Linda Porter was such a style icon that, at one point during the ’30’s, particularly well dressed women were referred to as “Very Linda Porterish.” Cole Porter’s wife was famous for her simple, elegant styles, as well as the fact that supposedly after wearing her gloves once she donated them immediately to the poor. I think she could have worn them twice or three times and donated some fresh ones to the poor, but that is not really the point.
The point is that she was stunningly stylish. And she’s often said to have had an incredibly romantic life, being married to Cole Porter and all, and that she inspired many of his songs. That’s partly due to her later being portrayed in a movie by Alexis Smith where Cole Porter was played by Cary Grant:
She’s also one of my mother’s favorite figures, and when I mentioned I was thinking of writing her, Mom wrote me:
I remember a Cartier show featuring her jewelry which was stunning. Could you do a Shelved Doll based on why Cole was so generous? I can think of several reasons:
1. He loved her
2. She fit his lifestyle
3. She accepted his homosexual leanings
4. She was his muse
Might be a different slant. With jewelry photos. For Valentines.
I am going to spoil this for you, but I really think it was number 3. Like, really, really number three. My curiosity more relates to why she loved him – or chose to marry him.
She certainly couldn’t have been entirely naive about #3.
Which I think is interesting, because today we still speculate about whether or not female stars are in relationships with celebrities who are gay (quite frequently you hear that in terms of Tom Cruise’s and John Travolta’s wives). The assumption is generally that these relationships are somehow unfair to the women in them, as though they have been naively taken in and are now being used as props by these men. That is to say nothing of the culture the men are in where it’s not okay to be open about their sexuality, which seems awful for them.
Still, it’s generally understood that this is not a desirable position to be in as a woman. Katie Holmes, who often thought to be Tom Cruise’s beard is jokingly referred to on DListed as ” the selfish human who refused to complete her transformation into a microchip-brained Stepford Wife.”
And, when talking about Tom Cruise’s potential new beard/bride they say:
Another source called Yolanda a true “princess of Scientology” and I don’t appreciate that shit. That source’s Thetans must be shitting lumps of stupidity onto their brain, because Tommy is the true princess of Scientology. Bow down and engrave that on your brain. If Yolanda thinks she’s the princess, there’s really going to be a problem, because no wife of Tommy touches his tiara.
Of course, Tom Cruise also has some scary Scientology stuff going on, but it’s generally agreed that being a beard is not very glamorous. In 2013 it’s seen as a pretty lame position to be in (for everyone). And certainly, it doesn’t seem like something a famously stylish divorcee would go for, even if it was for Cole Porter.
And, unlike Tom Cruise, we really do know more or less for certain that Cole Porter was gay. It’s not a rumor. He fell passionately in love with men.
I feel I need to stress this very strongly, because movies like Night and Day are adamant about portraying him as a devoted faithful husband. (I suppose it was the only way to portray him – implying he was an adulterer if his affairs were with men would, of course, have been impossible.) The movie DeLovely is better about acknowledging the fact that he was homosexual, but Linda’s face always seems to be swimming towards Cole in dreamy, soft lit focus, as if to imply that while he might have lusted after men, he loved only her.
No. Not true. He loved men. He fell passionately in love with men.
One of his letters to the poet Boris Kochno reads:
“I miss you so much that I am falling apart and if this continues, this utter silence, I don’t dare think what I could do.”
He wrote “Night and Day” for Nelson Barclift, a choreographer:
And “Easy to Love” for Ed Tauch, an architect (though in the movie, DeLovely, he writes it for Linda). Both of those people were male.
And if you are thinking “perhaps he just yearned for men from afar”, no – he picked up sailors on the docks, and dressed lovers as delivery men so he could have them visit his apartment. His flirtations were flamboyant enough that they were known about in 1930’s Hollywood, so it seems impossible to assume that his wife was not aware of the fact that he was a homosexual.
So. Who was Linda, before and after she entered into her relationship with Cole Porter?
Linda Porter was born Linda Lee, from the Lee family in Virginia. If the name sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve read Gone With The Wind, and Linda was a descendant of Robert E. Lee (though other Lees included Francis and Richard Lee, who signed the Declaration of Independence). She married Edward Russell Thomas in 1901, when he was 26 and she was 18. She was considered to be a great beauty and the couple was considered exceedingly glamorous; they told the press that their favorite department store was Van Cleef and Arpels.
Thomas is perhaps best remembered for owning the New York Morning Telegraph, a newspaper, which was, seriously, primarily devoted to horse racing.
