“Not Like the Rest of Us”: Ten Thoughts on Cole Porter as Native Hoosier

“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.

Extreme Makeover: Cole Porter Birthplace Edition

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.

This is how I found out who Cole Porter was.

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

My prized possession

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.”

Experiment.
Be curious
Though interfering friends may frown.
Get furious
At each attempt to hold you down.
If this advice you always employ
The future can offer you infinite joy
And merriment
Experiment
And you’ll see.

Happy Birthday, Cole.

Mrs. Cole Porter The Biggest Things Writing

39 comments

  1. Ashley Ford says:

    I tend to be extremely vocal about my love for Indiana. It’s not an act, as I really do appreciate where I was raised. But I do plan on living somewhere else after this next year. I’ll come back. I may even settle here eventually. And I wouldn’t see it as a sacrifice.

    There seems to be this thought among young Midwestern artist-types that if you ever want to live anywhere else, you have to hate where you are now. I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. I think everyone should travel and see as much of the world as they can. I don’t think you have to hate your hometown to do so. I certainly don’t.

    • Cathy Day says:

      I don’t subscribe to that school of thought either, or I wouldn’t have come back. I love Indiana, sometimes in a very sentimental way, other times not. It’s a very complicated relationship.

  2. ALeahy says:

    What a lovely piece. In some ways, I’m ExMid. But I feel as if the Midwest is home, and California is still strange after four years. Mostly, I wanted to say I really like that Red, Hot + Blue CD! Oh, and if the radio show can be heard online, do post the link on Friday.

  3. Lori says:

    Love this. What do you call a Midwesterner who still lives in the Midwest, but not the place they grew up? I still have that feeling that my dad will get the passive-aggressive “why the hell does she live up there?” questions at the T-town supermarket.

  4. Lee Martin says:

    Great post, Cathy! As you surely know, I , too, have a complicated relationship with my native Midwest (southeastern Illinois), and I know very well that thought that someone who leaves is indeed too big for his/her britches. Sometimes I feel guilty about traveling back to the home area and gleaning material for my writing, but I hope that I’m using that material in a way that gives a voice to an often unheard-of population. You may recall Frank O’Connor’s book, THE LONELY VOICE, and how he talks about the short story being a form that gives expression to submerged populations. I suppose, and I don’t mean this to be pejorative, I think of my little corner of southeastern Illinois as my submerged population. When I go back there and start talking to folks whom I’ve never met, one of the first questions they invariably ask is, “Who were your people?” They’re interested in those lines of ancestry that establish you as a citizen of that world. That’s what connects us, the people. We belong because we first took breath on common ground.

  5. Hey Cathy, I thought I would stop by. My mom talked to me at great length about Cole Porter and made sure I knew who he was. It’s too bad she isn’t around anymore because I bet you could have gotten a lot of information out of her. Great post, by the way.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Wouldn’t it have been funny if, between innings of our softball games, she’d also been teaching me more about the history of my hometown? I so wish I’d known that she loved history as much as I did back them, but it’s okay, because I still learned a lot of things from her. Thanks for stopping by, Brandon.

  6. Lynn Ploss says:

    As a native Peruvian (Indiana, USA), my first recollection of hearing Cole Porter’s music was at the high school Rodeo, the annual spring music festival, in the mid-60′s. The theme was all Cole Porter music. My mother was a Cole Porter fan so we were aware at an early age. Sunday drives seemed to take us along the Mississinewa River past the Cole and Porter family’s picturesque farms and properties that lined the banks of the river. I lived close to the Mt. Hope cemetery, so as kids, we knew where the gravesite was. I’m glad my mother was able to share that knowledge with us as children.

    In the early 1990′s, I was living in upstate New York. Imagine my surprise when I picked up a Sunday New York Times and the lead story was an article about Cole Porter’s 100th birthday and his upbringing in Peru, Indiana and his long standing order for fudge from Arnold’s Candy. Not everyone’s small Midwestern town makes the front page of the New York Times.

    Thanks for the post.

