the 20th century recedes into some kind of perspective, I think
we are beginning to understand that it was, from the point of
view of creative achievement, pretty much a waste of time. I was
not at all surprised to see that Charles Murray's recent book,
Accomplishment, offers statistical confirmation of this
melancholy fact. For reasons we can only guess, civilizations
go through sudden periods of brilliant flowering. Sometimes the
flowering is in just one branch of creativity, as with Dutch painting
in the 17th century, or Chinese poetry in the 8th and 9th. Once
in a long while, everything takes off together and you get a dazzling
supernova effect, as in the golden age of ancient Greece, or the
the 19th century, which lasted from 1815 to 1914, was one of those
periods in Western culture. I'm not sure it was up to Athenian or
Renaissance standards, certainly not in the visual arts; but in
literature, philosophy, music, mathematics, and science, the 19th
century was a tremendous starburst of creativity. The 20th century
- 1915 to 1989 - was lived in the fading afterglow of
all that, and my guess is that 500 years from now our descendants
will look back on the 20th century as a dead zone in which human
beings did not accomplish much of value.
popular arts have a life of their own, though; and in some minor
art forms, the 20th century excelled, especially in the U.S.A.
Principal among those art forms were song-writing and the cinema.
I doubt any of the products of this excellence will last out of
their age - more than a few decades, I mean. I am confident
that my great-great-grandchildren will still be listening to Verdi
and reading Keats; but they will have no clue who the Beatles
were, or Humphrey Bogart. That's all right: In culture, you take
what you can get.
of the best things we got in the 20th century was Cole Porter,
whose dates were 1891 to 1964. The trust-funded grandson of an
Indiana millionaire, at the age of 28 Porter married a wealthy
divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas. With two large fortunes to sink back
into, there was no need for him to work at all. Yet he worked
prodigiously, turning out hundreds of songs. Charles
Schwartz's biography lists 873, though Schwartz's list
includes some juvenilia, tunes without lyrics, and songs sharing
the same tune. Porter had his first hit, "Old-Fashioned Garden,"
in 1919; his last, "True Love," in 1956.
wrote words and music both, and knitted the two together with
such dexterity that the whole is usually greater than the sum
of the parts. To get the full effect of a Porter song, you need
to listen to it well sung. He had had a good training in classical
music - he actually composed a ballet, performed in Paris
in 1923 - and was well read in English literature. The composer
David Schiff wrote a very good appreciation of Porter's musical
talent in the July/August issue of The
far as Porter's literary skills are concerned, I have an anecdote.
Some years ago I was teaching a class on poetry to college students.
Now, among the poet's bag of tricks are two called alliteration
and assonance. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant
sounds; assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. Alliteration
is all over the place in English poetry: e.g. "Softly the civilized
centuries fall..." Good examples of assonance are not so easy
to come up with, and I needed an example that was particularly
clear, as I was teaching foreign students. After pondering the
matter for a while, and hunting through some collections of English
poems, I could find nothing as good as the following lines:
too high with some guy in the sky
Is my idea of nothing to do.
are from Cole Porter's 1934 song "I Get a Kick Out of You." Look
at that assonance! - the [ai] sound, English "long 'i',"
repeated six times in the space of 19 syllables (and with four
different spellings). Now that is virtuosity.
Winkler's new movie De-Lovely
is a "musical biography" of Porter - really, just of Porter's
marriage. I enjoyed the movie, and will be watching it again when
it comes out on DVD. That should be pretty soon, as De-Lovely
has been getting mostly poor reviews. I can see why. Taken as
a movie - an illustrated story - it is unsatisfactory
in all sorts of ways.
central problem is that Porter's marriage was very peculiar. It
needs explaining, and the movie really doesn't do that. Porter
was a promiscuous homosexual, who seems to have had no physical
interest in women. His wife Linda was not just a "beard," though.
In the circles Porter moved in, and with the wealth he had, he
didn't need a "beard." It is clear from the biographies that Cole
just adored Linda, and she him. Why? What on earth was this all
about? Schwartz notes that the money in Porter's family was on
his mother's side. Porter's mother was also a vigorous and assertive
woman; his father was something of a failure. Meeting Linda, who
in addition to being rich was eight years older than he, put Cole
Porter in familiar territory. Well, that will do for ignition,
but what kept them going?
her own part, Linda had had all the masculinity she wanted from
her first husband, a violent and philandering boor.* Porter's
wit, sophistication, and (from her point of view) asexuality were
balm to her soul. Still it seems hard to see how this kind of
temperamental agreement could survive 35 years in high society.
What was it all about? Or, as Porter wrote: "What is this
thing called love?" A mystery, that's what. At any rate, the movie
sheds no light on this particular instantiation of the mystery.
have other issues with De-Lovely, too. It is, of course,
an early 21st-century creation, so that the men are all bulked
up from working out at the gym, the women all tanned and toned
and botoxed. People just didn't look like that in 1930. Irving
Berlin was, in life, a weedy ectomorph, liable to blow away in
a strong breeze. In the movie he looks like a Bulgarian power
things, too. Much is made of Porter's friendship with the painter
Gerald Murphy, yet it is not clear how that friendship originated,
or what sustained it. The dialogue often sinks to soap-opera level.