He is somewhat less remembered for being the first person in America to kill someone in a car.
Though he’s pretty well remembered for abusing Linda, so much so that in 1912, at 29, she filed for divorce.
I wonder how much this experience shaped Linda’s ideas about marriage? After all, Edward Russell Thomas was known for being very much an alpha male, and that seemed to create very bad situations for her. It’s not surprising that, for her second husband, she might have wanted to be with someone more in touch with his feelings.
Someone like Cole Porter.
In any event, the two met in 1918 at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where they were both invited to the wedding of Henry Potter Russell to the heiress Ethel Borden Harriman.
This is very, very different from the scene in Night and Day where Cole meets Linda as a student on break, at his farm in Peru, Indiana (where she is, inexplicably, visiting) while playing Night and Day on the piano.
Lest you think that Linda was probably dazzled by Cole because of his great fame and was swept into the relationship for that reason (rather the way modern day actresses might be swept into one with Tom Cruise) – no. Incorrect. She was far more famous than he was, at that point.
Remember, she came from an extremely prominent Southern family and had been married to a newspaper tycoon (insofar as newspapers about race horses were a thing, it seems a bit like being married to the editor of Jalopnik, but it was a different time).
Meanwhile, Cole Porter was 29 – 7 years younger than her – and had never really had a hit. He was just some kid from Indiana who’d gone to Yale and knew a bunch of the right people. His only truly successful song at that point was called “Old
Fashioned Garden” and that was popular mostly because it came out during WWI when people were into really sentimental songs. Listen to it and note how it is… well, now I feel mean. But can we agree that it’s not as good as “Night and Day” or “You’d Be So Easy To Love?”
His first play See America First also bombed. It contained lyrics like:
“Don’t leave America, Just stick around the U.S.A./ Cheer for America/ And get that grand old strain of Yankee Doodle/ In your noodle. . . .”
Take heart, young composers: “Yankee Doodle in your noodle” was Cole Porter’s first professional attempt
It was so decried as “the worst musical comedy in town” that the The New York Tribune tried to be kinder, writing ““Gotham is a big town and it may be that the sisters, aunts, and cousins of its Yale men will be sufficient to guarantee prosperity for See America First.”
Theater reviews were just seemingly all written by Dorothy Parker imitators back in the day. Now we have Rex Reed. Sigh deeply, and sadly.
Done? Great. The point is that it was Cole who was dating up socially here, not Linda.
But they looked great together:
Still, when she really was at a point in life where she could have her pick of men, what compelled Linda to choose a homosexual man who, at that point, was seen as a pretty mediocre composer?
The explanation, at least in part (the other part being that Cole Porter was social and fun) that many biographers cite is that after her unfortunate first marriage, Linda did not want another sexual relationship. I think if someone expressed that sentiment now – in the age of Cosmopolitan and Sex and the City – we’d be ushering them immediately to a sex therapist. However, it’s worth remembering that the emphasis on sex, and its role in a marriage, was somewhat different in the 1920’s. Keep in mind that Wallis Simpson said that she never allowed her first two husbands to have sex with her, and that through the Victorian Age it was generally accepted to be something men, not women, were supposed to desire.
In any event, the account goes that when Linda first saw Cole playing the piano at the wedding, she was enchanted, and invited him and his friend to dinner at her house afterwards. Cole assumed he’d been mistaken for hired help, and, amused, showed up to dinner dressed as a music hall entertainer. Whether or not she’d truly mistaken him for a hired entertainer, she was charmed, and they married soon afterwards.
The biographer William McBrien
told The Smithsonian that: “They had a brilliant social life in the first years of their marriage, and someone once suggested to me that Cole Porter may have been well suited to Linda because women who are great beauties don’t want to be mauled by men.”
Well, if you say so, William McBrien.
However, Linda did want children. Supposedly, Cole attempted to give her one, but she miscarried.
Perhaps after that Linda dedicated her energies to nurturing Cole’s talent. She was desperate for him to become a classical composer, and for her to take her place as a true patron of the arts, but ultimately, she… it feels silly to say that she resigned herself to the fact that he was writing Cole Porter songs when they were Cole Porter songs.
They entertained lavishly. Their house in Paris was said to have been decorated in exquisite style (easy in part because Linda had received $1 million in the divorce) and periodically they transported their entire entourage to Venice.
