” “No,” I said, “it isn’t Lorenz Hart either:
it’s Johnny Mercer.” The professor looked at me skeptically—I
don’t think he had ever heard of Johnny Mercer—and went off with an
I’ll-see-about-that look in his eyes.
A cursory glance at Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball’s wonderful Reading
Lyrics discloses the extraordinary abundance of “other ones” in
American songwriting. But it seems that the only two lyricists most people
remember are Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, and particularly Cole Porter.
With the rise of the New Formalism—and its emphasis on rhyme—Porter
has already found his way into anthologies of American poetry, so it comes
as no surprise to find his Selected
Lyrics appearing in the Library of America’s American Poets Project,
a series which features such worthies as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Karl
Shapiro, Walt Whitman, Yvor Winters, John Berryman, William Carlos
Williams, Samuel Menashe, Edith Wharton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and
(interestingly) Louis Zukofsky. Not another songwriter among them.
It has been common practice for many years to publish “complete”
collections of the work of well-known lyricists. A Selected
Lyrics is something of an oddity, however. Interestingly, it is not
the first time that a selection of Porter’s lyrics has appeared in
print. In 1954—while Porter was still alive—Random House published 103
Lyrics of Cole Porter, selected, with an introduction and commentary,
by Fred Lounsberry. (Born in 1891, Porter died at the age of seventy-three
Fred Lounsberry’s commentary is interesting and readable, and he
arranges the lyrics on the page as if they were poetry—moving
self-contained passages or individual lines away from the left-hand margin
in what he calls “a thoughtful deployment of phrases on the printed
page.” (The result rather surprisingly resembles Charles Olson’s
“Projective Verse” techniques!) Unlike the editors of Library of
America, Lounsberry does not number Porter among the poets. “This is not
to imply that these lyrics or any other good lyrics are poetry,” he
They have poetic points to them, of course, but they lack the lofty genius of great poetry and, on the bright side, they lack the obscurity which, while emphasized more than ever in modern poetry, is not without precedent even in traditional poetry. Good lyrics stand between the charm and curse of poetry, being always clear in meaning and also being somewhat obvious. As these lyrics here will show, lyric-writing is an art of its own....
One might disagree with Lounsberry, but at least he is making an effort to
differentiate between poetry and song lyrics. “Poetry,” he insists,
“is written to be appreciated on paper, by itself. Song lyrics are
written to be appreciated through hearing, which means with
music.” Robert Kimball, editor of Cole
Porter: Selected Lyrics, makes no such distinction. He praises Porter
in language which might easily be used to describe any number of other
contributors to the American Poets Project: “The intensity of his love
lyrics, the penetration of their insights into the complexity of human
relationships, are among the qualities that distinguish his bravest and
best work.” That’s true enough, I suppose, but one can’t help but
feel that such an assertion is meant to bring Porter head-long into the
category of middle-class literary Culture Hero. He is, Kimball’s
presentation implies, not only a “lyricist” but something more: like
everyone else in the American Poets Project series, he is a poet. Porter himself did not feel any necessity to present himself
in that way: “At words poetic,” he insisted, “I’m so pathetic /
That I always have found it best / Instead of getting’ em off my chest,
/ To let ‘em rest, / Un-expressed” (“You’re the Top”); “Too
bad I’m no poet . . . / I
happen to know it” (“Ev’rything I Love”).
If Porter is a Culture Hero, he is a very strange one. Throughout his
career as a lyricist, he was fundamentally a bad
boy—someone who simultaneously shocked and delighted the adoring
“Mama” (her name was Kate, and Porter referred to her as “Kate the
Great”) who shows up in different guises throughout his work. (Lounsberry
comes close to the bad boy notion when he describes Porter as a “devil
divine.”) “Ev’rything I Love” is not the only interesting song not
to be included in Selected Lyrics.
“Don’t Look at Me That Way,” with the wonderful line, “My will is
strong but my won’t is weak” isn’t there either—though, happily,
“Let’s Misbehave” is.
