"Cole Porter: A Biography," by William McBrien. Knopf. 480 pages. $30. It had to happen sooner or later. The literary sub-genre best known these days as "gay history" has found its way into popular music. As usual, it sexualizes - and thereby trivializes - all in its path. The subject this time is Cole Porter.
Songwriter, lyricist, Indiana-born Porter was one of the very few major figures in his field known in his lifetime, at least among colleagues, as a homosexual. Publicly, after the custom of his times, he remained discreet about his preferences, maintaining a carefully groomed fa ade which included a long and happy, if celibate, marriage to a beautiful and elegant socialite.
Such discretion finds little place in William McBrien's new life of Porter. Drawing on the composer's letters, on interviews with friends and colleagues, sometimes educated guesswork, and often on outright gossip, he reconfigures "Coley" as an active - indeed often voracious - homosexual.
McBrien presents detailed inventories of Porter's lovers, one-night stands, California poolside gambols. In a few cases, persons identified here as gay may or may not have been, depending on whose account is credited. Like some old Cholly Knickerbocker newspaper column, the text dwells endlessly on the goings and comings of the composer's high-society friends, including mind-numbing lists of glitterati glimpsed at parties given, and attended, by Cole and Linda Porter. It even itemizes the contents of Porter's hotel refrigerator, though to what end is hard to discern.
McBrien does lavish attention, and sometimes useful detail, on the various shows, though he seems chronically unable to resist gratuitously catty swipes at certain of their female stars. There is extensive quoting of lyrics, often as illustration of hidden references, real and imagined, to the composer's "special friends," and herein lies an irony: in citing so much of this as coded "gay talk," McBrien does his subject an inadvertent disservice, directing attention to how often the chic allusions and sexual innuendoes, for all their ingenuity, come off as merely arch, and how badly they date.
In devoting so much space to "outing" his subject, McBrien all but ignores what may be Cole Porter's most durable strength: an undeniable skill as a sculptor of melodies. He never begins to address the musical mind that could shape "Begin the Beguine" into a 108-bar masterpiece of melodic narrative (equalled only by Hoagy Carmichael's "Washboard Blues"); devise the craftily simple bridge of "Let's Do It"; fill "Ev'ry time We Say Goodbye," "In the Still of the Night" and "It's Bad for Me" with eternal felicities of detail.
The need remains for a full, critical biography of this gifted but paradoxical musical figure, a superior, serious craftsman who lived the life of a dilettante. McBrien's "Cole Porter" is not without value: it is, after all, the first Porter life to deal openly with the homosexuality. But the author's obsession with that aspect has shanghaied his book - and in all probability would have offended his subject's sense of decorum.
When Porter's "Out of This World" opened on Broadway in 1950, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson lamented that it nearly made sex "a tiresome subject." Regrettably, William McBrien has done much the same here.
Richard Sudhalter is a cultural historian, commentator and critic. He was the principal author of Bix Beiderbecke's biography, and was the author and musical director of "Hoagy on My Mind," a Carmichael theatrical retrospective.