“Not Like the Rest of Us”: Ten Thoughts on Cole Porter as Native Hoosier
On Friday, June 1st at 6:30 PM, I’m going to be on John Strauss’ Indiana Public Radio show, Indiana Weekend, talking about Cole Porter’s hometown (and mine): Peru, Indiana. We recorded the interview last week, but I haven’t been able to get these remaining thoughts out of my head.
1. Cole Porter was born on June 9, 1891 in this house in my hometown of Peru, Indiana. When I was growing up in Peru, I knew Cole Porter’s birthplace as the rather shabby apartment building on the left. A few years ago, the police found a meth lab in one of the apartments during a raid. This generated some negative press, which led to a wonderful effort to save the house and turn it into a B&B. Today, that house is for sale. The reason it’s for sale is that despite being absolutely beautiful and historical, the B&B doesn’t generate enough money because not enough people have reason to stay there. The whole thing makes me sad. Read this article if you want some backstory on this.
2. I lived in Peru, Indiana from 1968 until 1987, and during that time, I had no knowledge whatsoever of who Cole Porter was, nor that I shared a hometown with one of the 20th century’s most prolific composers.
3. How could I not know this? Because I’m working class. Because I grew up in town with no bookstores, no NPR stations, no record stores, no internet. Because no one I knew ever talked about him. Why didn’t they talk about him? See #5.
4. I had to travel all the way to New York City to find out that I shared a hometown with Cole Porter. It was 1990, I was shopping for music in Tower Records. I came across a tribute album called Red, Hot + Blue, a tribute to someone named Cole Porter to benefit AIDS research, and it contained songs by some of my favorite artists at that time (Sinead O’Connor, U2, Annie Lennox). So I bought it. I realized I knew all the songs already…somehow. I opened up the jewel case to read the liner notes, and right there, “Cole Porter was born in Peru, Indiana…” I was dumbfounded.
5. The next time I visited Peru, I asked my maternal grandmother, a member of the local historical society, “How can it be that I grew up in this town and didn’t know who he was? Why don’t we celebrate him more?” She said, “Well, it’s because he left, of course. And because, you know, he was…” She either said he was “queer” or “different.” I can’t remember which.
6. Today, Cole Porter is definitely celebrated and known in Peru. Proof of this:
- his name is now on the “Welcome to Peru” sign (it wasn’t when I was growing up)
- the Cole Porter Festival (go to this if you can!)
- more exhibits devoted to him at the local museum, including one of his trademark Cadillacs
- there’s a sign to help out-of-towners find his gravesite at Mount Hope Cemetery
7. Here is a T-shirt from a past Cole Porter Festival in Peru. I love this shirt and everything it represents, the question it raises: How do you celebrate one of the 20th century’s most sophisticated artists in a place where his brand of sophistication and artistry is not generally valued?
8. Things I have heard people from Indiana say about Cole Porter:
- “His music has nothing to do with Indiana. It’s like he’s ashamed of us.”
- “He never came back because he thought he was too good for this place.”
- “He wasn’t like the rest of us.”
- “I know he visited his mom a lot, and he had a standing order at Arnold’s Candies, and yeah, he’s buried here, but he’s not really from here, you know what I mean?”
- “I guess Cole Porter’s B-day was today. Does anyone still listen to him?”
9. For 20 years, I lived as an expatriate Midwesterner. I was what writer Calvin Trillin calls an “ExMid,” a term he uses to denote “someone who lives on either coast or abroad but still prefers to think of himself at least partly as a Midwesterner.” The ExMid harbors a particular fear: “The fear that his mother or aunt or cousin will be cornered by some neighbor at his hometown supermarket and informed that he has become too big for his britches.” Cole Porter was not an ExMid, but I am. Big time. In fact, I am petrified that my aunt will be cornered at Harvey Hinklemeyers by one of her neighbors who will have read this blog post and tell her it’s really a shame I couldn’t find something nice to say on Cole Porter’s birthday.
10. What is the most Hoosier song Cole wrote? If by “Hoosier,” you mean sentimental and nostalgic, then by all means, it’s “Old Fashioned Garden” or “Don’t Fence Me In,” but if you mean a song that represents his “true” feelings about his Midwestern roots, then I say it’s the little known ditty “Experiment,” written in 1933 for the musical Nymph Errant. A professor gives some final advice to his graduating students about what to do in the face of “philistine defiance.”
Though interfering friends may frown.
At each attempt to hold you down.
If this advice you always employ
The future can offer you infinite joy
And you’ll see.
Happy Birthday, Cole.