I don’t wish to denigrate marvelous songs such as “Night and Day” or
“What Is This Thing Called Love?,” but I do wish to suggest that what
Porter actually accomplished has little to do with “the intensity of his
love lyrics, the penetration of their insights into the complexity of
human relationships”—whatever such language may mean. (There is a
tremendous amount of self-pity in Porter’s love lyrics—a fact which
perhaps had more to do with their popularity than their “complexity.”)
This is the beginning of “You’ve Got That Thing,” a song Porter
produced for a 1929 musical, Fifty
first you blew in like a boisterous breeze
often have wondered, dear,
gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees
moment that you appear
You’re mentally not so hot
You’ll never win laurels
of your morals
I’ll tell what you’ve got:
got that THING....
The point of the song is that the singer doesn’t
know what “that thing” is,
though he is very much affected by it. The knowing, rather critical tone
of the verse (“I’ll tell you what you’ve got”) dissolves the
moment the chorus begins. The song is similar to another “thing” song
from the same show, “You Do Something to Me,” as well as to “What Is
This Thing Called Love?” (1929, Wake Up and Dream) or even to the 1927 “Quelque-Chose” (from Paris:
“I’ve got quelque-chose / Something very rare, / Quelque-chose / That
brings me beaux / From ev’rywhere”). In all these songs Porter is
suggesting that love, particularly love as desire, is inexplicable,
who can solve its mystery?
should it make a fool of me?
At the same time, however, “thing” is a common way of referring to the
penis. Unlike the women who are everywhere present in a Broadway show, the
“you” of the song has that
“thing.” Joseph Morella and George Mazzei in Genius
& Lust: The Creative and Sexual Lives of Cole Porter and Noel Coward
remark that “Cole...liked to indulge his homosexual nature openly.”
His taste ran to “anonymous men of a class lower than his own, the types
referred to as ‘rough trade’ among gay men—meaning heterosexual
longshoremen, dock workers, sailors, military men, truck drivers, and
laborers who let gay men service them for money.”
Morella and Mazzei insist that Porter’s “sexual escapades did not
diminish” with age: “he stopped caring who knew about it, although at
the end he expressed a fear that he might be remembered as an ‘old
queen.’ He continued to pay the beefers to come up to his Waldorf Towers
apartment, where more than once he was interrupted as he was performing
fellatio between two big legs.”
In Porter’s work loving someone often means worshipping them. The chorus
of another song in Fifty Million
Frenchmen begins, “I don’t love you, dear / I swear it’s true /
I don’t love you, dear / I worship you.” In this context, the lines,
“gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees / The moment that you
appear” make perfect sense: they allude to the “adoration” involved
in love—an adoration which is part of its “mystery.”
In the context of thing = penis, however—and particularly in the context
of Porter’s interest in fellatio—“gentlemen all seem to fall on
their knees” has quite a different implication. (In a much later song,
“Any Tom, Dick, or Harry,” Porter refers to “Any Tom, Dick or Harry
/ Any Tom, Harry or dick.” The
song ends with a man singing, “I love a dick.”) Though we naturally
assume that a popular song deals with a heterosexual relationship—and
though “You’ve Got That Thing” goes on to become explicitly
heterosexual—nothing in the portion I’ve quoted forces us to take
“you” as a woman: indeed, the word “physique” is more likely to be
associated with a man than with a woman. In
themselves, the opening lines of Porter’s song could be taken as a
description of one of his “beefers”—the kind of man “gentlemen”
like Porter liked to “service.”
Another song from 1929 is even more explicit and anticipates Porter’s
use of “kick” in 1934’s “I Get a Kick out of You.” “I Want To
Be Raided By You” does not appear in Selected
Lyrics—though Kimball does include the song in his edition of
Porter’s Complete Lyrics:
a p’liceman on my street,
he’s oh so sweet.
when he shakes his stick,
I get a kind of kick
thought was obsolete.
time he passes by,
his roving eye,
get such heart disease
sink upon my knees,
want to be raided by you...
a night-club queen
I want to be raided by you.
