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.
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.