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.
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.
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.