Porter’s position as a writer of popular songs meant that he couldn’t publicize his sexuality. Indirection and certain carefully orchestrated fantasies were necessary if he were to function at all. Night and Day, the very successful film biography of Porter which appeared in 1946, never once deals with his homosexuality; De-Lovely (2004), the second film biography of Porter, deals with it but only in a rather inaccurate, sugar-coated fashion. Porter’s friend and theatrical associate Arnold Saint Subber called Porter “far queerer than anyone else I knew.” You’d never guess that from Kevin Kline’s performance. “I’m A Gigolo” (1929) is another of Porter’s versions of gay (“lavender”) life. Its speaker is not at all like the bisexual Kevin Kline character in De-Lovely.
should like you all to know,
a famous gigolo,
of lavender my nature’s got just a dash in it.
I’m slightly undersexed,
will always find me next
some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate . . .
a flower that blooms in the winter,
deeper and deeper in “snow.”
a baby who has
mother but jazz,
from 1941, another song not included in the Selected
Lyrics, uses “gay” in both the ordinary sense of “happy,
joyous”—“Makes ’em feel more glamorous and more gay”—and
in the sense of “homosexual”: “Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft / Why
his cow has never calfed, / Georgie’s bull is beautiful but he’s
Expressing his homosexuality was not the only problem Porter faced. His
songs were written for the American popular musical theater. While
innovation was possible within that framework, it was also often
discouraged or misunderstood. Porter’s brilliant song, “The Tale of
the Oyster,” was meant to be included in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Critic Gilbert Seldes, who liked the show
in general, insisted that the song “be cut out instantly as it has no
virtue whatever.” The song was cut. (It is included in Selected Lyrics.) Hearing “Night and Day” for the first time,
Porter’s close friend, Monty Woolley said, “I don’t know what this
is you are trying to do but whatever it is throw it away; it’s
terrible!” Fred Astaire was at first skeptical about “Night and
Day”’s suitability for his voice and asked that it be dropped from the
show for which it was intended. Happily, it wasn’t, though Astaire’s
recording of the song shows that he had some reason for his concern.
Porter’s collaborator Moss Hart thought “Begin the Beguine” had
concluded when it was in fact only half-way through. Originally the
penultimate line of the song was “And we suddenly know the sweetness of
sin.” It had to be changed to “And we suddenly know the heaven we’re
in.” For years “Love for Sale” could not be played on the radio. In
the show in which it was originally featured, it was sung by a white
woman. In that form the song was attacked as “filthy.” The show’s
producers immediately shifted the song’s locale to the Cotton Club in
Harlem, where it was sung by a “colored girl.” The objections ceased.
In addition, Porter’s own prejudices occasionally show through in his
songs. One is surprised to discover that he thought he was writing
“Jewish” music, as he told Richard Rodgers. Rodgers commented,
laughed at what I took to be a joke, but not only was Cole dead serious,
he eventually did exactly that. Just hum the melody that goes with “Only
you beneath the moon and under the sun”...or any of “Begin the
Beguine,” or “Love for Sale,” or “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” or
“I Love Paris.” It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theatre
that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written
the most enduring ‘Jewish’ music should be an Episcopalian millionaire
who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana.
Welles remarked flatly and accurately in an interview that “Cole Porter
didn’t like black people.” It’s disheartening to read corroboration
of this prejudice in William McBrien’s Cole
Porter: A Biography: Porter “snobbishly doubted that Ella
[Fitzgerald] could make any sense of the allusions to the monde
in his lyrics.” In his later years, Porter saw little of Monty Woolley
because Woolley had “taken a black manservant as his lover.” Indeed,
“a slave that’s awf’lly African” is one of the items offered
for sale in “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking” in Porter’s
last production, Aladdin (1958). This prejudice is particularly distasteful given the efforts
African Americans such as Bobby Short and Mabel Mercer have made to keep
Porter’s music alive. Morella
and Mazzei suggest that:
the years Cole’s songs showed a definite note of sadomasochism. ‘Taunt
me, and hurt me, deceive me, desert me / I’m yours till I die.’ As
well as, ‘How can you be jealous / When you know, baby, I’m your
slave?’ (both from Kiss Me Kate). With ‘Why Do You Want to Hurt Me So?’ from the
1950 show Out of This World, he
really laid it out...Porter was...influenced by his sexuality. He was
driven to stretch the limits of his talent and risk being different. He
was the first major songwriter to hint at sadomasochism.