The songs appear in nothing like chronological order, with "True
Love" near the beginning. The "framing" conceit - we are
supposed to be with Porter at the end of his life, or after it,
watching it all as the rehearsal for a stage production -
seems contrived and intrusive. (I kept thinking of that silly
1950s TV show This is Your Life, in which celebrities were
tricked into entering a TV studio, to be confronted with their
long-lost friends, grade-school teachers, sports coaches, etc.)
you have to take musical
biographies with a grain of salt. The main point of a movie
like this is to give us some nice songs while offering a sketch
of the person who created them. Even if the story fails completely,
you can always just sit back and wait for the next song. And De-Lovely
doesn't actually fail that badly. Good actors can make up for
a lot, and Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd are both very good actors
indeed. It's true that Kline doesn't have much of a singing voice,
but then, neither did Porter, so that is at least authentic.
when all is said and done, there are the songs. What songs! "Begin
the Beguine," "Just One of Those Things," "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"
(for my money, one of the half-dozen most beautiful love songs
ever written), "Love for Sale," "Night and Day," "Anything Goes,"
"In the Still of the Night"... The songs are performed here by
present-day artists like Natalie Cole, Alanis Morrissette, and
Elvis Costello, for the most part very capably. (Though Ms. Cole
needs to master lateral plosion - "little" should not be
pronounced as "lit-ul" by anyone older than four.)
world those songs conjure up is the one encompassed by the word
"sophistication," now a term with no referent. They are songs
for adults who know all about love and sex, but who live in a
society in which those things are hedged about closely with conventions,
prohibitions, and understood necessary hypocrisies. For adults,
too, who know something about literature, who have studied some
actual poetry and actual history in their schooldays. Listen to
the intro to "Just One of Those Things":
Dorothy Parker once said
To her boyfriend: "fare thee well."
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced:
"It was swell, Isabel, swell."
As Abelard said to Eloise:
"Don't forget to drop a line to me, please."
As Juliet cried in her Romeo's ear:
"Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear"...
many Americans under 50 would get all those allusions?
recitativo intros to Porter's songs are often as memorable
as the songs themselves, and contain some of his funniest word-play.
To the movie's credit, it includes a couple of these intros. This
feature has pretty much disappeared from pop music, to our loss.
Lorenz Hart was the grandmaster:
wined and dined on Mulligan stew
And never wished for turkey
As I hitched and hiked and grifted, too,
From Maine to Albuquerque.
Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball,
And what is twice as sad,
I was never at a party
Where they honored NoÎl Ca-ad...
- "The Lady is a Tramp"
Coward, by the way, was a friend of the Porters. In fact, Porter
"borrowed" Coward's lover, the dashing Jack Wilson, though Coward
seems not to have known about this. There was also some mutual
appreciation of each other's lyrics. Coward, with Porter's permission,
wrote several alternate versions of "Let's Do It" for his wartime
leading writers in swarms do it
Somerset and all the Maughams do it
. . . . . . My kith and kin, more or less, do it,
Every uncle and aunt,
But - I confess to it -
I've one cousin who can't...
Coward noted: "It happens to have a rhyming scheme that can be
utilized indefinitely without destroying the basic meter." You
can say this of many Porter lyrics. The urge to rewrite them is
often irresistible. "You're the Top" is a prime example -
perhaps there never was a song that so invited imitation and parody.
Songwriter Kerry Prep
produced a counter-version titled "You're a flop":
You're unsalted pretzels.
You're a flop;
You're a Ford named Edsel.
You're the sink, I think, that cannot be unclogged.
You are weak and puny,
You're Gerry Cooney,
You're L. A. smog!
little dated now: Cooney was a Great White Hopeless of Heavyweight
boxing in the mid-1980's.)
temptation to parody "You're the Top" was so irresistible, in
fact, that Porter himself succumbed to it, producing smutty versions
that he performed privately for friends:
You're a vodka tonic.
You're the top;
You're a high colonic.
You're the steaming heat of a bridal suite in use.
You're the t**s of Venus,
You're King Kong's p***s,
kind of smoky, jazzy, grown-up sophistication seems a world away
now. Our own popular culture is targeted mostly at illiterate
teenagers; and nobody
sings for fun anymore.
the evening following the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Winston
Churchill hosted a dinner party in honor of President Roosevelt
on board H.M.S. Prince of Wales. At one point in the proceedings,
the two men fell into heated argument - not about the future shape
of the world or the intentions of Stalin, but over whether the
line "In Bangkok at twelve o'clock they foam at the mouth and
run" comes at the end of the first refrain in Noel
Cowards song or the second.** Hard to imagine any such exchange
between present-day politicians. And those of the next generation
will presumably have spent their formative years listening to
a small world, so you better guard your secrets
And it's easy to get money, but it's hard to keep it
Never was the one that like to hound no bitch
All I do is try to keep niggaz around me rich.
- Jadakiss, "Kiss of Death"
remind yourself of, or discover, a popular culture that did not
insult its consumers, go to see De-Lovely. And if the stagey
conceits, gym-rat physiques, feeble dialogue, and unexplored subtleties
irritate you, just relax and listen to the songs, the songs, the
beautiful clever songs of Cole Porter.
- - - - - - - -
- - - - -
* In her divorce proceedings, Linda named one Teddie Gerrard as
co-respondent. Cole Porter later met to this woman at a party.
She introduced herself with: "Hello. I was your wife's ex-husband's
** Roosevelt said the second, and he was right. When Churchill
was told this, he muttered: "Britain can take it."
story orginally appeared here: