Kiss Me Cole, and Happy 118th Birthday

Drawing of Cole Porter at a piano
Cole Porter / Soss Efram Melik, 1953 / Charcoal on paper / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Instiution

This blogpost originally appeared June 9, 2009

Cole Porter, as we see in the 1953 Soss Melik charcoal portrait, was at home behind the ivories. In his biography, Cole, Brendan Gill says of Porter, “His eyes are his best feature—large and dark brown and slightly popped, with heavy lids and something lemur-like in their in their playful, darting alertness.” And although Porter’s eyes seem more penetrating than playful in the Melik portrait, his expression is perhaps a moment away from a smile.

One of Porter’s dearest friends was Gerald Murphy, an upperclassman at Yale during Porter’s college days. Murphy and his wife Sara were the nucleus of the jazzy expatriate experience in Paris in the 1920s, and other than Cole Porter, they counted among their friends Pablo Picasso, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Archibald and Ada MacLeish, Fernand Léger, Robert Benchley, and John Dos Passos. Calvin Tomkins’s succinct but fun biography of Murphy, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, contains Murphy’s recollection of first encountering Porter in the Yale sophomore dormitory:

One night as I was passing his room I saw a light and went in. I can still see that room—there was a single electric light bulb in the ceiling, and a piano with a box of caramels on it, and wicker furniture, which was considered a bad sign at Yale in 1911. And sitting at the piano was a little boy from Peru, Indiana, in a checked suit and a salmon tie, with his hair parted in the middle and slicked down, looking just like a Westerner all dressed up for the East. We had a long talk, about music, and composers—we were both crazy about Gilbert and Sullivan—and I found out that he had lived on an enormous apple farm and that he had a cousin named Desdemona. He also told me that the song he had submitted for the football song competition had just been accepted. It was called “Bulldog,” and of course it made him famous.

Among the proud Eli, the Porter-penned Yale fight song is an integral part of the tradition-rich experience; what other university can claim such authorial fame to its anthem? NPG Assistant Program Manager Ian Cooke recently commented on Porter’s contribution to campus lore:

I was about fourteen years old and living next door to Sterling Library when I found out that the Yale fight song was written by Cole Porter. By then saturated in the history and mythology of the place, all I can remember thinking is “it figures.” “Beinecke” wasn’t a rare-book library around the corner; he was a kindly old man, very patient with my crush on his green Mercedes cabriolet. The athletic director was a former NFL quarterback [Frank Ryan] who sat right in front of us at hockey games, two thousand fans and a . . . marching band bouncing Porter’s tune off the cement walls of a hockey rink designed by Saarinen. It seemed like everyone was a big shot, or bound to become one. I would have been much more surprised to learn that Yale’s fight song was written by someone since forgotten than I was to learn it was written by Cole Porter.

However, if the Yale fight song had been the last song Cole Porter ever penned, his name would hardly be a household word. Porter’s body of work anchors the American musical theater experience. Such songs as “Anything Goes” and “It’s De-Lovely” are pop standards, while Kiss Me, Kate could very easily be the most popular musical adaptation ever. The lyrics to such tunes as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” reflect Porter’s keen ability to push rhymes across the page while the music resonates with cheer.

    Brush up your Shakespeare,
    Start quoting him right now,
    Brush up your Shakespeare
    And the women you will wow.
    Just declaim a few lines from “Othella”
    And they’ll think you’re a helluva fella,
    If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
    Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
    If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
    What are clothes? “Much Ado About Nussing.”
    Brush up your Shakespeare
    And they’ll all kowtow.

Cole Porter was born on June 9, 1893, and spent his years in New York, Paris, Los Angeles—wherever a song was needed for a stage or a screen. Porter authored hundreds of songs, and his work remains widely performed today. He died in 1964.

Kimball, Robert, and Brendan Gill. Cole. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971.
Tomkins, Calvin. Living Well Is the Best Revenge. New York: Viking Press, 1962.