Book Note:
From Major to Minor
29 August 2018

¶ During Kathleen’s visit to her father, he handed her a book that he thought I might like, a biography of Cole Porter by William McBrien. Kathleen actually wondered if we, thinking that her late mother might like to read it, had sent it in the first place. (Someone sent it; there was a packing slip from a local Barnes & Noble. The slip was undated, and the price a hefty third-off discount.) She brought it back with her, and, not having anything else to grip my attention (and needing, I’m afraid, to be gripped), I gobbled it up in three days. 

I’m glad to be done with it. It was packed with information, much of it familiar but now laid out in order, and for that reason useful to have read. But I did not enjoy it. There was something about McBrien’s tone that put me off — a readiness, perhaps, to take statements at face value; an inability to suppress spicy but irrelevant details (such as the murdered wife in the bathtub, “still in use”). Worse, Porter’s love-life, notwithstanding the roster of lovers, was never explored. It seemed to be enough to say that he was homosexual and leave it at that. Many of Porter’s best songs are charged by a sense of the impermanence of love, sometimes even by an anticipated regret, but this cannot be chalked down to the simple fact that he was gay, because such facts are never simple. It may be true that Porter insinuated the language of genteel closeted culture into his spate of popular ballads, but his quite peculiar blend of the thrills of abandonment and the anxieties of affection — reflected also in his love letters — requires more consideration than McBrien gives it.

The biographer is equally binary, on-off, yes/no, about Porter’s two important relations with women, his mother and his wife. McBrien repeats that mutual adoration characterized both of them, but I never saw anything more than convenient arrangements. Katie Cole Porter doubtless had all the positive feelings that a mother might have for a talented child, but I doubt that Porter’s response was much more than well-bred good manners, coated with a shellacking of sentimental eyewash. That’s all there seems to have been on both sides of his marriage to Linda Lee, a woman fifteen years his senior whom he saved from the embarrassment of unmarried (but divorced) matronhood. Linda is said to have been beautiful, but there is no evidence of this in the book’s photographs, few of which, for that matter, include her. (And even then, she is usually obscured by a shadow or a hat.) I would venture further to say that Linda, although stylish, was a Victorian woman without whose primness Cole’s lollipop would have tasted flat. He is said to have been devastated by her death in 1953 (he died eleven years later), but, if so, his blowing up her beloved house in the Berkshires, so that the converted stable that he occupied — McBrien even calls it a “garçonnière” — could be moved onto its foundations for the sake of a better view, is a very odd demonstration of affection.   

The effect of these representations was to diminish my sympathy for Cole Porter, who seems as a result, especially after the riding accident that crippled him in 1937, to have been a rather incompetent hedonist. Happily, this is not the point. Although McBrien doesn’t strike me as astute writer about music, he quotes enough of Porter’s lyrics to induce involuntary but voiceless sing-alongs. The music redeems all of Porter’s failings, which, after all, would not be so great if one were not invading his privacy. 

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