Linda Died 57 Years Ago Today

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Note: If you’d like to follow the progress of my book, follow Linda on Twitter, @MrsColePorter. Believe me, if Linda were alive today, she would totally use Twitter.

Linda Lee Thomas Porter died on this day, May 20, 1954. She died in her apartment in the Waldorf Towers after a long battle with emphysema.

Linda described her illness as “smothering spells.” Imagine that: smothering to death over the course of a decade. She once said, “I suppose I shouldn’t want to stop coughing as I have coughed for so many years, if I stopped, the shock might kill me.”

Here’s what helped her live a few years longer than she might have otherwise:

  • Her own personal oxygen tent.
  • Air conditioning.
  • Recuperative trips to Arizona ranches and Colorado luxury hotels, where the air was drier.
  • A summer mansion in the Berkshires, far away from hot, humid New York. She bought the mansion around the time Cole started spending summers in Hollywood. Linda rarely joined him there, said she couldn’t breathe in California, although it’s not clear whether the problem was air quality or Cole’s somewhat decadent pool parties.

For the last two years of her life, Linda was virtually housebound. Or rather, Waldorf bound. Every morning, she’d rise, do her makeup, don a tea gown, and make her way to the sofa. Cole lived in a nearby apartment, and if he was in town, they’d lunch together, but they didn’t see each other a lot otherwise.

She received many visitors. One of them, Lady Astor, noticed that two brand new Mainbocher evening gowns hung in Linda’s closet, purchased in the hope that she’d recover enough to wear them someday. Lady Astor reportedly said, “Why don’t you give me your Mainbocher’s. You’ll never wear them again.”

This was two years before she died.

Towards the end, Linda coughed so hard she broke a rib. Her once-great beauty was completely gone. The pain medicine and lack of oxygen made her mind go vague. She slipped in and out of consciousness, struggling to breathe. In May 1954, Cole was in California working on the score for Silk Stockings, but a week before she died, the doctors said he needed to come to New York. It was time.

When she first saw Cole, Linda was lucid enough to say, “I want to die. I’m in so much pain.” She asked Cole to bury her outside her mansion in Williamstown, Buxton Hill. He agreed. She held his hand and said, “If only I was important enough so that a flower or something would be named for me.”

And sometime after that, she died.

The Linda Porter Rose ('Miguel Aldrufeu')

Cole did have a rose named in Linda’s honor, but he didn’t bury her in Willisamstown, as she asked. Instead, he buried her in my hometown, Peru, Indiana, in the Cole family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, where many of my own family members are buried. I used to ride my bike through this graveyard. I thought the Cole family gravestones looked like tiny baby teeth.

The Cole Family plot, Mount Hope Cemetery, Peru, Indiana

A few months ago, I was in New York and went on a historical tour of the Waldorf-Astoria. Cole Porter is a main character in “The Waldorf Story,” his name invoked over and over again, but when I asked the tour guide if she knew anything about Linda, she said, “Isn’t it sad that she died so young?”

I said, “She didn’t die young. She was in her 70′s.”

The tour guide got defensive. “Well, I don’t know about that.”

At that moment, we were on the 41st floor, touring an empty apartment. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been Linda’s. “Do you know if this apartment was Cole’s or Linda’s? They had adjoining apartments on this floor.”

The tour guide shook her head. “Cole Porter’s apartment was on the 33rd floor. That I know!”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s the apartment he moved into after Linda died. The one decorated by Billy Baldwin. But they lived on the 41st floor for decades.” I fought the urge to reach into my bag and pull out Cole Porter’s biography.

The tour guide smiled tightly and walked away.

Yes, I was showing off, being a smarty pants. Also, I wanted an impossible thing: for the official historical tour of the Waldorf to tell Linda’s story, too. I wanted everyone on that tour to know that the money that paid for Cole’s apartment and grand lifestyle was just as much hers as his. I wanted them to know that Linda devoted her life and her fortune to making sure that he would become someone great, someone we’d always remember.

And so, when I was in Peru the other day visiting my grandparents, I stopped by Linda’s grave. It’s very strange to stand at the real grave of your fictional character. I didn’t have a rose on me, only a Milky Way candy bar.

I stood there a moment. I looked at her gravestone.

All the other Cole gravestones indicate date of birth and death, but not Linda’s. I guess that after making sure the stone read that SHE WAS THE WIFE OF COLE PORTER, there wasn’t room to tell us when she was born (November 17, 1883).

I thought about all the women I’ve ever met—in life and in books—who married great men rather than pursuing greatness themselves. I thought of all the sisters and wives and mothers and devoted daughters—all the Lindas—behind every beautiful thing.

