Cole Porter

Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'Cole Porter' by William McBrien

Published October 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There's no reason a biography of a figure as dazzling as Cole Porter shouldn't be as frisky as a glass of Veuve Cliquot. One of the most brilliant songwriters of the century, Porter was clever, witty and well-to-do, and he traveled in the most sophisticated social circles in Europe, Manhattan and Hollywood from the roaring '20s practically until his death, in 1964, at the age of 73. He was married for 22 years to a woman he dearly loved, although he was a (barely) closeted homosexual. In 1937, both of his legs were crushed in a horseback-riding accident, and he suffered often-agonizing pain for the rest of his life. Porter was a complicated, private man who wrote some of the best-known and best-loved songs of our time. As a biographer's subject, he's practically a textbook case, a golden opportunity for a writer to blend research and analysis: How did his private life inform his sensibility, and conversely, what secrets does his work reveal about him?

That's why it's almost a shock that there's so little fizz in William McBrien's biography of Porter. McBrien (the co-author of "Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith") has done plenty of homework, sifting through mountains of detail -- the problem is, he hasn't sifted it enough. In a section on the time Porter spent in Venice, he digresses to tell us that an aunt of Cole's once worked an embroidered Venetian scene that was displayed publicly in Porter's hometown of Peru, Ind. It's the kind of detail that seems to serve no other purpose than to prove how much research he's done, how many newspaper clippings he's waded through. His chronicling of Porter's many shows are bogged down by similar minutiae -- there's important and interesting information there, but sometimes these sections just read like laundry lists of quoted lyrics, of songs added or thrown out at the last minute, of squabbles among cast members, writers and producers. Porter knew lots of people -- big names and small are dropped in multitudinous quantities -- and there are so many characters, it's often hard to keep track of them.

McBrien, to his credit, has taken a tremendous amount of care to write about Porter's many lovers and crushes without being catty or gossipy: He clearly wants to preserve the dignity of his subject, and that's admirable. But there are ways to keep a subject's dignity without draining all the blood out of him and his work. McBrien quotes a heartbreakingly tender letter Cole wrote to Boris Kochno, one of his lovers, only to follow it with this leaden bit of analysis: "The passion here may startle those who know Porter only from the nonchalant persona he chose to present to society. But these words help those who are moved by Porter's songs to understand the origins of the ardor that is replicated in lyrics and in his throbbing rhythms and intoxicating melodies."

When you do as much research as McBrien has, you're bound to turn up some amusing anecdotes: In the hospital after his horrible accident, Cole, heavily sedated, muttered to his friend Elsa Maxwell, "It just goes to show 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong. They eat horses instead of ride them." But the connective tissue between those moments is stretched pretty thin. You'd hope a biography of Cole Porter would go under the skin. This one merely strokes the surface.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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