by Steven C. Smith and Sylvia Stoddard

Originally appeared in Show Music Volume 7 No. 4 (Winter 1991-1992)

In this centenary of Cole Porter's birth, it is sobering to realize that if any members of the video generation want to explore his life, they might believe it was lived as portrayed in the film Night and Day. [The advent of another inaccurate film about Porter's life, the 2004 De-Lovely, makes all this even more confusing.]

The filmed lives of famous men of music range from the pretentious to the ridiculous. The 'biopic' became nearly everything except biographical. Hollywood, in its endless quest for the source of genius, decided that no composer ever composed without, or in spite of, the woman he loved. The creative process is invariably viewed in terms of a one-woman relationship. If there wasn't one, Hollywood invented her. These women were pursued, agonized over, worshiped, loathed, and generally played by Yvonne De Carlo or Alexis Smith.

And, if the composer had any other problems, they were invariably glossed over or ignored. Thus alcohol, pedophilia, drugs, sadism, bestiality, insanity, etc., disappeared from the films about composers until the mid- sixties.

Each film is truly a valuable reflection of the time it was made; many of them were popular when they were released, a lot of them were turkeys then and now, and some have become classics.

Night and Day (Warner Bros., 1946) was the most unintentionally hilarious of the musical biopics, bearing only a faint resemblance to Cole Porter's life and especially his career, since the dates of the shows and songs in it are wrong and he is seen writing 1930s' lyrics in 1915. The dignified and private Porter loved the film because it revealed so little of himself. Cary Grant looks uncomfortable and Alexis Smith plays the woman behind the man.

'It's a dream,' Cole Porter said of his 1946 film 'biography' Night and Day. When pressed by reporters as to what kind of a dream it was, Porter wouldn't say, He really didn't have to.

Ironically, the idea for the film came from another distinguished songwriter, Irving Berlin, who thought the story of Porter's partial recovery from a crippling double-leg injury in 1938 might inspire wounded servicemen returning from World War II. Jack Warner loved the idea, and in 1945 offered Porter $300,000 for the rights to his life story. That sum is particularly impressive when one considers how little of Porter's life Warner actually used.

Despite his reputation as a globe-hopping playboy and the master of the lyric double entendre, Cole Porter was a private, reserved man who disliked publicity about his personal life. Not surprisingly, after reading the 120-page hokum Hollywood's screenwriters had concocted for the picture, Porter told Jack L. Warner he liked it 'fine.' To a friend Porter added, 'It was the strangest feeling--as if reading about someone I knew slightly.' And to a reporter: 'It ought to be good. None of it is true.'

The casting of Cary Grant as Porter may justly be considered one of Hollywood's most fanciful botches (Fred Astaire was much more like the lithe, aristocratic Porter), but the suggestion of Grant came from Porter himself--sarcastically. One wonders whether the brothers Warner might have cast Groucho Marx (Margaret Mitchell's suggestion) as Rhett Butler if they'd produced Gone with the Wind.

Linda Porter also chose her cinema alter-ego, Alexis Smith, whose performance--despite the fascinating woman it allegedly depicts--might be described as vague. In the film, Linda aimlessly wanders from battlegrounds in France to nursery schools in London--anyplace, apparently, so long as she can wear a uniform. (Do we detect further influences of WW II?) Since at least one allusion is made in the film to Linda's considerable wealth, the audience must speculate as to why our heroine isn't out spending it, rather than tending after flocks of unruly brats and gangrened soldiers in Europe.

The blame for all this romanticized rubbish was apparently not only Hollywood, but Porter himself. He just didn't face enough obstacles in his life or career. 'No struggles anywhere all the way down the line,' complained one screenwriter before quitting. That screenwriter just wasn't thinking properly. He was trying to stick to the facts. (Orson Welles echoed the writer's dilemma: 'What will they use for a climax?' he wondered. 'The only suspense is--will he or won't he accumulate ten million dollars?')