    PS – your great aunts (?) Carol and Diane used to babysit my brothers and me. Thought I would share the “Peruvian” connection.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Hello Lynn! I’m the daughter of Kenny, so Diane and Carol are my aunts. Are you related to Paul Ploss? He was good friends with my grandpa Day. Thank you very much for sharing your memories of Cole Porter. I definitely don’t think that my experience was the norm, and I know plenty of people in Peru love (and have always loved) his music. How I managed to never meet any of them to discuss that music is indeed a little strange. :-) I was in Peru today, as a matter of fact, giving a tour to some friends; I really do love my hometown.

      • Lynn Ploss says:

        Cathy-
        Yes, Paul was my father. We used to visit with your grandparents when I was little. Your aunt Cindy graduated from high school with my brother Mark. I loved the Circus In Winter. In many ways, I knew the characters in your book. My aunt Margaret remembers someone similar to your Wild Man of Borneo. Hope you have more books coming.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks Kelsey! Are you back yet? I agree with his comment wholeheartedly. Of course, Cole Porter lived in another time and had to leave Indiana, but these days, that’s not the case. Look at us!

  7. “…The apple at the top of the tree is never too high to achieve, so take an example from Eve: experiment, be curious…” I love it. Can’t wait to see what all your “experimenting” brings to the world in your next book.

  8. Joey Cole Kubesch says:

    Being a relative, I’ve heard lots of the “too good for Peru” comments; Cole pretty much proved that Peru never left HIM–I’ve enjoyed these comments and Cathy’s piece. I did NOT want that Red, Hot, and Blue c.d. to be recorded and released, but I’ve bought many copies to gift–Jody Watley singing “After You, Who?” was the rendition chosen for the DJ to play when each of our two Daughters had their first dance with Dad. I keep wondering whether anybody will make such a fuss about OUR lives and memories when we’ve been dead nearly 48 years! Will people visit our graves and bring a tool to chip off a piece of the granite of our headstone?—Joey Cole Kubesch, living in old Cole Home.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Mrs. Kubesch, Thank you so much for reading this little post and responding. I agree that Peru never left Cole. For example, a lot of the art he collected was decidedly regional: Grant Wood, Grandma Moses, Dale Nichols. Check out this painting by Dale Nichols: http://img.artknowledgenews.com/files2011june/Dale-Nichols-January.jpg I saw it hanging on the wall in a photo spread of his Waldorf apartment, and I thought, If that doesn’t look like Indiana, I don’t know what does. It’s so interesting to me that this is the kind of visual art that ‘spoke’ to him. Did someone really try to chip off a piece of his gravestone? That’s horrible! I’ve got another post coming up this week about some of my favorite songs by Cole that you might enjoy. All best to you and your family.

  9. Ellen Harvey says:

    Cathy,
    I have been the docent at the Cole Porter Birthplace since September of 2007. Additionally, I was the interim Innkeeper for 14 months. I can take 2 lunch hours with you to tell you who, why, & when people find a reason to visit the Birthplace. As for the tours, I have met people from Scotland, Germany, France, Australia, London, Holland, Canada & too many states to count right now. As Innkeeper, I think I can safely say that upwards from 80% of the guests came there because they were Cole Porter fans. Many saying, “I can’t believe I’m staying where Cole Porter was born!” Yes, the Peruvians looked down their nose at him. For shame! He is worldly renowned and his music timeless. If you read the book of his unpublished works, you will notice that he wrote a lot about the area. They didn’t become hits because other people weren’t interested in “us”. Many of his lyrics were written to follow the storyline of the show and not necessarily a reflection of his thoughts. Last year, on Cole’s birthday, I received a call from a radio station in Australia. They asked if I could be interviewed on the air. I agreed and they called me back 30 minutes later. Previous to my speaking, I could hear the gentleman talking about Cole Porter, his music, etc. I spoke several minutes and my brother was able to hear it live on his computer in Washington DC. I would love to talk to you the next time you are in Peru. Then I could tell you about the man that came here from Scotland solely to see everything Cole Porter, then went right back to his homeland. Then there is the family of 6 who came from France to tour the US and one of their stops was Cole Porter’s Birthplace where they spent the night. Oh yes, the classical guitar teacher from Germany, the lady from Holland that was going to stay 1 night but stayed 3 nights because she enjoyed Peru so much. She was here to do a magazine article on Cole. Have I peaked your curiosity yet? Much more to hear, if you’re interested. Incidentally, I first learned about Cole in grade school where his accomplishments were stressed. The music teachers in Peru Jr. High & Peru High School do the same. Also saw him walking down the hall at Lincoln School when he was visiting a teacher. I could write a book too!

