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I get a kick out of Cole

Blog | By Nicky Haslam | Nov 01, 2019

Cole Porter with Betty Shevlin Smith in the 1920s

As a new collection of Cole Porter’s letters is published, Nicky Haslam remembers his old friend

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, summer. The Buddha on the Deux Magots’ façade nods sagely at the existential epigrams of Simone de Beauvoir; the jukeboxes blare Dalida’s ‘Garde-Moi la Dernière Danse’, les yé-yéswrithe to Le Twist.

And, almost subliminally, everyone, young or old, in the streets, on the boulevards, in bistros and boudoirs, is singing ‘I Love Paris’, Cole Porter’s newest and most haunting of tributes to the city he adored above all others. We heard it constantly, night and day.

I’d known it a year or two already. Friends brought back from New York the new-fangled LPs - vinyl, not easily-shattered shellac. Among them was Can-Can, Cole’s latest Broadway triumph, and its subject was…. well, Paris, in the 1880s. I’d even been taken to see the London production, hypnotised by its Lautrec-inspired sets and colors and sans-culottes. The leading lady sang ‘I love Paris…’ -against a scrim, 19thcentury map of the city, dark streets defined by pinpoints of lamplight that gently faded to a lilac, dawn sky, encircling Eiffel’s newly-built tower - ‘…because my love is near’. Now I was in Paris, too.

Jaded youth that I was, I knew many of Cole’s famous songs long before Can-Can: Night and Day, Begin the Beguine, I get a Kick out of You, I’ve Got You under my Skin… The songs were grist to my mother’s mill of rolling up the carpet - in the bedroom, where I lay immobile with polio – and, as Cole neatly put it, ‘punishing the parquet’ with a quick foxtrot.

But able, only, to listen, I realised quite early on the immense subtlety of words and music this rich, spoiled, well-educated farmer’s son from Peru, Indiana, could conjure. Later, I notice the in-jokes of Ridin’ High - ‘What do I care if Countess Barbara Hutton has a Rolls Royce built for each gown?’ - the historical references, and the shaded sexuality of, say, Love for Sale.

I’d be told about Cole, and his famously beautiful wife Linda, their costume balls at the Ca’ Rezzonico each Venetian season, their house in the Rue Monsieur, her clothes, his clothes, their style. I read Kenneth Tynan’s essay in Persona Grata, beside Beaton’s portrait of Cole, of how, at the Ritz bar, someone had given…to the man who has everything… a pair of gold sock-suspenders. Thanking them effusively, Cole surreptitiously slipped off the gold sock-suspenders he was already wearing and gave them to the barman. His band of friends - les Coleporteurs. And, of course, I read about his fall in 1937, riding at the Piping Rock Club, when the weight of his fallen horse had crushed his legs to smithereens; one of them was amputated years later as a result.

For many years to come, Cole Porter was the only person I really wanted to meet. So, it appears, did Khrushchev. When the old Soviet blocker paid his one and only visit to Hollywood, he insisted on being taken on the set of the filming of Can-Can, where he was bussed on the mouth by its bright young star, Shirley MacLaine. Cole was by now living largely in California, adapting his songs for the movies. But he often came to New York, to stay in his Billy Baldwin-decorated apartment on the 33rd floor of the Waldorf Towers. We had a mutual friend.

Jean Howard was a Texan beauty, born and bred with all the generosity of that state’s natives. I’d met her in London, and now saw much of her in Manhattan. Her history is remarkable, ex-Follies girl, occasional film star, Marlene’s lover, obsession of Louis B. Mayer, wife of THE leading agent Charles Feldman, and a brilliant photographer. But this is Cole’s story, not Jean’s; though Cole was, I feel, always a little in love with her, as indeed was I. I badgered her endlessly about him; so, one day, she said, ‘Well, you better meet him.’ She arranged for me to be asked to dinner in the Waldorf Towers.

On the way, she prepped me… ‘We will be shown into the library. Cole won’t be in the room. He will be carried in’ - both legs useless now – ‘So turn away, don’t watch…’.

I sneaked the occasional peek, and saw this Mandarin-like figure, carried in burly arms, being arranged on a sofa, razor-sharp creases tugged perfectly, the tiny feet crossed, the carnation placed just-so. And then the voice, the signal to turn. ‘My dears, would you like a Gibson?’

I was to hear that voice, and see the neat obsidian head, fairly often over the next year. His secretary Madeleine Smith would call me at Vogue.

‘The Little Man [her code name for him] wants to know if you’re free tomorrow evening?’

Was I ever? and always. Sometimes, there would be one or two old friends —more, too tiring - more often, we would be alone; the same ritual, the initial Gibson, before an elegant dinner on his Capodimonte porcelain. He’d want to hear about the Fonteyn/Nureyev season, about my friendship with Andy Warhol, about any of the friends he so rarely saw, that I’d run into. He’d encourage me to sing his - and other writers’ - songs, now and then humming, or, faintly, joining in.

There was a deep subtlety to his work that I’d imbued all those years ago, its grace and charm ever more compelling. Of all the great writers of the American songbook, only he - and his rival and friend Irving Berlin - needed no collaborator to create these masterpieces.

There was no feeling about him of being world-weary or disillusioned by the passing of that world. Though, one evening, we sang something, perhaps significant, from his final creation, a television musical of Aladdin starring Sal Mineo.

‘Wouldn’t it be fun not be famous?

Wouldn’t it be fun not be rich?

Wouldn’t it be pleasant to be a simple peasant

And spend a happy day digging a ditch?’

Cole had asked me for the weekend at his house in Williamsburg; on that Friday, he was taken to hospital, and then to California, where he died in 1964, aged 73. I never saw him again.