A charmed double life

Cole Porter's gay life revealed in song-and now on screen

When songwriter Cole Porter saw a rough cut of the 1946 biopic based on his life, he reportedly quipped “I love it! It’s completely untrue!” A sanitized Hollywood movie starring Cary Grant (ironically a closeted bisexual man), Night and Day focussed on the romance between Porter and his wife Linda, and his successes with such standards as I Get a Kick Out of You, Begin the Beguine, and Just One of Those Things. It was never mentioned that his marriage (possibly to a lesbian), while affectionate and loving, was purely platonic; and that Porter was living a double life filled with myriad homosexual romances and sexual encounters.

Born to a wealthy family in Peru, Indiana in 1891, Porter belongs to a long list of gay musicians who practically define American music and who, to varying degrees, hid their true sexuality from others: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Jerry Herman, Lorenz Hart, Billy Strayhorn, Virgil Thomson. Like them, Cole Porter lived in an era where “gentlemen” were allowed their flings but they had to be discreet about them. Porter, who had plenty of flings, was fortunate to find in Linda Lee Thomas a sympathetic, loving woman who believed in his talent and even met and pre-approved some of Cole’s lovers.

Which brings us to the new musical revue De-Lovely from director Irwin Winkler being released to theatres this month. Winkler and the production team got the green light from the Cole Porter Trust to tell the truth about his marriage of convenience and homosexuality this time around. There are scenes of Porter (portrayed by Kevin Kline) visiting gay bars, kissing men and having romantic picnics with gay lovers. The movie is not your traditional biography, however; the emphasis is on the music. Dialogue and action mostly function by way of introduction to musical renditions of Porter songs by Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and others. The wealthy, older socialite Thomas whom Porter met while living in Paris (and wed in 1918) is played by Ashley Judd.

It is always fascinating for music lovers to discover the history and inspiration behind their favourite songs; more so in the case of Cole Porter. Knowing as we do now his predilections, all manner of conjecture can be made in respect to his lyrics. Seeing as Porter was attracted to strong, dominant men, was My Heart Belongs to Daddy a love letter written to an older, masculine man? Is Love For Sale an ode to a street hustler? Perhaps Anything Goes was inspired by an all-night, drunken, kinky orgy? In a songbook including the titles Let’s Misbehave, I’d Rather be Spanish (Than Mannish), I’m a Gigolo, Too Darn Hot, Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love), perhaps the slyest reference to homo sex is this revealing little lyric from one of his most popular tunes: “So, if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” I guess dandy, old Cole was Greek passive, huh?


Certainly within the entertainment community of his time (his greatest successes were in the 1930s and ’40s), Porter’s dalliances were common knowledge. People just didn’t talk about it openly. Much like conspiracy theories about Jews and money, scandal sheet writers of the day often talked of a “homintern”-a cabal of homosexual writers, musicians, producers and directors who secretly controlled the arts.

Like all myths, there was much more to Cole Porter’s life than met the eye. He was portrayed in the media as a handsome, dapper, bon vivant whose charmed life was nothing but fun and frivolity. The real Porter was another story, altogether. Living a double life took its toll emotionally and physically. The endless parade of sexual flings put a strain on his marriage and the fast living caught up to him. Porter’s drinking, which was already a problem in his youth, intensified after a horse-riding accident in 1937 fractured both his legs. Eventually, his right leg had to be amputated in 1958, and for a vain man, proud of his looks, this was a crushing blow.

For the last six years of his life, Porter was deeply depressed, isolated and wrote no new music. He died due to the complications of alcoholism in 1964.

But what a legacy of song he has left us. Along with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and a few select others, Cole Porter is the epitome of American popular song. Porter’s creations, over 1000 of them, have been performed by virtually every major interpreter of the pop/jazz era which coincided with his life: Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Anita O’Day, and Sarah Vaughan. Countless musicians today still are attracted to his witty wordplay and clever melodies, as evidenced by the high calibre of talent who agreed to appear in De-Lovely.

His life may have been a lot different had he lived in a later epoch. Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story, On the Waterfront) was born around 30 years after Porter. He, too, had a long-term marriage and, unlike Porter, children as well. After years of agonizing, he finally left his wife in the mid-’70s and lived the final 10 to 15 years of his life as an openly gay man. He even tried to persuade his mentor, Aaron Copland, to come out, to which Aaron replied “No, dear boy, you’re doing just fine for all of us!”

One final thing: Cole Porter’s grandfather, James Omar, an obsessive capitalist who became the richest man in Indiana, was known to all by his initials, JO! How fitting, don’t you think?

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 you what you’ve got

– You’ve Got That Thing by Cole Porter


Starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd.

Directed by Irwin Winkler.

Opens Jul 16.

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Vancouver, Arts, Theatre

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