Cole Porter Out of Both Closets? Dan Barker

by Dan Barker


Cole Porter

Two major motion pictures have been made about the life of American songwriter Cole Porter. The first, “Night and Day” (1946), starred an uncomfortably miscast Cary Grant in a fanciful biopic that pointedly ignored the fact that the famous composer was notoriously gay. After seeing the film, Porter himself remarked, “It’s a dream.” When asked what kind of a dream, he replied, “I’d prefer not to say.”

The film also failed to mention that Cole Porter was an unbeliever.

The more recent “De-Lovely” (2004), starring Kevin Kline, corrects both mistakes, opening with a frank (and refreshing) admission by Porter that he did not believe in a god. He is now truly “out of the closet.”

The films have the same strengths (the music) and the same weakness: making Porter’s relationship with his wife the central theme. Though an open homosexual, Cole did indeed have a committed, lifelong relationship with his wife Linda, who knew he was gay from the start and not only tolerated but often encouraged his lifestyle–as long as he was not too flamboyant. Though the marriage was sexless, they adored and respected each other. They valued each other’s advice, shared the same attraction to travel, art and entertaining. They were deep friends “unto death us do part.”

(Who could object? The relationship met the religious-right requirement that marriage be between one man and one woman.)

However, their love was not the stuff of a movie romance–the films would have been much better (for me) if they had concentrated on Porter’s struggle to tailor his music to the shows.

Cole Porter was born in 1891 into a barely nominally religious family. His father was a compassionate gentleman, “a good man but not burdened by religion,” writes biographer William McBrien (Cole Porter, 1998). His mother went to church as a matter of social habit. “Although later in life Cole briefly considered embracing religion,” McBrien writes, “he was never a believer, and his several comments about his mother’s attachments to Peru [Indiana] churches were dismissive.”

Biographer and friend George Eells reports that Cole attributed his mother’s churchgoing to custom. “He believed that she felt no real religious convictions, although she attended some church every Sunday. Her grandfather Albert had founded the Episcopal Church in Peru, but Katie at one time or another dropped in on every fashionable congregation in town. ‘I never felt religion was serious to her,’ Cole recalled years later. ‘It was of no importance. She went to show off her new hats.’

“Not unnaturally, Cole developed no deeply felt religious beliefs. On most occasions throughout his life, he spoke of ‘pleasing the gods’ or lamented, ‘The gods are punishing me,’ but he seldom referred to God, except to deny belief in Him. Even at seventy, he told his social secretary, Mrs. Everett W. Smith, that he found no comfort in trying to believe in a Supreme Being.”

“If Katie failed to endow him with religious inspiration, she neglected little else, especially his musical education. . . .” (The Life That Late He Lived, by George Eells, 1967)

A childhood friend, Beulah, remembered Porter visiting church one Easter Sunday as a teenager. “Cole talked all through the service. He was one of the most irreverent persons I’ve ever encountered–but so charming,” she said. “While he talked, he cracked his ankle bones in a kind of castanetlike accompaniment. I’m certain he did it to draw attention to his new brown silk socks and snappy new footwear. He was quite Beau Brummel–even then.” (The Life That Late He Lived, by George Eells, 1967)

Cole’s final address to his high-school mates at Worcester Academy closed with a poem by Richard Hovey, ending with the words: “Here’s to Luck! For we know not where we are going.” No god, no providence, no prayer–just the hope that chance would smile on his future.

After spending most of his college years writing and producing school plays (as well as composing the still popular “Bingo Eli Yale” football song), Porter graduated from Yale in 1913. Eells reports that in the survey of 292 graduates, Cole was “one of 69 non-church members; and one of the 20 who were to enter law school. . . . He was voted the most entertaining . . . the second most original . . . and one of the most eccentric.”

Eells writes that during Porter’s life, “Most of Cole’s other friends were led to believe that he was an agnostic who might have wished for the support and comfort of some religious conviction but who was unable to summon up belief.”

Harvard Law School was a disaster for Cole Porter, who spent all of his time producing shows. He dropped out of school, inherited a fortune from his grandfather, traveled the world, and “casually” wrote songs on the side, pretending he was just dashing them off for fun.

After Cole Porter became a well-known Broadway composer and internationally famous songwriter, he fell from a horse which rolled over him and crushed his legs. Instead of submitting to the recommended amputation, Cole decided to endure more than 20 painful operations over many years in an attempt to reconstruct his ability to walk. Observing how he dealt with pain, trauma and drug-related depression, his secretary (a believer) remarked: “. . . the little boss had not the strength that comes in a time of need, of a bolstering religion of even a Buddhist, a Seventh Day Adventist, a Jehovah’s Witness–anything to take the place of just nothing. Without faith one is like a stained glass window in the dark. How to reach his particular darkness is an enigma.”

She didn’t realize that he was coping just fine without religion–he had expert medical care, plus his own inner determination, the strength of his many friendships, and the support of a caring wife.

He also had his music. His debilitation did not slow down his determination to produce songs.