I felt silly, but I said it. Out loud. I told her I was trying my best. I told her she wasn’t forgotten.


About Cathy Day

I'm the author of THE CIRCUS IN WINTER and COMEBACK SEASON, and I teach at Ball State University.
This entry was posted in Mrs. Cole Porter, The Biggest Things, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to Linda Died 57 Years Ago Today

  1. Lori says:

    Really nice post, Cathy. Can’t wait to read your book.

  2. David Abrams says:

    Cathy, if I hadn’t already planned on reading your book, this would have cemented the deal. A lovely, evocative tribute.

    And yes, baby-teeth tombstones! Perfect.

  3. Amy says:

    This is lovely.

  4. Tony Press says:

    I came to your blog, and this wonderful entry on what might be called the life and death of the wife – thanks to the link from the excellent Benjamin Percy interview you’ve referenced. I’m happy to have found your site.

  5. Steve says:

    Lovely tribute. Your novel is on my to read list.

  6. I just heard that LOVE, LINDA: THE LIFE OF MRS. COLE PORTER is coming back to a larger NYC venue in 2012, and found your page.
    I saw the show in it’s earlier runs at the Triad Theater, and can tell you that this is one of the most beautiful, honest and deservedly glamorous portrayals of Linda Porter that ever existed…performed and sung by the brilliant jazz vocalist Stevie Holland. Hope you get a chance to see it!

  7. Anya says:

    Hey Darlin’, loads of great ladies and great men go unrecognised but for those that love them. Wonderful that you are taking the place of a child never born to speak for these two, particularly lovely Linda. A remarkable female. Proud to be one myself.

  8. Deborah says:

    I just found your blog as I was doing a search on Linda Porter, your story is just beautiful. I’ve seen the movie De-Lovely and although it isn’t very historically correct, it’s amazing to see how this woman gave her all to make sure that Cole Porter had a very successful career, and she would turn a blind eye to his many indiscretions and wild parties, I guess after her first husband abusing for the time they were married just made her think of having a safe marriage.

    I hope to be able to read those books that you have mentioned, right now my finances aren’t too great and so they will have to wait for another time. I thank you for sharing your knowledge about the Porters and so sorry that the people at the Waldorf Astoria couldn’t be any help to you, seems that after all the years gone by, the people who knew everything about them must not have shared that part of info with them and so they only seem to know the basic facts, and figure that not everyone would care to learn or hear more about the Porters. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge, Linda Porter’s grave side and headstone look lovely, I wonder who placed a flower on her grave? Have a lovely day.

  9. Liane says:

    Hi Cathy,

    I just wanted to say that I’m looking forward to reading your book. I’ve seen De-Lovely and I’ve always wanted to know more about Linda. As a wife who’s often given her all for the success of her husband, I’d love to know more about HER. Thanks for noticing her and telling her story. Blessings!

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you so much. I’m writing as fast as I can, but messages like this definitely motivate me to keep it up.

    • I loved De-Lovely and I was so curious about the life of Linda and what happened in actuality compared to the movie was somehow different. Though I had one of my girls Isa and I’ve decided to not let her die with Linda but weep out a terrible goodbye and decided that she can’t take all of this drama anymore and decided to go home.

  10. Roselyne says:

    Hi Cathy,

    I read your post on Ms Linda Lee Thomas with great interest and emotion. I think this lady deserves to be called with her name. Thank you.

    R

    Québec

  11. Cynthia says:

    I was first introduced to Cole Porter in my teens when watching the movie “Night and Day.” Then, wanting more, I dug through my parents’ album collection and discovered “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book”. I have been in love with Cole and Ella ever since. I then purchased the book “The Life That Late He Led” through Book of the Month (I know I am really dating myself) in 1967. I still have the book. And, I love the movie “De-Lovely.”

    Something I have always been curious about: Whatever happened to all those wonderful cigarette cases? Is there a Cole Porter museum? Please let me know.

    Thanks!

    • Drew says:

      I also attempted to find information on the cigarette cases that Linda gave to Cole. Information is sketchy, but I did find a reference to a Parke-Bernet Galleries auction on May 17, 1967, of
      “Presentation Cigarette Cases & Boxes from the Late Cole Porter.”

      They were sold to benefit the New York Public Library’s Theater Collection at Lincoln Center. Have not been able to locate a copy of the auction catalogue, but was told that it had black & white illustrations.

      Have you received any additional information from your posting?

      • Cathy Day says:

        I seem to remember seeing the auction catalogue in the Cole Porter Collection at Yale. All the cases went to private individuals…as far as I know.

