Eventually, with the scripts provided by Sam and Bella Spewack or Comden and Green, there were Porter musicals running for years on Broadway, each acclaimed for their ‘impish lyrics’ and ‘excellent tunes’. Hollywood inevitably paid court — Porter received millions for his rights. But, as we find out from these letters, he was preoccupied with questions of melody, orchestral arrangements and casting. And what a legacy: Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate, Silk Stockings, High Society, the latter with Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
The editors quote extensively from newspaper interviews, which throw light on his working methods. “My sole inspiration,” he told one paper, “is a telephone call from a producer.” He swore by rhyme dictionaries, Roget’s Thesaurus and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and claimed to have “done lots of work at dinner, sitting between two bores. I can feign listening beautifully and work.” When the horse fell on him, “I was too stunned to be conscious of great pain, but until help came I worked on the lyrics for the songs for You Never Know.”
Recent years have seen the publication of important collections of theatrical letters; those of Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, for instance, brilliantly illuminate their personalities, their times and their artistic struggles. The Letters of Cole Porter, for all its piquant tidbits, is not in that league. Part of the problem is that the editors have been dealt a thin hand of documents, a pair of twos which they try to make into a full house. The other issue is the editors themselves, both British academic musicologists, who know the music but whose knowledge of the Broadway scene is from the reading room not the green room. In trying to fill in Porter’s backstory and turn the letters into a biography, they can always be counted on to underscore the obvious. After a 1949 letter to Linda Porter which ends ‘All love, my darling’, they link to one from Irving Berlin: ‘Porter was also close, albeit in a contrasting sense, to Irving Berlin.’ Again and again, like pedantic waiters spieling about the food while keeping you from it, they intrude on the pleasure of discovery. Their narrative segues are as gauche as they are galling: ‘The following letter to Stark confirms his plans to travel’ – and so it does! Or: ‘Clifton Webb joined the cast during the run of the show and Porter wrote to him from Lyon with a song and a rude suggestion.’ Joke alert – get ready to laugh. ‘Take your finger and stick it up your ass.’ The playfulness they admire in the writer they refuse the reader.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that his letters would be a riot of sensuality and insider gossip. Far from it. This 660-page collection, which also includes some brief diary entries, often makes Broadway’s master of the louche and the risqué sound like a soda water-sipping Rotarian accountant. Most of them are, to be absolutely frank, maddeningly, stunningly dull. Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, academics with an encyclopaedic knowledge of musical theatre, have assembled a curious hybrid of a book. The best part of it — their extensive commentary on the letters — amounts almost to a draft of a biography.
Both those stories are taken from The Letters of Cole Porter — but don’t go getting the idea the book’s a laugh a page. Suavely edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, this hefty collection is a lot less fun than Porter fans might expect. For one thing, it’s full of tales of his — generally bad — and his wife’s — terrible — health. For another, a bit of wordplay with enemas aside, the letters are virtually wit-free. I’m happy that Porter was happy when his friend Sam Stark gave him a washing machine. But do we really need to see the thank you note calling it ‘sensational!’? Granted, Porter was contemporaneously working on High Society’s ‘You’re Sensational’ (a song that includes a white goods reference to ‘The fair Miss Frigidaire’). But if there’s a link between gizmo and number, Eisen and McHugh don’t mention it.