IN COLE PORTER'S famous song, the fastidious Miss Otis sends her regrets, conveyed by the butler to her expectant hostess, that "she's unable to lunch today, Madam, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today . . ." As it happens, Miss Otis is at that moment dangling from a willow tree, the victim of a lynch mob. But she remembered her luncheon engagement moments before she died and, in her last words, bowed out of it more gracefully than the circumstances might seem to permit.
Such punctilio in extremis, such grace under pressure, represents the ultimate triumph of style and manners over events; the victory of art and artifice over life; form, you might say, transcending content - rather in the way the painter Andy Warhol elevated a can of soup; or for that matter as Botticelli did Venus, and the Japanese Noh dramatists, passions. In such a way of looking at things, the sublime lies down comfortably with the ridiculous; values are a function of style, which is always paramount. Whatever you do (this aesthetic dictates), appear to do it with panache; let it carry a certain cachet - and admit of no ugliness. No matter that to bring off this look of careless ease requires the strength, the training, the discipline and the endurance of a decathlon runner: just don't let the sweat show through, for appearances not only count, they count for everything. That aesthetic has pervaded our consciousness in this count for everything. That aesthetic has pervaded our consciousness in this century. Our common slang expressions are evidence of it: "cool," "cool it," "stay cool"; "take it easy"; "no sweat"; and so on, and on.
A certain group of people, mostly British and American, loosely clustered around France between the wars but concentrated in the '20s, became in the eyes of lesser folk, and probably in their own as well, the avatars of this aesthetic. They all knew or knew of one another: Cole and Linda Porter, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, Hemingway, Sir Charles and Lady Mendl, Lady Diana Cooper, Elsa Maxwell, and many others, all of whom held orchestra seats to life's musical comedy, and every night was opening night. The music was Cole's but the opening song belongs to a much later composer, Stephen Sondheim: "tragedy tomorrow" (it goes without saying and, indeed, must not be said) but - on a triumphant upbeat - "comedy tonight!" This is the stuff of which legends are made, if not exactly life (life generally being a little less tidy), and they did not hesitate to make them. Their mythology, which is how they live on in our memory, abetted by those lilting, lighthearted Cole Porter songs, was to them what the chivalric ideal of courtly love was to the troubadours of Provence: an elegant, permeating conceit - and wouldn't it be nice if it worked?
Maybe now and then it did - who is to say? - but judging from what we know about the lives of the Colporteurs - as they were sometimes known in Paris, and their circle - as well as of the Provencal poets, it seems likely that the legend and its expression grew more elegant, witty, flamboyant and important in about the same proportion that it diverged from those facts and events that were taking place in the real world, when the curtain was down.The divergence can be carried only up to a point; everything that rises must finally converge. Thus does nature always win in the end, and sometimes a certain amount of unpleasantness attends upon her victories. In the meanwhile, in the words of an old Spanish proverb and the title of Calvin Tomkin's book about the Murphys, "Living well is the best revenge."
God knows, the Porters lived well. That is, they had a lot of money, a lot of servants, a lot of clothes, houses, cars, food, wine, jewels, furnishings, parties, friends - and they seemed to know how to handle all of it. They travelled everywhere, with extensive retinues to attend them and an entourage of friends. When they went to Egypt they didn't merely book passage on a Nile steamer, they chartered one for two months, assembled a group of friends and took, as guides, the eminent Egyptologists Howard Carter and Linda's friend, Lord Carnarvon, who discovered Tutankhamen's tomb the following year. They had an enormous - indeed, ravenous - appetite for life, and the money to satisfy it.
Such zest for living began early. Brendan Gill looks at a picture of Cole as a four-year-old in a starched blouse and broad-brimmed straw hat in Indiana. The year is 1895. He sees an "implike, lovable" face, "already eager to seek out and embrace the world . . .that would become his oyster, his champagne, his caviar." His mother showers him with love and encourages his musical ambitions, his grandfather with money and eventually a substantial trust fund. The boy goes East to prep school and on to Yale, where he writes the songs "Bingo Eli Yale" and "Bull Dog." There he becomes a Deke and is tapped for Keys, sings with the Whiffenpoofs and is Leader of the Glee Club. He graduates in 1913. He often summers abroad with friends.
He sails for France for the war, carrying a zither on his bacK. He claims to have joined the French Foreign Legion and to have been awarded the Croix de Guerre. Both claims, like the age he admits to, are false. Actually he spends most of the war in Paris working for a charity. He takes Jerome Kern's song, "They Didn't Believe Me," and puts new lyrics to it:
"And when they ask us how dangerous it was
We will never tell them, we will never tell them,
How we fought in some cafe
With wild women night and day,
"Twas the wonderfullest war you ever knew."
