Not Just A Gigolo

by Elliott Sirkin

The Complete Lyrics Of Cole Porter

edited by Robert Kimball.

Knopf, $30.00.

Originally published in The Atlantic, Dec. 1983, pp. 113-115.

AN ENDURING QUESTION among musical-comedy lovers is, Who, other than Leonard Bernstein, should have adapted Voltaire’s Candide for Broadway? Voltaire liked clever, down-to-earth pessimists who take life as it comes and don’t philosophize, which makes one wonder whether Cole Porter shouldn’t have put Candide to music. The recently published Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter confirms that no Broadway songwriter, past or present, has had anything like this composer-lyricist’s jaunty sang-froid. In 1940, three years after a horse had crushed his legs and left him all but totally lame, he was busy writing songs with such lyrics as, “I’m full of the old paprika, I’m loaded with dynamite.” What is this appetite for life, if not a kind of resilience—the same resilience with which Voltaire’s hero recovers from the serial beatings, fleecings, tortures, and disillusionments that his adventures visit upon him?

Music critics have called the melodies honky-tonky and repetitious. They may be. But most of the 820 lyrics anthologized in this book prove that as a writer Porter had an inimitable gift. His legend, of course, represents him as a great international swinger: the perennial table-hopper, the collector of celebrity cronies and nonconformist sexual adventures. Certainly, his lyrics do have a predictable white-tie charm. In “Night and Day” and “Let’s Do It” and all the rest of his standards, one is clearly being serenaded by a jeweled nightingale from a penthouse window; most of the lyrics are suave, deft, naughty, and cosmopolitan. Suddenly, though, there will be a line like “I’m the floor when the ball is over”—the words of a person who isn’t “the top.”

The Complete Lyrics can’t be read as anything so portentous as a spiritual autobiography. But if Porter’s words are considered against what little we know of the private man, they can cast at least a few shafts of light on his inner life—a life that seems to have been something of a mess from the start. From George Eells’s biography, The Life That Late He Led, it can be inferred that the emotional tone of Porter’s small-town Indiana childhood was set by the smothering ardor of his mother, Kate, and the embittered indifference of his father, Sam. In view of this familiar, awful domestic triangle, there’s something pathetic about the number of songs Porter would eventually write containing wistful phrases like “my heart belongs to Daddy” and “waiting there for Daddy.” And there’s something faintly comic about the number of sexier songs in which his mother’s name figures: “Kate the Great” and “Katie Went to Haiti”—even “I’ve Got a Date with Kate.” Significantly, it was the writing of a show called Kiss Me, Kate that rescued Porter in the 1940s from an agonizing depression—the first of many that all but wrecked his later life. (Depression does not suit Porter’s legend, but the undebonair truth is that he spent his last twenty years fighting off increasingly intense periods of apathy and sadness, during which he withdrew socially and became convinced that he was going bankrupt.) At Yale, in 1911, he did write one grisly song, “The Motor Car,” in which Ma and Pa are both comically mutilated in a crack-up, but that’s almost the only sign of revenge fantasy in his entire œuvre. Not to push the Voltaire comparison, but, like Candide, Porter seems to have been above petty malice, at least in his work.

In 1916, only three years after Porter’s graduation, his first Broadway show, See America First was produced. In the lyrics of songs like “I’ve a Shooting-Box in Scotland” (“I’ve a chateau in Touraine, I’ve a silly little chalet, In the Interlaken valley”), it is fascinating to see almost fully developed the habile rhyming an near-conversational fluency of his mature work. Unfortunately, the show closed after fifteen performances—a failure that caused Porter to flee to Europe. There, financed by an adoring expatriate wife, he began his famous Riviera-playboy period—a phase beloved by those who idolize Porter chiefly for his life-style, and vaguely repellent to those who admire him as an artist. This was the era of such snapshots as the famous one of Porter reclining on a big on a Mediterranean beach, in bathing cap and pearls.

Candide languished during his brief stint as a pasha. Was Porter any happier in the lap of inert luxury? The lines “I’m an extra man” and “I’m a gigolo” in two little-known songs that he wrote in the twenties suggest that his attitude was one of self-disgust and self-reproach. Perhaps grimmest and most revealing of all is the obscure “The Queen of Terre Haute” (1929). This is the wan confession of a girl whose parents gave her everything that could improve her station (including “a string of pearls”). Her complaint is that “Instead of being famous, I’m an unknown ignoramus, from a small Middle Western town.”