    • Cathy Day says:

      Ellen, I would love to visit the birthplace next time I’m in town. It makes me happy to hear about all these people traveling to Peru to visit his birthplace. I just wish there were more of them, a steady, steady stream! I don’t know if you heard it or not, but I was on Indiana Public Radio on Friday talking about Peru and Cole Porter. I think if you follow this link, they will have the show up on their website this coming week so you can listen. I think another big reason I didn’t know who Cole Porter was is that I was not musical, unfortunately. By the way, I saw the photo spread on the birthplace in Victorian Living (or Victorian Home?) from a few years ago. The place looked wonderful, and I hope this year’s Cole Porter Festival continues to draw visitors–from out of town AND in town!

      • Ellen Harvey says:

        Cathy, Just got word that the man from Scotland, James MacGregor, is coming back in September and staying at the Inn for 11 days. Gotta love this guy!

  10. David Cattin says:

    Hi, Cathy:

    I didn’t know I was an “ExMid” after all these years in Washington DC! And, now I’ve retired and am planning to return to Peru. Looking forward to the slower (much) more affordable life to be had in small-town Indiana. I don’t remember learning much about Cole while I was growing up, but now proudly tell anyone I meet about the connection and about the circus too. Most are intrigued, some a little envious. And, I’m just happy to be coming home.

    • Cathy Day says:

      David, I just returned to Indiana, too, and I’ve never been happier. I hope you’ll get involved with all the various efforts to preserve Peru’s unique history. I try to do what I can from Muncie! :-)

  11. John Kirk says:

    Hi Cathy-

    Just stumbled across your article after googling Cole Porter Festival. Thanks for the mention by the way. I have been heading up the CP Fest for the past four years. I am also from Peru, and graduated from PHS in 1997. I didn’t know anything about Cole Porter or his music until 2005 when “Delovely” was released. Now I hear his music everywhere. He is such a great talent and I am happy to be able to do a small part in promoting it through the festival. We are growing slowly every year and before you know it we could be attracting as many visitors to Peru as the circus does. Just to demonstrate Cole’s relevance to our society today, his music has been on three major television shows in the last year: America’s Got Talent, Glee, and Smash. Thanks for the writing this great post.

    JohnKirk

  12. Fred Stouder says:

    Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Miles Davis pretty much sum up the music I listen return to after others….Or the the Four Freshman also from Indiana, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Ella, Duke Ellington. Frank Sinatra, and others, playing their music.

    I Went to 12 public schools in the first 12 years, all in Indiana except for the 8th grade in California…and later Indiana University, Bloomington. I delivered as a young boy, in weather hot and cold, the South Bend Tribune, the Indianapolis Star, the Frankfort Morning Times, the Fort Wayne NewsSentinel, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Those Indiana experiences and my third grade Warsaw East Ward English teacher have carried my to my 70th year. I also learned while being fetched up in Indiana that if it rains before 7:00 it quits buy 11:00, sometimes.

  13. Tom Davis says:

    I came across something like this, though on a very much smaller scale, a number of years ago. In the course of some research about people who had lived in Indianapolis, (maybe I should really say who are buried in Indianapolis since my research related to a cemetery here) I discovered that an African-American piano player named Leroy Carr had lived in Indianapolis in the late 20s and was one of the early founders of the Blues and very popular. Eric Clapton’s CD “From the Cradle” featured two or three Carr tunes. (Clapton is also said to have purchased a headstone to mark Carr’s previously unmarked grave in Floral Park Cemetery in town.) So I went to the public library to get some of his original music to listen to and found zilch.