At the war's end he stays on in Paris, supported by a generous allowance from his disapproving but nonetheless generous grandfather with su pplements from his mother. He marries a rich and aristocratic American divorcee, eight years older than he, described when younger as the most beautiful woman in the world. Now she is said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, with perfect taste and perfect manners besides, and she owns an exquiste house at 13 rue Monsieur.
It is now ten or a dozen years since Yale, but the face, Bredan Gill writes, "is still uncannily that of a stripling. The smooth skin is tanned now, for the season in the photographs is nearly always summer and the place nearly always somewhere in France or Italy, as like as not the Lido . . . Cole is a healthy, happy animal, his bare body, slender and nut-brown, shining with the oil that protects it from the Mediterranean sun; he stands or sits or lies on the endless blazing Lido beach, mugging into the camera, while behind him we make out serried rows of bathing cabanas, with perhaps a jacketed servant emerging from between the rows with drinks on a tray and, in the middle distance, Monty [Woolley] and [Coward] making silly faces."
A decade passes and in 1933 the happy couple are visited in Paris by Moss Hart, who writes much later of their fisst meeting. "They were a wonderful pair, the Cole Porters. They were rich, they were gifted, and they moved with infinite ease and lightheartedness . . . Together, the Porters bloomed in a scintillating world that seemed uncommonly festive . . ." Cole wore gold garters from Cartier. Moss is dazzled.
Always, of course, there is the work: the songs he appeared to dash off with careless ease: "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "I Concentrate on You," "Love for Sale," "Begin the Beguine," "Night and Day," "I'm in Love Again" - several hundred of them in the course of his lifetime. The lyrics, composed at the same time as his music "and indissolubly wedded to it bar by bar, syllable by syllable," Gill tells us, "were a product of intense intellectual concentration . . . Cole literally sweated to make good, though it was part of what was later to become known as a 'life style' for him never to be observed sweating at all: a mild Mediterranean glow was the permissible limit. In Venice, back of the drawn blinds of the Palazzo Rezzonico while the rest of the household napped, or in Paris in the chaste, art-deco elegance of the silvery house at Number 13 . . ., or in New York, on the forty-first floor of the Waldorf Towers, he gave himself to his difficult craft. It was donkey work, but he did it, and . . . the person who, after unfalteringly loyal 'Ma' in far-off Peru [Indiana], gave him the courage to persist in his years of largely unrecognized and unrewarded labor was Linda, his wife." In 1937, when Cole suffered a severe riding accident which resulted in more than 30 operations, the loss of his right leg 21 years later and pain for the rest of his life, Linda rushed to his side, saving his legs from the doctors who wished then to amputate both, and nursing him back to health and confidence. Every time one of his shows opened, she had a cigarette case designed for him, often encrusted with stones. After she died (in 1954, of emphysema), he had a final cigarette case made up for himself in diamonds from one of her brooches. It commemorated the 1956 release of his film High Society.
If living well is indeed the best revenge, as the Murphys once contended, the Porters had theirs, in spades. But life got in its little licks, too. Indeed, as Charles Schwartz presents it in this new biography, much of the time Cole's life resembles less a Broadway peep show. According to Schwartz, Cole was a homosexual, the hair was dyed, the gleaming teeth mostly false. Little was as it seemed. The life the golden couple made together - and apart, for that matter - was to a great degree an illusion. Schwartz makes plenty of assertions (and provides little actual documentation) in his book that is, by turns, breathless, fawning and sycophantic; resentful and hostile; prurient and gross; studded with crude amateur psychology and always written in a style that ranges from pedestrian to execrable. He has, however, assembled a lot of putative facts, never mind that one wishes he'd left some of them out. The legend was so much nicer: the gallantry, the elegance, the gaiety, and always the songs.
The songs, of course, are not an illusion. Their memory lingers, hanging in the air sometimes like a fine perfume, sometimes like the scent of bitter almonds.
"Love flew in through my window,
I was so happy then,
But after love had stayed a little while,
Love flew out again.
What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?"
That indeed is one of the nagging questions of American popular song: what is this thing called love, how to find it, and why, when it feels so good, does it hurt so much? The real flaw with Schwartz's clumsy biography is that one learns finally nothing about what besides money and glamour drew Linda and Cole to one another, and what kept them together for 35 years. Maybe, as someone suggested, they just looked good together. Maybe they even loved one another, in their fashion, in the end.
Gerald Murphy, whose favorite proverb was "living well is the best revenge," wrote Scott Fitzgerald in 1935: "Only the invented part of our life - the unreal part - has had any scheme, any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed." So it does, in the end. For Cole the end finally - and blessedly - came on October 15, 1964. The last words of his last song rre:
"Wouldn't it be fun to be nearly anyone
Except me, mixed-up me!"