Cole Porter: The Devil Divine

As Reviewed By: Jack Foley

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited by Robert Kimball. American Poets Project/The Library of America, 2006.

If I were Lord Byron,

I’d write you, sweet siren,

A poem inspirin’…

A killer-dilleroo!

Too bad I’m no poet…

I happen to know it…

-Cole Porter, “Ev’rything I Love,” (a song not included in the Selected Lyrics)

Many 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.

[private]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 Lyricsappearing 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 published103 Lyrics of Cole Porter, selected, with an introduction and commentary, by Fred Lounsberry. (Born in 1891, Porter died at the age of seventy-three in 1964.)

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 writes,

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 Million Frenchmen:

Since first you blew in like a boisterous breeze

I often have wondered, dear,

Why gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees

The moment that you appear

Your fetching physique

Is hardly unique

You’re mentally not so hot

You’ll never win laurels

Because of your morals

But I’ll tell what you’ve got:

You’ve 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, overwhelming, “mysterious”:

Just who can solve its mystery?

Why 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:

There’s a p’liceman on my street,

And he’s oh so sweet.

And when he shakes his stick,

I get a kind of kick

I thought was obsolete.

Ev’ry time he passes by,

With his roving eye,

I get such heart disease

I sink upon my knees,

And I cry…

I want to be raided by you…

I’m a night-club queen

And rather obscene,

And I want to be raided by you.

Porter’s position as a writer of popular songs meant that he couldn’t publicizehis 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.

I should like you all to know,

I’m a famous gigolo,

And of lavender my nature’s got just a dash in it.

As I’m slightly undersexed,

You will always find me next

To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate . . .

I’m a flower that blooms in the winter,

Sinking deeper and deeper in “snow.”

I’m a baby who has

No mother but jazz,

I’m a gigolo.

(“Farming” 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 gay.”)

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,

I 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.

Orson 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 salein “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:

Throughout 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 fromKiss Me Kate). With ‘Why Do You Want to Hurt Me So?’ from the 1950 showOut 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 fromAladdin. 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 pieces:

And he slashed their gizzards and gashed their muzzles

Till all that was left of them was a lot of jigsaw puzzles.

One of Porter’s “love songs” is called “You Irritate Me So.” Another is called “I Hate You, Darling.” Panama Hattie (1940) has

God bless the women,

The wonderful, terrible women,

They’re devils or saints,

You never can tell . . .

What a pity they don’t do more reading in bed.

God bless the women

And 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):

While the crowds at El Morocco punish the parquet

And at “21” the couples clamor for more,

I’m deserted and depressed

In my regal eagle nest

Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor.

When the only one you wanted wants another

What’s the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?

Why, even the janitor’s wife

Has a perfectly good love life

And here am I

Facing tomorrow

Alone with my sorrow

Down 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:

Oh, what a beautiful morning!

Oh, 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,

So 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.[/private]

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