In his life and in his music, Cole Porter was "the top"—the pinnacle of wit, sophistication, and success. His songs—"I Get a Kick Out of You," "Anything Goes," and hundreds more—were instant pop hits, and their musical and emotional depths have made them lasting standards.
William McBrien has captured the creator of these songs, whose life was not merely one of wealth and privilege. A prodigal young man, Porter found his emotional anchor in a long, loving, if sexless marriage, a relationship he repeatedly risked with a string of affairs with men. His last eighteen years were marked by physical agony but also unstinting artistic achievement, including the great Hollywood musicals High Society, Silk Stockings, and Kiss Me Kate (recently and very successfully revived on Broadway). Here, at last is a life that informs the great music and lyrics through illuminating glimpses of the hidden, complicated, private man.
It's not quite as witty as a Porter song (who could equal the incomparable Cole?), but this thorough biography honors the Broadway musical's worldliest, most intelligent composer by taking him seriously. Voluminous research buttresses William McBrien's portrait of a charmed life scarred by tragedy. Born in 1891, Porter left his wealthy family in Indiana to thoroughly enjoy himself at Yale University in Connecticut, where his sassy songs gave the Midwestern outsider social clout. Although exclusively homosexual, Porter was nonetheless devoted to the wealthy widow he married in 1919, and McBrien's narrative of their 1920s travels through Europe captures the glamorous sheen of their life together. Porter had some early success with shows like Fifty Million Frenchmen, but his sustained run of hits began in 1932 with Gay Divorce, continuing through the '50s and Kiss Me Kate. The author liberally quotes from Porter's deliciously naughty lyrics, reminding us how corny most show tunes seem when compared to "Love for Sale" or "Anything Goes." McBrien's painful account of the ghastly aftermath of a 1937 riding accident, which left Porter in pain that ended only with his death in 1964, reveals a quiet, uncomplaining stoic whose substance matched his dazzling style. --Wendy Smith