        • Drew says:

          Thanks for information on the catalogue in the Yale collection. Had assumed that the collection was dispersed to many private collectors at the auction, but it would be interesting to view the design and inscriptions of the cases if they were illustrated in the catalogue. Also of interest is
          the designer(s) – craftsmen of the cases (In Delovely, a character says Linda was keeping Cartier’s busy, but some of my research suggests that they may have come from Fulco di Verdura and the exclusive shop on 5th Ave
          that Cole helped him set up in 1939.

          Since Linda was so chic, will you discuss her fashion sense in clothing, accessories, and jewelry in your book? The stunning blue crystal multi-strand necklace, in Delovely, is certainly modeled after a Verdura design. And like the Duchess of Windsor (another Verdura client), I think it is this fashion sense that the fascinate us and add to Linda’s allure.

          • Cathy Day says:

            I imagine they said “Cartier’s” because it’s a more familiar name. I can’t remember, but I believe some of the cigarette cases were made by Van Cleef and Arpels. My book will deal with her fashion sense, since that is such an important part of who she was, although I confess I am more interested in other aspects of her character.

  12. kimm wong says:

    we have watched the movie …De Lovely
    and a lovely movie about Cole Porter and
    his beautiful wife… Linda Lee
    we love all his songs… and we know their story
    will be remembered for years and years… Day and Night

  13. Finished watching the movie De-Lovely and had to get more information about Linda. This was a great source. I know what it’s like to be the forgotten wife, although on a much lower rung of the ladder, and thanks to you she will not be forgotten.

  14. Margolicious says:

    Thank you so much for this interesting piece. I have read every Porter biography. Winsor French helped Linda decorate the Porters’ beautiful home in Williamstown. I just ordered Out and About with Winsor French. He was my neighbor in Cleveland to learn more about Linda. Was she gay too? I have read allegations that she was.

    • Cathy Day says:

      So glad to meet someone who knew Winsor. If you’re from Cleveland, you’ll LOVE Out and About. Personally, I don’t think Linda was a lesbian. Although, yes, she hung out with a group of women who made lives together: Elsie DeWolfe, Bessie Marbury, and Anne Morgan. Ultimately, both she and Elsie chose to marry men rather than go solo or have “Boston Marriages.” That’s one of the many things that interests me about her. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any way to know for certain what happened in her bed. But I can imagine. One of the benefits of being a fiction writer, not a biographer.

  15. Donna says:

    I stumbled on your site quite by accident in trying to find out if there were any pictures of the opening night cigarette cases that Linda gave Cole. I was very touched by your blog about the anniversary of Linda’s death and now I’m very anxious to read your novel. I must confess being a bit obsessed with Cole & Linda Porter since seeing De-Lovely, and being completely fascinated by their glamorous though unconventional relationship. Before that movie, which I realize is not a strictly historical account of their lives, I had no idea that Linda played such a huge part in his success. Thankfully, Irwin Winkler told her story as well.

    Do you have any idea as to when your novel will be released?

  16. Nancy says:

    By sheer coinicidence, I re-watched “De-Lovely” on the 59th anniversary of Linda Porter’s death. Always loved the classic movies & music from before my time. So often I mention movies, names, lines from song or film from my parent’s era or earlier…& so few know to whom or what I am referring. So I love that you were a “smarty pants” & admit I’d have done the same to correct the docent. To let this beautiful, colorful, artisitic era be forgotten is not only sad but wrong. And to forget Linda’s role in Cole’s life & how, through her love for him, she contributed to his music, is equally wrong. Thank you for your blog. And I’ll be looking for your book as soon as I complete this entry.

  17. jorgi sanders says:

    As I was looking to buy Linda Porter Rose Bushes , I stumbled onto your blog .
    Beautiful tribute and I love that you corrected the guide at the Waldorf .
    My mother said it was not polite to correct someone , but in this case , as the lady was giving false information ,you are right to do so .
    One of my favorite movies is ‘De-Lovely” , Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd .
    We all know the magic of Hollywood ,( I have to laugh here ) has a habit of changing the truth .
    Truly Linda Lee Porter had a great deal to do with the success of Cole Porter . If not for her , there may not have been a Cole Porter at all .
    So , as I stumbled onto this blog , it certainly is a lovely trip ………and with no bruised knees .
    Thank you for sharing Cathy . Jorgi

  18. tara says:

    It would seem I’m a little late to the party, but amazing blog! What an wonderful woman. I wouldn’t have known about her had I not accidentally found this post. I’m so glad I did!!

