This is the sad story of Cole Porter, one of America's greatest and most talented composers who won just about every award possible for songs and musical productions, and how his life was destroyed by a fall off a horse that caused pain for the rest of his life, depression, and eventually prevented him from creating new music (Med Gen Med, 2004;6(2):47).
Today, you can still hear many of the more than 1,400 songs he wrote: "True Love", "Something to Shout About", "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to", "You'll Never Get Rich", "Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye", "Born to Dance", "I've Got You Under My Skin", "De-Lovely", "Begin the Beguine", "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love", "Anything Goes", "Kiss Me, Kate", "Can Can", "High Society", "Night and Day", "You Do Something To Me", "Love For Sale", "What Is This Thing Called Love?", "I Get A Kick Out Of You", "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", "Don't Fence Me In", "I Love Paris", "In the Still of The Night", "Just One Of Those Things", "From This Moment On", "You're The Top", "Easy to Love" and many, many more.
Porter was born in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His mother’s father, James Omar (J.O.)Cole, started as the son of a shoemaker, struck it rich in the California gold rush and invested so wisely that he became the wealthiest man in Indiana. Porter's mother, Kate, always had the best clothes and education and was trained in dancing and music. J.O. Cole did not want Kate to marry the man who became Cole Porter’s father because he was just a druggist from a small town. They married without his consent, but J.O. Cole supported them financially for the rest of their lives.
At age six, Porter learned to play the violin and by age eight he was practicing on the piano for two hours a day, often accompanied by his mother. At age 10, he dedicated his first song, "Song of the Birds", to his mother. She published one hundred copies and sent them to all her friends and relatives. At age 14, Porter enrolled in the Worcester Academy and was graduated valedictorian of his class. He had brought a piano to school with him and found it easy to make friends by singing and entertaining them.
Yale and Harvard Law School
At age 21, he went to Yale where he wrote two of Yale’s best known football fight songs, "Bingo Eli Yale" and "Bulldog", that are still sung today at every Yale football game. He sang with the Whiffenpoofs and was president of the Yale Glee Club. He composed several full musicals, most of which boasted of the incredible strength and prowess of Yale men. As an undergraduate, he wrote approximately 300 songs and six full-scale musical productions.
He went to Harvard Law School because his grandfather told him to become a lawyer and not a composer, but he spent most of his time writing musicals for presentations back at Yale. The next year, without telling his grandfather, he transferred to Harvard’s School of Arts and Sciences to study music. He quit soon afterwards and moved to the Yale Club in New York City, where his first Broadway song appeared in a revue in 1915.
A Marriage of Convenience
In 1917, he moved to Paris where he lived and entertained extravagantly and met Linda Thomas, a wealthy American divorcee who was eight years older than him. Two years later they married, which was a perfect cover for his homosexuality, and it is likely that she also was the same. Despite the sexless relationship, they were devoted to each other and remained married until her death in 1954. They entertained lavishly and participated in the gay community, with close friends such as the Prince and Princess Edmond de Polignac, the lesbian heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and a homosexual prince who was a gifted composer.
At age 32, Porter received a large inheritance from his grandfather and they moved to Venice where they lived in a palace formerly owned by the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. They had enough money to build a floating night club for 100 guests and to host spectacular gala events. Letters available today show that Porter fell in love with Boris Kochno, a Russian poet and Ballet Russe dancer. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s his music was performed on Broadway, the West End and in Hollywood. The Porters left Paris in 1939, bought a home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and divided their time between New York and Hollywood.
Porter was an accomplished horseman but in 1937, at age 46, he fell with his horse and had his pelvis and both legs crushed by the 1000-pound horse landing on top of him. He suffered horrible pain called reflex sympathetic dystrophy for the rest of his life. His mother and wife talked the doctors out of amputating his legs because they felt that this would destroy his “handsome-guy” image of himself. He was often involved with men who looked like Greek gods, with large muscles and big chests, and he spent many hours each day combing his hair. He stayed in the hospital for two years, needed a wheelchair for five years and over the next twenty years required 33 operations to save his legs.
During this period, he wrote several Broadway musicals and his most successful show, Kiss Me Kate, opened in 1948. In 1952 at age 61, he lost his beloved mother who died of a stroke. At age 63, he lost his wife, Linda, to emphysema and this sent him into overwhelming depression and isolation. Eventually he developed an infection in his bones called osteomyelitis, and when he was 67, his doctors amputated his right leg. This took away all his confidence; he refused to wear an artificial leg, lost his ability to compose, went into a deep depression, took massive amounts of alcohol, narcotics, and tobacco, and spent the rest of his life alone in his apartment in the Waldorf Towers.
More Medical Problems
He developed stomach ulcers which were treated with the removal of his stomach, and recurrent pneumonia, urinary tract infections and kidney stones. He was so depressed that at age 69, he did not attend a "Salute to Cole Porter" at the Metropolitan Opera, the commencement exercises at Yale University in which he was given an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, or his 70th birthday party at the Orpheum Theater in New York City. In 1964, at age 73, he died of kidney failure after surgery to remove a kidney stone. The royalties from his many songs and musicals continue to earn more than $3 million per year for his heirs.
Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
His severe leg pains were caused by Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), a condition in which a person develops incredibly crippling pain following an operation or an accident. Doctors used to think that RSD was caused by nerve damage, but research has shown that people with this condition have severe osteoporosis, a thinning and weakening of the bones in an injured extremity that may be cured with drugs to strengthen bones, such as 60 mg of intravenous pamidronate administered once a week for three weeks (Pain Med, Sept 2004;5(3):276-80).
A Lesson from His Life and Death
The tragic story of Cole Porter reminds us that a single accident destroyed the creativity of one of the world's most prolific composers who had succeeded because he was brilliant, extremely talented and incredibly hard-working. It could happen to anyone.
June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964