How many conservative Christians who love Porter melodies realize that “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” was written for a dancer and choreographer named Nelson Barclift, with whom Cole had had a long romantic relationship? That was “our song,” Barclift recalled. “Years later,” McBrien writes, “Barclift remembered with pleasure that this was the song that knocked Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ off the hit parade.” Other Cole Porter songs were written from feelings arising from infatuations and relationships with men such as Russian dancer Boris Kochno and architect Eddy Tauch.

Porter’s attitude toward life is often reflected in his lyrics. “Live and Let Live” [see below], writes McBrien, “is another hurrah for tolerance, and it may have been one way Cole salved his wounds after the critics’ objection to the sexy scenes in Out of This World.

Cole Porter spent much of his life battling censors, who thought jazz, dancing and popular song lyrics were corrupting the morality of America. Volstead, the congressman who introduced the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of liquor, writes McBrien, “was a natural target for Porter, who opposed the Puritan tendency of some Americans to try to legislate against personal freedom.” An early production of Fifty Million Frenchmen contained Porter’s song, “A Toast to Volstead,” with the lyrics: “A long life to Volstead / Our senator from heaven sent. / Let us give our endorsement / To his act of enforcement, . . . Here’s a long life to Volstead, / And I hope he dies of thirst.”

Many of Porter’s songs were decried by the moralists. “Anything Goes” was criticized by churchgoers. Cole fought back, but sometimes had to compromise. “Because of the censorship exercised by the Hayes office in the thirties”–writes McBrien about the song “Easy To Love”–“the original lyric ‘So sweet to awaken with, / So nice to sit down to eggs and bacon with’ had to be changed to ‘So worth the yearning for / So swell to keep ev’ry home fire burning for.’ “

“In the most famous number from the musical Jubilee, ‘Begin the Beguine,’ Porter, possibly feeling the oppression of censorship, decided to change the penultimate line, ‘And we suddenly know the sweetness of sin,’ to ‘And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in.'”

Porter’s 1953 musical Can-Can was a deliberate attempt to “battle Puritanism,” and the thrust of Silk Stockings “is similar to Can-Can‘s, and the theme the recurrent one of scorn for puritanism,” McBrien observes. “The Catholic News deplored the scanty costumes of Gwen Verdon and thought that the replica of Sacré-Coeur in some sets ‘must to the discerning offer apt and eloquent comment on the rest of the proceedings.’ “

Let the religious right howl: the public loved Porter’s art. He treasured a letter he received from his idol Irving Berlin (another nonbeliever):

“Dear Cole:

“Elizabeth (my youngest) and I went to see Can-Can last night and, along with a packed house of satisfied customers, we loved it. It’s a swell show and I still say, to paraphrase an old bar-room ballad, ‘anything I can do, you can do better.’

“Love, Irving”

Though happy to “live and let live,” Cole Porter occasionally took jabs at religion. In a letter to his friend Barclift, Porter pointed out that “yesterday was the feast of St. Joseph” and remarked that he hasn’t much use for such a day, as Joseph “resents being called the husband of the Virgin Mary & you know what she produced.”

Cole Porter produced many enduring standards: “I Get A Kick Out of You,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “I Love Paris,” “C’est Magnifique,” “You Do Something to Me,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “In The Still of the Night,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “All of You,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, “De-Lovely,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Love for Sale,” “Night and Day,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “True Love,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and dozens more. Believers, nonbelievers, straights, gays, all Americans have been enriched by the songs (he wrote both words and music) that this nonconformist gave us.

“No matter how slick their veneer,” McBrien writes, “Porter’s songs almost always are centered in the sweetness and brevity of love and happiness.”

Cole Porter died on October 15, 1964. Eells reports that when he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, accompanied by friend Robert Raison, a nurse who was filling out the admittance form asked Porter about religious affiliations:

“Put down none,” Cole replied.


“Put down–none.”

Raison spoke up to say that Cole had been a Baptist; why not put down Protestant?

Cole refused. Later, even when his condition had changed for the worse, he stood by his convictions.

Cole Porter’s final words, spoken to Raison just before his death, were: “Bobbie, I don’t know how I did it.”

Dan Barker, a Foundation staff member and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, is a musician who has produced two CDs of freethought music for the Foundation: “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist” and “Beware of Dogma.”

“Live and Let Live”

by Cole Porter

Live and let live, be and let be,
Hear and let hear, see and let see,
Sing and let sing, dance and let dance.
I like Offenbach, you do not,
So what, so what, so what?
Read and let read, write and let write,
Love and let love, bite and let bite,
Live and let live and remember this line:
“You’re bus’ness is your bus’ness and my bus’ness is mine.”

Live and let live, be and let be,
Hear and let hear, see and let see,
Drink and let drink, eat and let eat,
You like bouillabaise, I do not,
So what, so what, so what?
Pray and let pray, slip and let slip,
Dress and let dress, strip and let strip.
Live and let live and remember this line:
“You’re bus’ness is your bus’ness and my bus’ness is mine.”

1952 by Cole Porter
(The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball, 1992)

Freedom From Religion Foundation