Information about either Broadway or Porter in the twenties is surprisingly scarce, and therefore it is impossible to know just why he produced so few songs in a decade whose hedonism and irreverence should logically have been the ideal inspiration for his talent. But what evidence there is suggests that in those years musical comedy, still in its cradle, could not make room for more than one highbrow, and the highbrow of the moment was Gershwin.

It wasn’t until 1928 that Broadway saw its first Porter hit (albeit a modest one): Paris. Then, in 1934, Anything Goes was produced; the Gershwins had turned to opera, and this musical made Porter the undisputed king of Broadway in the thirties. The next five years brought the insolent, sumptuous ribaldry of Red, Hot and Blue, Leave It to Me!, and Du Barry Was a Lady. (In this period, just about any show that wasn’t by Cole Porter was by Rodgers and Hart, which explains why connoisseurs consider the late thirties the high noon of musical comedy.)

IN THE SCORE for Anything Goes, there are countless outbursts expressive of a state of mind that can only be called euphoric. The great lines of the title song—“In olden days,” and so on—toss together such bizarre images as former millionaires begging for change in the street and Eleanor Roosevelt reading commercials for Simmons mattresses on her radio program. The crazy, cavalier justification “anything goes” makes every loony thing that was happening in 1934 seem silly and trifling. Dr. Pangloss would have loved the apparent message—the Depression is all for the best; we’ll just laugh it away—and he would not have noticed the rather scornful nihilism that underlies the chatty nonchalance. In “You’re the Top,” from the same musical, 105 lines of intricately rhymed couplets shake a cornucopia stuffed with the prize products of Europe and America. (“You’re a Botticelli, You’re Keats, You’re Shelley, You’re Ovaltine.”) The song is so loaded with compliments that one has to search for the fine print: if somebody is the top, somebody else must be the bottom.

Porter had a gift for telling dark home truths without violating the essential cheerfulness of comedy. In a line from a forlorn little meditation called “I Loved Him But He Didn’t Love Me” (1929), he mentions the “weary wail” that attends a marriage in which the timing is always bad, and in spite of the romantic gaiety and the antic, unruffled swank of most of Porter’s work, weariness and wailing are his most telling sounds. Kiss Me, Kate (1948), his musical Taming of the Shrew, is generally considered his finest score, but its prettiest standard, “So in Love,” is the monologue of a lover who forsakes all pride and self-respect to beg for the continued contaminated pleasures of a sado-masochistic affair (“So taunt me and hurt me . . .”). “It’s All Right with Me,” from Can-Can (1953), sounds like a happy little fox-trot until you realize that the only emotion in the lyrics is the faintest spasm of desire at the distant prospect of another one-night stand.

These songs, and others like them, are not just cynical; they are soul-sick and exhausted. Melancholy never used to play on Broadway, and it is possible that many of the songs that were dropped from Porter’s last scores were dropped because they were too somber. In 1948, just the title of a song like “We Shall Never Be Younger” might have denoted a morbid streak of which the audience would never have approved; in this era of Stephen Sondheim and “Every Day a Little Death,” we tend to forget that radiant mental health was once routinely expected of a musical.

Still, though a strain of sadness runs through Porter’s scores, the songs are rarely depressing, because Porter resisted the luxury of self-pity. Tormented camp arias like “Down in the Depths [on the Ninetieth Floor]” were exceptions, not the rule. A graceful and relaxed stoicism was Porter’s most impressive trait. The riding accident required thirty operations in seven years, and eventually cost him his right leg. His depressions became so savage and irrational that other men might have chosen suicide rather than continue to endure them. Yet, according to George Eells, Porter wept only a few times at his fate; the most poignant of these was toward the end, when he found that he had forgotten how to play the piano.

By the time Porter died, in 1964, at the age of seventy-three, he had written the scores for more than twenty Broadway shows. At least half a dozen of these have become classics—all of them deservedly so. They represent what Voltaire would have called Porter’s garden.