The final screenplay was the brainchild of three undistinguished Hollywood writers, Charles Hoffman, Leo Townsend and William Bowers (though two would go on to greater things), with an additional screen credit to Jack Moffitt for 'adaptation.' (Safety in numbers.) Michael Curtiz, the volatile, erratic director whose screen triumphs included Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood, was assigned to the film, and in no time at all, was living up to his reputation as an exacting tyrant. 'If I'm ever stupid enough to be caught working with you,' Grant told Curtiz one day during shooting, 'you'll know I'm either broke or I've lost my mind.'

Although he was in Los Angeles at the time, Porter himself steered clear of the production after convincing Jack Warner to hire his old college chum Monty Woolley as the film's 'technical director.' Woolley also appeared in the film as himself, but played the part rather badly; at least, according to those who knew him, there was more of The Man Who Came to Dinner on the screen than The Man Who Knew Cole Porter.

Originally, Curtiz and company planned to use such stars as Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante (all based in Hollywood at the time) to re-create their performances from famous Porter shows. Then someone calculated the budget. The plan was scrapped. Only one original star, Mary Martin, made it to the big screen, re-creating her stage rendition of 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy.' Unfortunately, about half of Porter's risqué lyrics were tossed out. But 'Daddy's' performance was a masterpiece compared to Leroy Prinz' hilariously inept staging of such standards as 'I've Got You Under My Skin' (see below) and 'Just One of Those Things.' These and other classics were performed by the little-known Ginny Simms. Her voice and personality were in equal parts pleasing and uninteresting, a combination which cancelled itself out nicely. She made no other major musicals.

Jack Warner was certainly pleased with the final results, however, and sent Porter this cable on November 20, 1945:


When audiences saw the film the following spring, they loved it. Filled with familiar songs and famous (if ill-used) performers, Night and Day was unquestionably responsible for a resurgence of interest in Porter's work that climaxed in 1948 with Cole's last hit show, Kiss Me, Kate.

Pleased that his privacy remained inviolate, Porter sent the following cable in spring 1946 to Michael Curtiz:


In later years, Cole said he never missed the film on television. It never failed to provide a good laugh.

The Reel Story The Real Story

Yale, 1914. Amid protests by his septuagenarian school-fellows, Yale professor Monty Woolley--a loveable curmudgeon who delights in making incessant jokes about his beard-- insists on partaking in Yale football rallies and song contests. Professor Monty is especially keen on a young pre-law student/composer named Cole Porter, who spends his days playing piano in a nearby theatre pit orchestra. On the day of Yale's song contest, Cole arrives just in time to lead a navy's fleet of Yale yellfish through his rousing 'Bull Dog Song,' which is instantly embraced as the school anthem.

Porter was a maverick and not generally popular until he won the song contest. 'Bull Dog' was actually a fraternity smoker song; Cole's song which passed into immortality at Yale was 'Bingo Eli Yale.' Porter did not supplement his generous allowance from home by playing in a pit band. Monty Woolley was never a professor at Yale or anywhere else; in 1911, he was a 23-year-old Yale upperclassman who met Porter socially. Woolley was also beardless until the mid-1930s. Despite Night and Day's many factual inaccuracies, only one screen liberty seemed to anger Woolley: the Yale Yard was incorrectly proportioned, he complained, and too many lettermen were used in the 'Bull Dog' number.

At Christmas break, Cole travels to his boyhood estate in Indiana with Monty, leaving behind his singer/chum Gracie, who pines secretly for the dashing Cole. At home, Cole outrages his stern, stoical grandfather by announcing he plans to quit law school for songwriting (Mrs. Porter is delighted, but what does she know?).

Gracie was an entirely fictitious creation of the screenwriters (unless one chooses to compare her to singer/actress Dorothie Bigelow, the original star of See America First). Cole's career choice so alienated his family that on one occasion, Katie Porter and Cole's grandfather, J. O., did not speak to each other--or to Cole--for several months.

Diffusing the crisis is the arrival of Cole's cousin Nancy and her young, pretty friend Linda Lee. Linda is smiling, naive--some might say downright vacuous--but Cole is instantly charmed by her, after initially mistaking her for cousin Nancy and giving Linda a saucy kiss.