    But about a year later I was in a small town in Italy because one of the women we were with actually had relatives living there. To pass the time I went inside a little record store on the town square and came across a CD that was half Leroy Carr. And in London, on the same trip, in Virgin Records flagship store, there were several Carr CDs, one of which I bought.

    Glad to see Peru is embracing Cole more these days. I believe our library also has some Leroy Carr now too.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks, Tom. Yes, Peru definitely embraces Cole more these days, much more so than when I was growing up there. And I also think that fewer talented Hoosiers feel like they must leave Indiana in order to become artists. That’s also a good thing!

  14. Being from Wabash I knew about Cole Porter from the start. People of my parents age were his contemporaries and were appreciative. I couldn’t get out of Indiana fast enough and am proud to have left. I don’t care what anyone there thinks about my attitude toward the place because I owned it too.

  15. My husband and I were watching DeLovely again today — it’s one of our all-time favorites. I discovered your blog and will bookmark it. I’m an ExMid also, lived in Columbia City durimg my school years-and graduated from Ball State. Now I live in Charleston, SC, a city that might suit the Porters betwell today, but not in their time. Paris was probably the best choice.

    We have good friends from Peru who have taken us on the tour of Cole’s home. Her mother grew up nearby. Glad to see the interest in Linda’s story continuing and Cole’s genius being recognized.

    My husband is an author; his blog today is about traveling in the Midwest. k

  16. My husband and I were watching DeLovely again today — it’s one of our all-time favorites. I discovered your blog and will bookmark it. I’m an ExMid also, lived in Columbia City durimg my school years-and graduated from Ball State. Now I live in Charleston, SC, a city that might suit the Porters betwell today, but not in their time. Paris was probably the best choice.

    We have good friends from Peru who have taken us on the tour of Cole’s home. Her mother grew up nearby. Glad to see the interest in Linda’s story continuing and Cole’s genius being recognized.

    My husband is an author; his blog today is about traveling in the Midwest. k

    • Cathy Day says:

      Some say “Pee-roo.” Some say “Pay-roo.” Some say “Puh-roo.” I say “Puh-roo,” but I don’t think there is a “correct” pronunciation. Indiana has a long history of mispronouncing towns named for foreign cities/countries.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Some say “Pee-roo.” Some say “Pay-roo.” Some say “Puh-roo.” I say “Puh-roo,” but I don’t think there is a “correct” pronunciation. Indiana has a long history of mispronouncing towns named for foreign cities/countries.

  17. Judith (Craft) Walker says:

    I’m from Peru and loved reading your blog. Lynn Ploss is my cousin. I always knew about Cole because Kate Buffington was his relative and we were friends. In fact she came from a line of Kates “Kiss Me Kate” connection. Tim Noble(also a friend) has a CD out singing many of his songs. He has a lovely voice and teaches now at IU. He got his musical talent from his father, James Noble, and mother who was wonderful on the piano. Mr. Noble, taught ALL the music in High School and he made sure we all knew about Cole Porter. I could listen to Cole’s music all day. I think he was best at his clever lyrics. Thank you for taking me back to my old home town where the police station got robbed by Dillinger, the fire station burned down, and one of the funeral homes was owned by the Eikenberries.

  18. Judith (Craft) Walker says:

    I’m from Peru and loved reading your blog. Lynn Ploss is my cousin. I always knew about Cole because Kate Buffington was his relative and we were friends. In fact she came from a line of Kates “Kiss Me Kate” connection. Tim Noble(also a friend) has a CD out singing many of his songs. He has a lovely voice and teaches now at IU. He got his musical talent from his father, James Noble, and mother who was wonderful on the piano. Mr. Noble, taught ALL the music in High School and he made sure we all knew about Cole Porter. I could listen to Cole’s music all day. I think he was best at his clever lyrics. Thank you for taking me back to my old home town where the police station got robbed by Dillinger, the fire station burned down, and one of the funeral homes was owned by the Eikenberries.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *