The Cole Porter Story

Cole Porter Story


For years, a copy of The Cole Porter Story, as told to Richard G. Hubler, has been tucked away on the bookshelf of the headboard of my grandma’s guest bed upstairs.  It appears to be stolen from a library, but hey, I never said my grandma was a saint, okay?

Though written by Hubler, the book is technically an autobiography, with biographical appendices filling the latter half.  According to Hubler, this is the story of Porter’s life straight from the horse’s mouth.  Per a mutual agreement during the creation of the manuscript, it remained unpublished and locked away until Porter’s death.  Sounds juicy, no?

Alas… This is 1965 we’re talking about.  Undoubtedly, our measure of controversy has changed since then, but I suppose Porter wouldn’t have wanted to mar our image of the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Fred Astaire with accounts of his backstage feuds prior to the opening of The Gay Divorce, for example.  It’s much easier to arrange for someone else to drop these alleged bombshells after you’re not around to deal with the backlash (note to you future autobiographers).

So rather than expecting any controversy, the reader should be satisfied to hear Porter speak of his approach to composing.  He reports, “I must make a bow to the French, who taught me to use the extra phrase in music and to lighten my writing; to the English, who gave me relatively little except the warning never to speed up a tune for the sake of jazz.  It was Africa that gave me basic beats, Bali that taught me the value of changing tempos and keys.  Italy supplied the idea of pure melody, and Egypt the Oriental scale.”  And he goes on.

Porter also identifies for us his two favorite compositions:  Night and Day (really, Cole? Even Astaire complained about that song), composed while in Germany; and Begin the Beguine ( Hat Tip: Artie Shaw ), inspired by a war-dance chant he heard in the East Indies.

And while Cole Porter’s legacy lives on as a result of his surplus of standard hits, we hear of the repeated failures and rejections he faced early on in his career.  In 1931, after spending three months on a 20-song score (not identified by name in the book), he received news that the show wouldn’t go on — a new cigarette tax scared their production’s tobacco industry sponsor to pull out of the show.  And let’s not forget that songs like Love For Sale were banned from TV and Radio due to their lyrics and subject matter.  Coincidentally, a quick search of this site shows that “Love For Sale” has only been played once on the Heavy Petting Zoo.

Autobiographies are often an interesting way to learn about other people besides the main subject of the book.  Porter describes his impressions of Astaire, Danny Kaye, and Ethel Merman (“She had a voice like a trombone and a manner as ingratiating as a performance of a three-ring circus.”), to name a few.

Rosemary Clooney wrote in her autobiography, Girl Singer, that she once sang Porter’s song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” at a concert late in her career.  After the show, a fan approached her and exclaimed, “I never knew Cole Porter was a feminist!”  It’s possible that one could interpret the closing lyrics of the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” for example, as a shout-out to feminism — “Papa, don’t you fence me in.”  Likewise if a solo female sang it proudly.  But in fact, according to Porter, the song really had no deep meaning whatsoever.  He bought the lyrics for $200 from a cowhand, “wrote the tune with [his] cheek stuffed with tongue,” and employed every Western cliche he could think of.  Nevertheless, it’s one of my favorites.

While autobiographies have their merits, this book provides one good example of an autobiography’s disadvantage.  When one is writing about oneself, how credible can the information be?  Some stories get exaggerated and other facts are suppressed.

Anybody who’s read anything objectively researched and reported about Porter knows of his homosexual liaisons, but you’d never know about them if your research began and ended with The Cole Porter Story.  Instead, we get to know Porter as a man deeply in love with his wife, devastated when she passes away.  While there’s no reason to disbelieve this as fact, there’s clearly more to the real Cole Porter story.

You can’t blame him for remaining guarded, though:  That’s a pretty big bombshell to drop in 1965, even for a dead guy.


