Cole Porter was a paradox; a musical genius who truly defined a time in musical history, he was at once a privileged sybarite and a bohemian provocateur all at the same time. Porter also lived a contradictory lifestyle. He was gay, and yet he remained devoted to his wife until her death in 1954. It seems most fitting that Greenwich Village would be the launching pad for his prolific and genre-bending career.
Born on June 9, 1891 in Peru, Indiana, Cole Porter was the grandson of a wealthy speculator. He spent his early years learning to play violin and piano, practicing composition, and writing a Gilbert and Sullivan-like operetta at the ripe age of 10. Educated at Yale and then at Harvard, his life certainly did not follow the typical path of an artist.
Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale, including student songs such as the football fight songs “Bulldog” and “Bingo Eli Yale” (aka “Bingo, That’s The Lingo!”) that are still played at Yale today. During college, Porter became acquainted with New York City’s vibrant nightlife, taking the train there for dinner, theater, and nights on the town with his classmates, before returning to New Haven early in the morning.
In 1915, Porter’s first song on Broadway,”Esmeralda”, appeared in the musical revue, Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a “patriotic comic opera” modeled on the work of Gilbert and Sullivan was a flop, closing after two weeks.
Not to be discouraged, Porter moved to Paris and continued to write prolifically. Both a lyricist and a composer, his songs were some of the most sophisticated, witty, and melodious in the American Songbook. While living in Paris, he met and married Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy socialite. The couple became famous for the parties they gave and for Cole’s droll performances of his witty compositions.
The couple returned to New York in the ‘twenties. Many of Porter’s songs surfaced in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1924 at the Greenwich Village Theatre, a 500 seat venue located across from Sheridan Square on the west side of Seventh Avenue South between Christopher & West 4th Streets. Built by architect Herman Lee Meader for the Greenwich Village Players, the theater opened in 1917. The Greenwich Village Follies premiered at the theater two years later. The show was a revue in two acts and featured songs by the most popular composers of the day. Porter’s songs found their audience there, but it was a couple of years before Cole Porter became a household name.
His first big hit was “Let’s Do It,” from the 1928 musical Paris, followed by “You Do Something To Me” from Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) and “What Is This Thing Called Love” from Wake Up and Dream (1930). The stage was set for Porter’s most successful decade. The revue The New Yorkers (1930) gave us “Love For Sale,” a streetwalker’s lament viewed at the time as too risqué to be broadcast on the radio. Then Fred Astaire’s last stage show, Gay Divorce (1932) (the title of the 1934 film version was changed to The Gay Divorcée), featured what would become Porter’s signature tune, “Night and Day.” In 1934, Ethel Merman starred in his smash hit, Anything Goes, which featured the songs “I Get a Kick out of You,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” “All Through the Night,” and the consummate Porter “list” song – with double-entendre – “You’re the Top.” Of course this author’s favorite is Kiss Me Kate, which is enjoying a revival on Broadway now. Kiss Me Kate (1948) was a huge triumph for Porter. It has an incomparable score (“Wunderbar,” “So In Love,” “We Open in Venice,” “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “I Hate Men,” “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “From This Moment On”) and won four Tony Awards® for Porter, and a Best Musical for the production that year.
While Porter’s songs continue to surprise and delight to this day, The Greenwich Village Theatre enjoyed only a brief 13-year lifespan; demolished in 1930, it was replaced a year later with the two-story taxpayer that now occupies the site.
To read more about the theatres of Greenwich Village, both past and present, click here.