He's the Smile on the Mona Lisa

June 09, 1991

"Perhaps the greatest songwriter of the century," says the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. That's high praise in the century in which a dozen or so great American songwriters redefined the musical comedy form and raised it to the level of enduring art. But Cole Porter, who would have been 100 today, was certainly right up there at the top. After seeing "Can-Can," Irving Berlin wrote him, "anything I can do you can do better."

That was in 1953, and the young lovers who were humming and singing "I Love Paris" and "It's All Right With Me" then were the children or grandchildren of the lovers who hummed and sung "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love" 25 years before. Another generation is doing it today. And another and another will in the next century.

Porter alone among America's musical comedy creators wrote words and music for the medium through four very different decades. His songs had a universality that overcame their time. People who enjoy his music on records and in revivals today don't think of them as period pieces. It is not "the Twenties," "the Thirties," "the Forties," "the Fifties" that we recall, listening to him the Nineties.

Even his most topical lyrics speak to later generations' hearts and libidos rather than their minds and memories. No one thinks "It's Too Darn Hot" is just a tune about summer in Baltimore in 1948. All his best lines convey now what he intended them to mean then, even something as dated and inappropriate to current politics as this (written in an era of Democratic presidential landslides):

I'm the nominee of the G.O.P./Or Gop,/But If, Baby, I'm the bottom,/You're the top.

That song showed how Porter made his own rules. It went on forever -- two verses and seven refrains. It was typical Porter in the sense that it captured so many of his essentials: unforgettable tune and cleverly rhymed lyrics that are sophisticated, joking, flirtatious, teasing, tender and romantic. He invoked the enduring as well as the topical in his definitions of "the top" -- the Colosseum. . . the Louvre Museum. . . Mickey Mouse. . . the Tower of Pisa. . . the smile on the Mona Lisa.

This "ditty" as he called it and many others he wrote will endure as long as that smile.

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