Linda Lee Thomas was a 36-year-old divorcée when she met Porter in Paris in 1919. Sophisticated, wealthy, highly independent, and more than slightly spoiled and haughty, she was widely considered to be one of the world's most beautiful women. Linda and Cole married on December 18, 1919. Their relationship was intimate but never romantic; after an abusive first marriage, Thomas did not desire sex and Porter was gay.

Later that evening, Cole entertains family and friends at the piano while young carolers sing outside the snow-encrusted window. Rather than singing some predictable yuletide offering such as 'Silent Night,' the choristers offer an intricate three-part choral arrangement of Cole's 'In the Still of the Night,' which they absorb ESP-style as Cole plays the tune on the piano. An impressed Mrs. Porter tells her son that she has had another of Cole's songs published, 'An Old-Fashioned Garden.' But grandfather refuses to crack.

'In the Still of the Night' was written by Porter in 1937 for the MGM film Rosalie. Co-star Nelson Eddy complained that the song was badly constructed and unsingable. Porter played the song for studio chief L. B. Mayer, who burst into tears. Mayer told Eddy that the singer could and would sing it--and Eddy did. 'Old Fashioned Garden' was written in 1919 for Hitchy-Koo of 1919, and it was a number written because the backers had aquired an elaborate set of flower costumes commissioned--but never used--by Florenz Ziegfeld.

Back in New York, Monty and Cole raise financial backing for a Porter-scored Broadway musical titled See America First, featuring a cast of dozens, elaborate, ever-changing sets, and musical arrangements that would have made Richard Wagner drool with envy. Gracie arrives in time to find a spot in the chorus: 'Imagine you puttin' on a show!' she exclaims to Cole. 'Don't tell me you wrote all this stuff!'

Porter's first Broadway show, See America First, was an amateurish revue far below Broadway standards; a college show gone wrong, according to its co-star Clifton Webb. 'I played a cowboy and an autumn flower,' Webb recalled. 'Others had roles not so believable.' Porter wrote the show with roommate Lawrason Riggs and Woolley was not involved.

The show does go on--but despite such wow numbers as 'Let's Do It,' 'You've Got That Thing,' and 'You Do Something to Me,' the opening night audience refuses to shut up. Cole halts the show--only to learn from the chatter outside that the luxury liner Lusitania has been SUNK! The world is at war. The show must fold but Cole is resigned. 'Tough Luck, Mr. Porter,' sighs stage manager Tom. Replies the prescient Cole, 'Oh, it's just one of those things.'

The lackluster book and score for See America First--which did not include 'Let's Do It,' 'You've Got That Thing,' or 'You Do Something to Me,'--were widely panned. One reviewer quipped 'See See America First last.' The show opened on March 28, 1916 and closed after 15 performances--nearly a year after the Lusitania was torpedoed on May 7, 1915 (newspapers were slower then).

Strolling with Linda that night, Cole can't shake the ship disaster and decides to enlist in the army. Before you can hum 'La Marseillaise,' Cole is fighting in the trenches of France. While listening to a group of chanting Moroccan drummers, imprudently caterwauling behind the front lines, Cole is inspired to write his classic 'Begin the Beguine'--but scarcely a quarter-note is scribbled when a great explosion scatters the musicians. Cole is trapped beneath a fallen girder.

Cole went to Europe in the latter half of 1917 and joined the French army the next year. Attached to the American Aviation Headquarters on the Avenue de Montaigne in Paris, Porter never served in combat nor was he ever injured. Cole and Linda did their strolling down the Champs Elysées, but not until after they'd met at a wedding at the Ritz Hotel in 1919. 'Begin the Beguine' was written in New York in 1935.

While his leg injuries heal in a French hospital, Cole finds himself face-to-face with--who else?--Linda, now bravely serving as a volunteer nurse. Observes Cole, 'Linda, has it ever occurred to you you're always around at the most important times of my life?' (We hadn't noticed.) One night, alone and restless, Cole begins composing at the hospital's piano. Looking around the room for inspiration, Cole notices the 'tick tick tock of the stately clock as it stands against the wall'--and turns around in time to absorb the 'drip drip drop of the raindrops.' The chords of 'Night and Day' pour freely through Cole's fingertips, the verse's final line provided by the convenient appearance of Linda in the doorway: 'you, You, YOU...!' croons Cole as the lovely Linda smiles benignly. Seizing upon this newfound enthusiasm, Linda tries to ignite Cole's stalled romantic pilot light, to no avail:
Linda (shyly): Well, I was thinking that--maybe...well, that you and I could...
Cole (deep in the frenzy of composition): Wait a minute! I think I've got it!