Cole Porter silk stockings

Click here to learn more about Cole Porter

Review: “Fred Astaire” by Joseph Epstein

fred and ginger

For some time now, I’ve been meaning to post a review of the book Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein.  The only thing that kept me from doing this sooner was knowing how much time it would take to page through the book finding examples of all the things I disliked about it.  Such things include the multi-page essays on the difference between “style” and “class,” the details that distinguish “aristocratic dance” from “democratic dance,” and how Astaire embodies one while the Gene Kelly only manages to pull off the other.  Overall, the book proved to be less of a biography and more of a venue for Epstein to gush over one of his heroes, and he does so by expounding heavily on things that are only tangentially pertinent to the book’s subject.

For what it’s worth, it’s an easy read.  If you want something quick that’ll give you a glimpse into Fred Astaire’s life and career, this might be your book.  But I wouldn’t recommend it if you REALLY want to get to know Fred Astaire.

For those who wish to read a substantive primer on the career of Fred Astaire, you may not need to look any farther than a recent New York Times profile.  It has the same feel as Epstein’s book in that it doesn’t drag on details and still has a touch of fanaticism; yet unlike Epstein’s book, it leaves you feeling more familiar with Fred after you’ve read it.

From here, you’ll also find a nice list of books you can look to for more information on Astaire and his legendary dance partner, Ginger Rogers.  I can’t help but point out NYT‘s anti-recommendation of Epstein’s book too.  Click the link below to take a gander…

They Seem To Find the Happiness They Seek (NYT, 8.16.09)

June 6, 2009 Playlist

Thanks to Paul Snyder, keeper of Ain’t Superstitious But These Things I’ve Seen, for his co-hosting abilities and encyclopedic musical knowledge.

Don’t forget to download Paul’s summertime collection, Summertime Is A Mix Tape, Vol. III, featuring the likes of Cliff Edwards, Astrud Gilberto, and more (modern) musicians!


(Musical selections below that are derived from — or still available on — Paul’s blog are highlighted and possibly hyperlinked in bold.)

[1] Paris by Edith Piaf from Les Amants de Paris

[2] Our Love Affairs by June Robbins & Johnny Drake from Best of the Big Bands

[3] Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo by Jo Stafford & Gordon MacRae from Alone & Together

[5] Too Darn Hot by Lorenzo Fuller, Eddie Sledge and Fred Davis from Cole Porter: The Ultimate Collection

[6] You’d Be So Easy To Love by Frank Sinatra from Ring-A-Ding-Ding

[7] Making Whoopee by Doris Day from Shaken, Not Stirred

[9] The Promise by Rosemary Clooney from Girl Singer

[10] As Time Goes By by Jimmy Durante from Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack

[11] That Lucky Old Sun by Louis Armstrong from All Time Greatest Hits

[12] Comin’ Home Baby by Mel Torme from Comin’ Home Baby!

[14] On the Street Where You Live by Vic Damone from Fantastic Fifties

[15] Eee-O-Eleven by Sammy Davis, Jr. from Eee-O-11

[16] A Doodlin’ Song by Peggy Lee from Extra Special!

[17] That’s All by Nat King Cole from Hooray For Love: The Great Gentlemen of Song

[18] Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying by Ray Charles from The Genius of Ray Charles

[19] Moonglow by Cab Calloway from The Best Loved Bands of All Time

[20] Always and Always by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra from The Notebook

[21] The Milk Cow Blues by Sidney Bechet from The Best of Sidney Bechet

[22] Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Fats Waller from Greatest Hits

[23] (Marie’s the Name Of) His Latest Flame by Elvis Presley from Artist of the Century

[24] Listen To Me by Buddy Holly from Buddy Holly

[25] A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square by Bobby Darin from Oh Look At Me Now!

[27] Swinging On A Star by Bing Crosby from Greatest Hits

[28] Just As Though You Were Here by Russ Morgan from Best of the Big Bands: Memories Of You

[29] Begin the Beguine by Ella Fitzgerald from The Cole Porter Songbook

[30] Pennies From Heaven by Louis Prima from Jump, Jive, and Wail