The songs of Cole Porter: elegance . . .

May 27, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

To most of us, he is the ultimate sophisticate -- a debonair, decadently rich gentleman who triumphed on Broadway, partied in Paris, soireed in Venice, cruised up the Nile and never left his sumptuous New York apartment without placing a carnation in the lapel of his impeccably tailored suits.

But there's another, equally intriguing -- if lesser known -- side to Cole Porter, the brilliant songwriter whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this year.

Beneath the surface glitter of the career that produced both music and lyrics for "Night and Day," "You're the Top," "Anything Goes," "I Love Paris," "Begin the Beguine," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and dozens more is a personality that was shaped and nurtured not in cultural capitals but in Peru, Ind., a dot on the map about 150 miles southeast of Chicago and 75 miles north of Indianapolis.

Never mind that a --ing Cary Grant portrayed Porter in "Night and Day" (1945), the rife-with-errors film that alleged to tell the story of Porter's life. (For all its inaccuracies -- most notably its disguise of Porter's homosexuality -- the film had Porter's blessing; in fact, he insisted on Grant.)

Never mind that Porter himself routinely embellished his life's story.

The fact is that 100 years ago, on June 9, Porter was born in a small but comparatively sophisticated little Indiana town that had an inexplicably exotic name.

Even a century ago, Peru, Ind. -- although located in the midst of vast farmlands -- had a big and bustling main thoroughfare named Broadway. The architecture was grandiose by any measure, its Romanesque buildings and European-influenced gables towering above the little city.

From this unusual place came one of the supreme songwriters of our century. Granted, Peru has changed a great deal since Porter's childhood days: Some of its magnificent old facades are crumbling, its former sophistication has given way to a long line of fast-food restaurants, its lone movie theater charges $1.50 a ticket. Like many small towns in America, it no longer prospers.

Yet it was to Peru's grassy, unassuming cemetery that Porter returned in 1964, turning his back on the glamorous locales where he had played out his adulthood.

Between the start and finish of his life, Porter never lost touch with small-town Midwest, visiting his Peru family and friends regularly, even if he had moved away as a teen-ager to attend prep school in the East. These Midwestern ties shaped his art, almost as much as the high-life places did.

Although Porter's songs don't reflect the sauntering, rustic feeling of Indiana as, say, Hoagy Carmichael's tunes do, there are other, subtler influences. The Midwestern work ethic that drove Porter to become one of the most prolific of all songwriters is unmistakable. And the naughty, snickering lyrics of risque songs such as "But in the Morning, No," "Love for Sale" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" remind one that Porter, as a child taking music lessons in Marion, Ind., bought titillating magazines there and stored them in his violin case for future reference.

Sex in turn-of-the-century Indiana was not exactly an open subject, and, in his songs, Porter reveled in the naughtiness of it.

More important, Porter was acutely aware that, as a small-town Midwesterner, he was an anomaly in the songwriting business.

"The first time I met Cole Porter [in the '50s], it was at a fancy party, and the host said to me: 'Cole Porter wants to meet you,' " recalls songwriter Sammy Cahn.

"But instead of going up to Cole, I stood there transfixed. Finally, he came up to me and said: 'Sammy Cahn, I've always envied you.'

"And I said: 'You've envied me? What could you have possibly envied me?'

"And Cole said: 'The fact that you were born on the Lower East Side [of New York]. If I had been born on the Lower East Side, I would have been a true genius.' "

Although Porter's clever lyrics and seductive melodies assure him a place among songwriters of genius, his quip about New York's Lower East Side says a great deal about his unusual life and remarkable accomplishments.

Obviously, Porter was well aware that many -- if not most -- of the great songwriters of his era had been poor kids from the streets of New York. George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Irving Caesar, Sammy Cahn, Mitchell Parish, Burton Lane -- the list seems endless. What's more, most of these talents, who saw songwriting as a quick ride out of the poverty, were born of Jewish immigrants.

So how did an Episcopalian from Peru, scion of a fantastically wealthy family and born in a sprawling Indiana home, triumph in big-city showbiz?

"You have to remember that Cole's mother, Kate, was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, and that went for Cole, too," recalls Amelia Reuter, 80, whose mother was cook for Porter's family; as such, Ms. Reuter spent the first 29 years of her life around Porter.

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