For Cole Porter’s Birthday: My Personal Playlist
If you think this is going to be all You’re the Toppy, ha! think again.
[Follow the title links to hear the songs!] Supposedly, Cole Porter wrote this hilariously maudlin song on a dare: his friend Monty Wooley gave him the worst title he could think of and challenged him to make a song out of it. This was the result. It’s a “story song,” told by Miss Otis’ maid or butler (depending on the gender of the singer), and the plot is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ve linked to a particularly amusing rendition of the song performed live by Fred Astaire.
When you think of “Begin the Beguine,” you hear Artie Shaw’s swing reinterpretation, which is what made the song immortal. But the song Cole wrote in 1935 for Jubilee sounded very different, probably like this, and then it sort of languished around, waiting to be reinvigorated by Shaw. When Cole eventually met the by-then famous bandleader, he jokingly remarked to Shaw, “I’m glad to finally meet my collaborator.” Shaw reportedly replied, “Does this mean I get half of the royalties?”
Annie Lennox’s version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” I used to sing this song to my nephew as a lullaby. My sister tells me that for a few years, he liked to hear it when he was falling asleep. To this day, if I start singing the words, “Ev’ry time…” he gets a little smile on his face. It’s our special thing.
Mr. and Mrs. Fitch
A song few of you have ever heard of, I’m sure. Here are the lyrics. The story goes that Cole and Linda and their friends invented a fake couple of social climbers named Mr. and Mrs. S. Beach Fitch. They submitted tales of the couple’s European exploits to the gossip columnists, and soon, everyone who was someone in café society wanted to meet these interesting Fitches. The Porters had a good laugh about it and then killed the couple with a well-placed obit. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch’s rise and fall was immortalized in this song which appeared in Gay Divorce. I find it really interesting that Cole and Linda understood that social celebrity is a construction, that it’s a made thing. It reminds me of the cases of Andy Devine and J.T. Leroy and what these social experiments/inside jokes/hoaxes/performance-pieces say about the construction of literary celebrity, too. Interestingly enough, the song also inspired a play of the same name starring John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle about two gossip columnists who perpetuate a similar hoax using digital rather than print media. The show bombed on Broadway, and really, the song isn’t really very good, but I love what the story behind the song tells us about Cole and Linda’s relationship to media, celebrity, and fame.
I love Sutton Foster’s awesomely choreographed tap extravaganza from Anything Goes. I had the good fortune to meet Sutton at Ball State in Fall 2010 as she was preparing for her role, and I can testify that she is indeed the most down-to-earth Broadway star you’d ever want to meet.
My favorite of his standards is probably “Night and Day,” and this version from the biopic of the same name is certainly interesting from a writerly perspective. Cary Grant is Cole Porter (ha!) and he’s been invited back to Yale for some sort of reunion (ha!) and as he sits down to play a song, he senses that Alexis Smith (playing Linda) is in the audience. They haven’t seen each other for a long, long time, what seems like years (ha!). He doesn’t want her to know that he’s crippled (ha!). They leave the concert hall, and she sees him standing there, assisted by his canes, and as the music swells (ha!), she runs to embrace him. Roll credits. The scene was created to tap directly into the emotions of the audience, many of whom were welcoming home loved ones wounded in WWII. And boy, did it work.
Still, I love this song, the melancholy rhyme of “boom” and “room,” the lilt of the hungry yearning burning inside of me.
Song I Don’t Like but Find Interesting Biographically #1. I like to think about Cole Porter as a little boy, walking out the door of his family’s mansion at Westleigh Farms, heading down the road to the winter quarters of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus to hang out with all the circus people. Maybe he even met my own great great uncle, Henry Hoffman, the elephant trainer. It’s possible. Their timelines in Peru definitely overlap.
Song I Don’t Like but Find Interesting Biographically #2. It was Cole’s first big hit, an incredibly sentimental tune that made him enough money so he could marry Linda. In much the same way that the film Night & Day struck a chord with soldiers returning from World War II, “Old Fashioned Garden” was a hit with soldiers coming home from the Great War. The video link features the house in Peru, Indiana that Cole said he was thinking about when he composed the song: his grandmother’s house just down the Frances Slocum Trail from Westleigh Farms.
Song I Don’t Like but Find Interesting Biographically #3. I don’t particular like Mabel Mercer’s singing, nor do I think that it’s especially tuneful. I just love the lyrics, the message of the song. I think nothing comes closer to capturing Cole Porter’s philosophy of life. I wrote about it more here.
And last but not least, Song I’ve Never Even HEARD But I Find Interesting Biographically #4, “Lima” which he wrote for his first Broadway musical in 1916, the doomed-to-failure See America First. As you might know, I renamed my hometown “Lima” in The Circus in Winter. I thought I was pretty clever. But of course, Cole Porter did it first.
Other towns you may boast of,
Other towns may have style.
But the town I know must of
Has ‘em all beat—a mile;
You may think you live well in
Budapest or Baghdad,
But the town that—I dwell in
Makes the other—look sad.
Lima’s the place
And I’d give a lot, I guess,
Back there to race
On a Limited Express!
Ease my pain for me, send a train for me, do!
Hear me callin’, for I’m a-fallin’ for you!
I simply quiver—to drive my flivver
Along that lazy hazy crazy Wabash River
And if I ever, ever get home again,
Why, I never, never shall roam again,
For I’m madly in love with that Li-ma town.
Ha! Me, too, Cole Porter. Me, too. Happy birthday.