Morella and Mazzei surely have a point. “Why Do You Want to Hurt Me
So?” begins, “I’m blue, / black and blue, / And I fear, my dear,
it’s entirely due / to you.” And the notion of “slavery” shows up
often in Porter’s work, as in the example quoted from Aladdin.
The much earlier “You’ve Got That Thing” has “They tell us Trojan
Helen’s lips / Made ev’ry man her slavey.”
The song’s “release” section begins, “You’ve got what Adam
craved when he / With love for Eve was tortured.”
Lovers tend to suffer in Porter,
and they are rarely on an equal footing.
Indeed, despite Porter’s “idealization” of women—“I
don’t love you, dear...I worship you”—there are plenty of attacks on
women in his work. He remarked once that “I have to invent all the nice
sayings about women as, throughout history, practically all the quotations
about women are anti-.” Kiss Me,
Kate (1948) is filled with various assaults on women. Men are of
course attacked as well—“I hate men”—but a line like “Kick her
right in the Coriolanus”—another
use of “kick”—is no new thing in Porter’s oeuvre.
Women are even murdered in his songs. “Miss Otis” is taken from jail
by “the mob” and hanged on “the old willow across the way.”
“Solomon” takes revenge on his “cheating” wives by cutting them to
he slashed their gizzards and gashed their muzzles
all that was left of them was a lot of jigsaw puzzles.
of Porter’s “love songs” is called “You Irritate Me So.” Another
is called “I Hate You, Darling.” Panama
Hattie (1940) has
bless the women,
wonderful, terrible women,
devils or saints,
never can tell . . .
a pity they don’t do more reading in bed.
bless the women
God help the men.
And all this in the context of a genre intended to “glorify the American girl”!
Porter no doubt had a manic side which is often on display
(“Life’s great, life’s grand, / Future’s all planned”) but his
notorious “black moods,” his depressions—a condition which McBrien
tells us eventually included “insomnia, loss of appetite, . . . fits of temper” and “sudden and unreasonable
anxiety about his financial status”—found their way into his songs as
well. Here is a portion of “Down in the Depths” (1936):
the crowds at El Morocco punish the parquet
at “21” the couples clamor for more,
deserted and depressed
my regal eagle nest
in the depths on the ninetieth floor.
the only one you wanted wants another
the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?
even the janitor’s wife
a perfectly good love life
here am I
with my sorrow
in the depths on the ninetieth floor.
“Depression,” misogyny, and homosexuality are hardly characteristic
themes of the American musical theater—a theater which is one of the
most blandly optimistic artistic environments ever devised by man. Oscar
Hammerstein II wrote one of its defining couplets:
what a beautiful morning!
what a beautiful day!
Into that upbeat cauldron of scantily-clad women, into that entertainment
for the tired businessman, Porter threw songs of blackness, obsession,
homoeroticism, sadomasochism—to use his term, songs of “Jewishness”:
songs which were the opposite of everything a WASP gentleman like Cole
Porter was expected to uphold. Amazingly, he found extraordinary success
in doing it. He did not aim to overthrow the musical theater; he believed
in it too strongly. But he did aim to undermine it, to force it to include
a kind of content it had never accommodated before. In the world of the
American musical, it is no strange thing for women to sing songs with
masochistic themes. (Fanny Brice’s “My Man” is one example out of
many.) In Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate
the female lead sings these masochistic lines—but
so does the male:
So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours till I die,
So in love,
So in love,
So in love,
in love with you, my love, am I.
How many popular love songs do you know which talk about death? (Death does not sell sheet music.) I would not be without Robert Kimball’s Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics, but it’s a shame that Kimball was not able to make clear what Cole Porter—the dark genius of musical comedy— genuinely accomplished.