Linda Lee Thomas was never involved in any war service. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1883, Linda married playboy banker 'Ned' Thomas in 1901 and immediately acquired a 'cottage' in Newport, a mansion in Palm Beach, a townhouse on W. 57th Street, a box at the opera, a yacht, racehorses and lavish jewels. Linda was in Europe without him when Thomas suffered leg and knee injuries in an auto accident in 1908 and Linda rushed to his side. But the reconciliation didn't last long and they separated and divorced in 1912. Linda received a settlement worth nearly $1 million. Until she met Cole, she was pursued across Europe by a gaggle of suitors, including the Duke d'Alba. 'Night and Day' was written in New York in 1932 and did not achieve popularity upon its first appearance in Gay Divorce. Upon hearing an early version of it, Monty Woolley told Porter he had no idea what Cole was doing but that it was terrible and he should give it up.

The Reel Story The Real Story

Linda persuades the French chanteuse Gabrielle to perform one of Cole's songs, 'I'm Unlucky at Gambling,' but a potential backer scoffs at Cole's talent: 'Your lyrics are too smart,' the haughty Frenchman sniffs. 'Too...sophisticated.' When Cole rejects Linda's help ('I have to do it on my own!'), his spurned supporter takes Cole at his word and leaves him.

Linda was fiercely supportive of Porter's musical talent, and never left him in the 1920s. They were briefly estranged in 1937 after Cole ignored Linda's pleas to give up Hollywood and return to Broadway, a subject the film makers chose not to address.

Back in New York, relegated to piano-playing in a sheet music store the size of Grand Central Station, Cole meets the vivacious--and downright salacious--Carole, who reminds Cole of her obvious attributes and suggests they 'attribute' together. After all, she protests, her rosebuds won't get much riper. Instead, they decide to perform Cole's 'What Is This Thing Called Love?' for the apathetic crowd. The audience response is so enthusiastic--dozens of customers cluster around them and stare dumbly--that Cole and Carole quit, rescue Monty from a bit part as a Russian soldier in a second-rate stage play, and vow to produce a Broadway show.

Cole never worked in a sheet music store, and if that gainful employment was the harbinger of success it seemed to be in all the musical biopics, every composer would have been fighting for those jobs. The fictional, and highly anonymous, character of Carole served as an easy substitute for several key (and costly) performers from Porter's career, including Ethel Merman (for many, a singer synonymous with Cole Porter), Jesse Matthews, Irene Bordoni and Virginia Bruce. 'What Is This Thing Called Love?' graced Cole's 1929 show, Wake Up and Dream. Walter Winchell loved it and called it a 'new kind of love song.'

Their new musical is an instant hit. Its apparent highlight is Carole's performance of 'I've Got You Under My Skin,' sung while a harem-garbed temptress is flung around a postage stamp-sized stage by two stocky headwaiters. Cole's next show, The New Yorkers, is no less delightful and runs for over two years.

'I've Got You Under My Skin' was written in 1936 for the film Born to Dance. It never appeared in any Porter stage show, much less one as badly staged as this. The New Yorkers premiered in New York in 1930, starring Jimmy Durante. It ran for 168 performances; exactly 21 weeks.

While mounting his first London show, to include the jaunty tune 'Rosalie,' Cole spots the ever-valiant Linda--now a nurse in the 'West End Children's Institute' (at least it's in the theatre district). It must be fate, love, or a remarkable coincidence. At any rate, they marry.

'Rosalie' was written for the 1937 film of the same name. Its original stage production (in 1928) had songs by Sigmund Romberg and George Gershwin. Cole always hated 'Rosalie,' which had undergone six complete rewrites. But as Irving Berlin observed, 'Never hate a song that has sold over half a million copies.'

