Heigh-ho, the glamorous life! goes a lyric by Stephen Sondheim, but no American popular composer has ever had a more glamorous life than Cole Porter. He may have been born in the provinces (Peru, Indiana, 1891), but he had money and charm from the start, and after a classy education at Worcester Academy and Yale, where he wrote songs for revues, he was already contributing music to Broadway shows in his early 20s. Along with his admirer Irving Berlin, he was one of only a small handful of composers complete in one package, always writing both music and lyrics. His style was therefore inimitable and unmistakable. A Cole Porter song is still synonymous with urbanity, sophistication, verve, sultry wit.
Porter's story has been popular with biographers for more than two decades (he died in 1964), and it's easy to see why. He was the greatest American bon vivant of his day. He traveled the world, knew all manner of nobility, was a fixture of club life in Paris and New York, hobnobbed with all the show business greats, and stayed on top in the musical theatre world for 30 years. Even after a horse-riding accident in 1937 shattered both his legs, crippling him and leaving him in pain for the rest of his life, he kept on taking the revenge of living well. He always knew how and where to have the best possible time.
Like his predecessors, William McBrien is fascinated with the shining surfaces of Cole Porter's life and doesn't delve deeply into his subject's psychology. Today, of course, we can forget the fiction of Night and Day, the movie biography of Cole and Linda Porter's marriage, and McBrien nonchalantly discusses Porter's numerous homosexual liaisons. What really gives his book vivacity, however, is his attention to the social personalities of those who buzzed around the Porter hive. We meet such legends as Elsa Maxwell and Ethel Merman as well as the nimble Fred Astaire and the dapper Noel Coward (who, as another recent book showed, was Porter's soul-mate). From chapter to chapter we are at Broadway openings triumphs and bombs and it is an exhilarating tour. Photographs abound to illustrate these events. Perhaps best of all, McBrien never forgets Porter's real achievement his songs. Throughout he quotes at delicious length from the best, the cleverest and most affecting lyrics Porter wrote. He even uses lyric lines as chapter titles: Take Me Back to Manhattan, I'm in Love with a Soldier Boy, Down in the Depths. All those who love the standards of American popular song will delight in seeing these great lyrics again, in noting the fine light poetry they are. Readers will want to go out and rent Kiss Me, Kate or High Society, the two '50s movies that showcased Porter's last great composing phase. In the latter Porter wrote of what a swell party it was, and most of this biography leaves the same impression.