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Cole Porter, College Man
From the Orange Bowl in Miami to London’s West End, fans of American musical theater spent much of last year celebrating the centennial of Yale’s most famous minstrel, Cole Porter, who graduated from the College in 1913. Artists as diverse as Thomas Hampton and U2 recorded his songs for the occasion, and such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Indiana Historical Society, and the United States Post Office have created their own special tributes.
But the Yale Music Library has been enjoying a quiet Porter celebration all to itself. Earlier this year, Maurice Goodman Jr. ’43, and his wife Georgine were visiting the University’s contribution to the centennial, an exhibition in Sterling Memorial Library entitled, “Cole Porter at Yale.” The display of Porter memorabilia reminded the Goodmans of some material they thought might be added to the collection.
It seems that fifteen years earlier, while spending the summer at the home of Tom and Mary Liversidge in Kennebunk, Maine, the Goodmans had been shown an envelope containing some of the course notebooks Porter kept as an undergraduate, as well as manuscripts, sheet music, and lyric sketches in his own handwriting. Spurred by the Sterling exhibition, the Goodmans called Harold Samuel, the librarian at the School of Music, and Samuel immediately contacted Mary Liversidge, who readily agreed to donate the materials to Yale. The material Porter himself gave to Yale constitutes the main source on his professional career, but the Liversidge gift has amplified it by providing a unique glimpse into the formative period of one of America’s most cherished composers.
The 80-year-old trove had a special significance for Mrs. Liversidge. According to her account, Porter had frequently visited her father, Charles Parsons ’12, and her uncle Humphrey, ’13, who was Porter’s only roommate at Yale, during their school vacations. Charles and Humphrey had been raised in Kennebunk by their aunt Llewellyn (their parents had died when Charles and Humphrey were young boys). “I was told,” Mrs. Liversidge said, “that Cole Porter even wrote a song about Aunt Llewellyn.”
Indeed he did. Porter’s “Llewellyn” (whose title rhymed nicely in the tune with “dwellin’,” “tellin’,” and “swellin’”) was sung in the 1912 Yale Dramat “smoker,” And the Villain Still Pursued Her. He wrote most of the score for The Pot of Gold while visiting the Parsons family in the summer of 1912 and returned often thereafter. Mrs. Liversidge surmises that “he probably left the school notebooks in Maine during these trips, and everyone forgot about them.”
Although Porter was a mere college man at the time he produced the notebooks, he was hardly untutored in music. Born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891, the son of Kate Cole and Samuel Fenwick Porter, the future composer of Kiss Me, Kate got his first exposure to music from his mother, who introduced him to the piano and the violin. By the time he left for Worcester Academy, his appetite for lyric writing had been whetted by his pharmacist father’s avid interest in classical languages and 19th-century romantic poetry.
After a summer touring Europe, Porter arrived at Yale in the fall of 1909, a classmate of, among others, W. Averell Harriman and Sidney Lovett. Porter majored in English, minored in music, studied French, and even received credit for singing in the University choir.
He also involved himself heavily in extracurricular activities and, while already a cheerleader for the football team, achieved an additional measure of campus fame for his durable fight songs, “Bull Dog” and “Bingo Eli Yale.” His Glee Club singing, and the suave, audacious musical comedy scores he wrote for the plays (Cora and The Pot of Gold) that were performed as part of the initiation ceremonies at his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and for the smokers put on by the Yale Dramatic Association, only added to his popularity.
For his first three years at Yale, Porter roomed alone. But as a senior, he and Humphrey Parsons moved into 31 Vanderbilt, the sumptuous suite over the archway. Porter and Parsons had become friends as members of the Glee Club, and as seniors shared its leadership, Parsons as manager and Porter as president. Porter also got top-billing as the star of the club’s month-long annual Christmas tour, which crossed America by luxury train.
The documentary evidence of Porter’s days at Yale is relatively thin, so the Kennebunk discovery does much to reconstruct the way things were in those carefree, pre–World War I days. By no means all of them were spent singing. The Liversidge material includes eleven of Porter’s class notebooks, comprising more than 700 pages. Most of the entries are in pencil, and many are written on both sides of a sheet. One notebook includes review materials for Sophomore English (B5) and mentions such authors as Spenser, Milton, Bacon, Pope, Addison, Steele, and Swift. Two relate to a course entitled, “English Poets of the Nineteenth Century” (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, et al.), which Porter studied during his junior year (1911–1912). From his senior year there are notebooks on physiology, “French Literature of the Seventeenth Century,” “Tennyson and Browning,” and Shakespeare.
Among the things that set these notebooks apart from the normal run of undergraduate scribblings of the day are page after page of Porter’s remarkably skilled cartoon drawings of elegant women dressed in the sleek fashions of the day, as well as flamboyant variations on his signature. A few of the notebooks also include a variety of music exercises and lyric sheets, some of which provide hints of later compositions.