Success follows Cole almost relentlessly, as do Carole, Monty and Gracie (who still pops up in every Cole chorus line), but Linda pines for a long-postponed trip to Europe with her husband. The prolific Cole ignores her desperate pleadings, selfishly choosing to write hit after hit.

The Porters spent most of the 1920s traveling around Europe. Paris was their main home base, but they had a palace in Venice and frequented Monte Carlo, Rome, London, Biarritz, Seville, Morocco and Berlin.

At a party celebrating Cole's latest smash Anything Goes, Linda confesses she can no longer play second fiddle in Cole's orchestra. She leaves. Cole stays. The diplomatic Monty continues to make amusing remarks about his beard, but the situation remains grave.

In 1934, the year of Anything Goes, the Porters were happily married--and Monty still did not have a beard. The morning after the premiere, Cole, Linda, Monty, playwright Moss Hart and two others sailed on the Cunard Franconia for a trip around the world, vowing not to do any work until they hit Panama.

Cole finally gives Gracie her chance for a solo spot in the limelight, to sing the showstopping 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy.' In an act of generosity unprecedented in the history of show business, Gracie declines, recommending instead an inexperienced chorus pal named Mary Martin. The rest is history.

'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' belongs in 1938's Leave It to Me!, and was to be sung by June Knight. Knight balked (she wanted to sing 'Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love') and left the show. Producer Lawrence Schwab, who discovered Mary Martin in a Hollywood amateur contest, arranged Martin's audition.

During mid-performance on opening night, Cole is summoned home; Grandfather is dying. Cole arrives to find the old man slumped in a chair, but relentless in his insights and death-rattle chortles. They share a sociable glass of sherry, but have only begun to make their peace with each other when the glass slips from Grandfather's hand and he spills onto the carpet.

J. O. Cole died in February 1923. He and his grandson were never reconciled and rarely saw each other in J. O.'s last years. According to his biographer, George Eells [The Life that Late He Led], Porter was 'strangely untouched' by his grandfather's death.

Wracked by guilt, Cole takes to riding the old man's favorite horse around the estate. One afternoon, a sudden storm (we use the adjective advisedly) sends the steed into a frenzy. A bolt of lightning strikes a tree branch; Cole is thrown from the horse and soundly trampled (not only by the horse, but also by Max Steiner's underscoring).

Cole Porter's riding accident occurred in 1938 on the Long Island estate of Countess Edith de Zoppola. An attendant tried to discourage Porter from riding the skittish horse, though the weather was perfectly clear. At the top of a hill, the horse shied at a clump of bushes and reared. Cole failed to kick the stirrups free and the horse crushed his legs. He always maintained that while waiting for the ambulance, he finished the lyrics for 'At Long Last Love.'

A telegram brings the loyal Monty from the shooting of the film, The Man Who Came to Dinner, to Cole's bedside. Cole forces Monty to promise not to tell the long-gone Linda about the accident that has left him crippled. Monty agrees, and somehow, despite widespread publicity about the tragedy, Linda skillfully manages to remain in the dark.

In a déjá vu repeat of her first husband's accident, Linda immediately rushed home from Europe, demanding that no decision about amputation be made before she got there. She rarely left Cole's side again. The Man Who Came to Dinner was shot in 1941, not in 1938.

After 28 leg operations, and almost as many hit shows, Cole returns with Monty to Yale, the school of their youth (or at least Cole's youth; Monty remains 50 years old throughout the film, despite the passage of 30 years). There, Cole piano-accompanies a male chorus rendition of--what else?--'Night and Day.' Telepathically, Linda makes an appearance right on cue, to the baritones' impassioned call of 'you...You...YOU....' Cole's face may be as impassive as a brick wall, but those leaping piano glissandos speak worlds. Linda runs. Cole hobbles. Love conquers all.

Linda Porter did everything possible to aid Cole's recovery, and was with him for every painful operation. She went to Paris to close their house there and shipped all the furniture to California. She hated the place, but knew Cole was happy there. She died in 1954 of emphysema. Despite an iron will, Cole never regained full use of his legs and the left one was amputated in 1958. Porter died, a semi-recluse, in October 1964.

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