  19. Connie Garcia says:

    What a beautiful tribute to Linda thank you Cathy for informing us all what a truly amazing women she was.

  20. Sandra Olson says:

    Just watched the movie De Lovely what a great movie. Truly a story of unconventional love. I am anxious to read your book!

  21. Jane Cate says:

    Loved the article. All that I can say is that Linda was remarkable.
    Thank you for sharing, that Linda was more than Cole Porter’s wife.

  22. Elle Tergina says:

    Watched De Lovely tonight and wanted to know more about Linda. Delighted that I found your blog! Very informative. Look forward to your novel.

  23. Marjorie says:

    What a treat to find you! I have been trying to find out more about Linda for quite a while. I keep coming up with the same facts over and over.
    Can you tell us the name of you book and when it will be out? I will be one of the first in line to purchase it.
    Thank you for ferreting out information on an unsung yet fascinating person.
    Kind regards,
    Marjorie Gore

  24. Just watched De-lovely again for the 2nd time. Very well done. Cole Porter was a genius & it looks like Linda Lee brought out the best in him. What a story, drama, comedy, romance, all. In fact life with fabulous music. Looking forward to reading your book when it comes out!
    Melinda

  25. carlota eleonora gavidia says:

    I have been interested in Cole Porter since I learned he was the author of Begin the Beguine which was a song my parents enjoyed. He was also heard here in Latin America, and for my in-laws, for example, that song is “their song”. After watching De Lovely I have had a good time listening to many of his songs and interpretations. When your book is out I would like to know so I can get a copy and I hope you can include pictures, because eventhough they were socialites there seem to be not many pictures of them around. Eleonora

  26. Dora Christians says:

    Dear Cathy, I think this was a beautiful post. And I also believe that stories of their women are just as important as the great men. It is so sad that many women are only known for being someones wife. My grandfather won the nobel prize in 1955 and to this day his story is out there but my grandmother was just his wife. The family and many in the Icelandic nation have been telling her story now finally. So I know exactly what you mean. Thank you.

  27. Karen says:

    LOVELY post ….. thank you.

  28. Grace says:

    Okay… I admit I was one of those Lina porter rose seekers and used google. Firstly I saw just. Pics and then something about Cathy Day & wondered how she factored into finding more about the rose. I then got sidetracked in reading tha Man on the Phone & can relate given I’ve provided faculty support for over 20 yrs. and many work darn hard & spend long hours helping students. Anyway… An hour later I return to Linda and am very pleased that a book just about Linda is forthcoming. Awaiting its arrival on my Kindle. Bye for now… Off to pick up my search once more for the lovely Linda Lee Porter rose.

  29. Pingback: The Top 5 Most Popular Posts on the Big Thing–and Why | Cathy Day

  30. Timothy barry says:

    Just saw ‘Love ,Linda’ last night. Very enjoyable. Glad I found your blog, informative and nicely written.
    I own Ella sings Cole Porter. FYI: The cigarette cases were mentioned as being Verdura.

  31. john ebeling says:

    I’ve followed a trail leading from the current listing of the Porter home to this site, digging up interesting pieces of information about the house and how it was used while they lived in it. So sad that Linda couldn’t have been buried in the MA house. She seemed to love that house more than Cole. You’d think after that long of an “agreement” that benefitted him greatly over his whole life, he would have done the right thing and honored her last wish. I hope some day someone leaves an honorary grave stone on the property to fulfill this for her. Makes me feel badly towards Cole as a person – who now seems rather self indulgent and pathetic.

    • Cathy Day says:

      John, I also wish Cole had honored Linda’s wishes, and yes, when I first began writing about their marriage, I also felt badly towards him. But my attitude has softened a bit. You should read George Eells biography. He was friends with Cole and shares many personal anecdotes that lead me to think that Cole wasn’t purposely cruel. Just clueless. Thanks so much for finding your way here.

  32. Mariette Walters says:

    Beautiful tribute…..I followed a trail from Jack Cassidy, …I feel for her and I am glad you felt the need girl her tube remembered. I wishshe could have had children to carry on her name also.

  33. Mariette Walters says:

    Sorry for the auto correct…. I’m glad you felt the need to give a tribute to her, I believe she also should be remembered.

  34. Trish says:

    Hi Cathy,
    As so many others have mentioned, I came across your page while looking for Linda’s rose… And right after my 4th or 5th viewing of De-Lovely. I know it wasn’t exactly historically accurate but still such an enjoyable movie. I’m just now downloading a biography of Cole and hope to find your book about Linda available soon. Write faster!

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