All the while, Cole Porter was having affairs with young men, among them Boris Kochno. When Linda discovered this, she told Cole she thought they should be apart for a while, and urged him to return to New York (though she claimed that the break was just for her poor health, and it may well have been, as she was crippled by emphesyma later in life).
Cole did return to New York, and soon began composing hits, such as Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), Gay Divorcee (1932), Anything Goes (1934), Jubilee (1935) and Red, Hot and Blue! (1936).
Linda rejoined him – their separation was supposedly brief – and was stunningly supportive of his efforts, meticulously scrapbooking all of his press clippings. She also presented him with a new cigarette case before every performance. Which I think is a nice thing to do, and, when I first read about it, made me wish people still smoked until I remembered that Linda died of emphysema.
However, the two were separated, again, for considerable periods in 1935, when Cole went to Hollywood, and Linda was even said to consider divorce (but then, frankly, I think everyone who is married has probably considered divorce once or twice).
In 1937 what is often considered the great tragedy of Cole’s life occurred.
While on the Countess de Zoppola’s (I love that name) estate on Long Island, Cole went out riding, and was thrown. The horse apparently rolled over on him, crushing both his legs. He later claimed that as he lay there, in the dirt, waiting for an ambulance to arrive, he composed the lyrics to “At Long Last Love.” (Which is my personal favorite Cole Porter song).
So, that was good! The fact that the accident left Cole Porter with severely limited use of his legs was not good. It did, however, bring Linda back to his side, and it was she who insisted that his leg not be amputated (though doctors suggested it). That may be because her first husband’s leg was also damaged in a car crash and he’d later recovered. Cole, unfortunately, was not so lucky. That said, Linda became more devoted than ever, perhaps because he so deeply relied on her after that.
And she stopped complaining about his affairs.
The New York Times discusses the creation of Night and Day, and notes that:
In 1943, Irving Berlin proposed to Jack Warner that a film should be made of Porter’s life, arguing that his heroism after both his legs were crushed in a riding accident in 1937 would be an inspiration to wounded American servicemen. But the various screenwriters commissioned to produce a script complained about the lack of ”struggle” in his life. ”What will they use for a climax?” Orson Welles wondered. ”The only suspense is — will he or won’t he accumulate $10 million?”
It was the case that Porter’s life had produced little drama except in his obsessive romances with other men. But his homosexuality was obviously a taboo subject. When he approved the final script, Porter said contentedly, ”None of it’s true.”
Though Linda and Cole both seemed fine with being portrayed by Alexis Smith and Cary Grant. Still, the real story, which could absolutely not be told, might have been more interesting.
As Linda, always in fragile health, became sicker she moved briefly to Arizona in 1949, but then returned to her home at the Waldorf, where she died, 5 years later. Cole was said to have wept like a baby at her funeral. “I’ve had two great women in my life,” he later said, “my mother, who thought I had this talent, and my wife, who kept goading me along, in spite of that general feeling that I couldn’t appeal to the general public.”
Cathy Day (who, in addition to working on a book about Linda Porter runs that @MrsColePorter twitter) writes of her slow death that:
Towards the end, Linda coughed so hard she broke a rib. Her once-great beauty was completely gone. The pain medicine and lack of oxygen made her mind go vague. She slipped in and out of consciousness, struggling to breathe. In May 1954, Cole was in California working on the score for Silk Stockings, but a week before she died, the doctors said he needed to come to New York. It was time.
When she first saw Cole, Linda was lucid enough to say, “I want to die. I’m in so much pain.” She asked Cole to bury her outside her mansion in Williamstown, Buxton Hill. He agreed. She held his hand and said, “If only I was important enough so that a flower or something would be named for me.”
I’m sure you can see where this is going, but Cole, later, did name a rose after her. It is this one:
I think it’s about as lovely as some of the jewels he gave her (which, as Mom points out, were indeed, sparkling).
I don’t know that those are entirely fair trade-offs for a marriage of convenience – and I think by today’s standards, a strong case would be made that they aren’t – but I do think that, though he may not have desired her sexually, you can’t deny that Cole did love Linda. Without Linda, Cole Porter would likely not have been Cole Porter, and without him, Linda Porter would have been just another socialite. They were a couple that seemed to have taken the notion that you should marry your best friend quite literally, and maybe that contributes more to the success of a partnership as sexual desire.
We can only hope that things work out as well for the next Mrs. Tom Cruise.
Linda Died 57 Years Ago Today, Cathy Day
What Is This Thing Called Love?, Smithsonian Magazine