In addition to the academic notebooks, the Kennebunk trove includes some early versions of lyrics for the two musicals Porter wrote during his senior year, The Pot of Gold and The Kaleidoscope, as well as an outline and fragment from an unfinished, untitled, and previously unknown college show. There is also a typescript of Almet F. Jenks Jr.’s libretto for The Pot of Gold, Porter’s most important and best-preserved Yale musical, and his own copies of three of his earliest published songs, “Bingo Eli Yale,” which he wrote for the 1910 football song competition; “Bridget,” also from 1910; and “Flah-Dee-Dah” (1911), the first “lost” Porter song to come to light since the discovery a decade ago of many of his manuscripts in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Among the other major discoveries in the Liveridge gift are a fragment, outline, and incomplete cast list for an unfinished, somewhat fantastical musical fable about a circus troupe complete with clown, bareback rider, snake charmer, fat lady, skeleton, and manager.
Other happy surprises abound in the notebooks. Among them are early versions of lyrics for “Scandal,” from The Pot of Gold, “Maid of Santiago,” and “In the Land Where My Heart Is Born,” from The Kaleidoscope. No less an authority than William Lyon Phelps, the legendary English professor and Porter’s mentor in The Pundits, congratulated the Dramat after seeing The Kaleidoscope for “having one man who is a real genius and who writes both words and music of such exceptional high order.”
Porter’s own reactions to Phelps and his famous course on Tennyson and Browning are amply documented in one of the notebooks. For example, Porter noted that Tennyson’s “The Princess” had an “excellent libretto for comic opera,” and he responded raptly to Phelps’s sonorous utterances on “In Memoriam,” “Maud,” and many of the shorter poems as well. However, when Phelps turned to Tennyson’s late plays—Harold, The Cup, and The Falcon—Porter’s thoughts were elsewhere, and he diverted himself by filling his notebook pages with words and music for songs entitled, “Exercise” and “We Are So Aesthetic.”
Yet of all the notebooks surely it is the pair for the Shakespeare course, B7 (described as “a rapid reading of all the authentic plays”), that provides the greatest insight into the way songwriting invaded Porter’s academic life, and eventually emerged onto the stage. It is amusing to see, for example, that during presentations on Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, Porter was writing:
In a revised version, the saucy doggerel found a place in The Kaleidoscope’s “We’re a Group of Nonentities”:
A year later, in 1914, Porter incorporated the characters of Mutt and Jeff into the verse of “I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland”:
Curiously, the B7 notebooks (which show that Porter missed a month of lectures in the spring) are silent as to whether Porter read The Taming of the Shrew, which became the source and inspiration 35 years later for his outstanding Broadway achievement, Kiss Me, Kate.
For all his precocity and his early triumphs as an undergraduate, Porter was dogged after graduation by a series of disappointments that delayed, if only briefly, what seemed to be an inevitable rise to the top of his profession. After leaving Yale, he studied briefly at the Harvard Law School, switching at the dean’s suggestion to the Harvard School of Music, but that training was not enough to make a success of Porter’s first Broadway show, See America First (1916), which closed two weeks after its New York opening. In June 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, Porter sailed for Europe to work with the Duryea Relief Organization. Within a few months he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and for a time was attached to the American Embassy in Paris, where he met and married the elegant divorcée Linda Lee Thomas.
From World War I until the late 1920’s, the Porters lived primarily in Europe, mostly in Paris and Venice, and traveled widely. However, Porter’s years as a playboy-expatriate, when many thought he was doing little but giving and going to parties, afforded him both the distance and the stimulation to develop his own distinctive style. Nevertheless, while the songs he wrote during those years were presented in such revues as Hitchy-Koo of 1919, Mayfair and Montmartre (1922), Hitchy-Koo of 1922, and Greenwich Village Follies, in 1924, the response to his work was not enthusiastic.
So discouraged was Porter about his career at this point that he was prepared to abandon songwriting altogether. Fortunately, his good friend Monty Woolley, the director of the Yale Dramat, intervened, and Porter reluctantly agreed to submit three songs for Out O’Luck, a comedy melodrama about American doughboys in France. The show’s success on the Dramat’s Christmas tours of 1925 and 1926 helped Porter recover the self-confidence that had eroded so badly since graduation. Henry C. Potter ’26, who played the lead in Out O’Luck, recalled Porter’s mood at that time:
Indeed they had. Many great shows and songs followed—topped perhaps in public esteem by Anything Goes in 1934, Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 and Can-Can in 1953, as well as such classic Porter tunes as “Begin the Beguine” and “In the Still of the Night.”
Even after the terrible riding accident that crushed both his legs when a horse fell on him in October 1937, Porter continued to write his amusing, exhilarating, often poignant songs. He welcomed communication with his Yale friends and classmates over the years and was cheered up considerably when they would come by for some a cappella renditions of the songs he had written in college.
Porter would no doubt have been especially delighted to know that the school books, songs, and sketches that he had taken with him on his summer visits with the Parsons in Maine have found a new home alongside the papers, books, and recordings he bequeathed to Yale on his death in 1964. That was only four years after Yale had saluted him with an honorary degree bestowed at his apartment in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The citation read, in part:
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