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Cole Porter, Famed and Saucy Composer from Peru, Indiana, Just North of Indianapolis

In a community with the intriguing name of Peru, Indiana, one of the most famous American popular composers was born. Cole Albert Porter became a star in the world of musical comedy through his timeless mega-hits such as “Anything Goes,” “I’ve Got You Under my Skin,” “I Get a Kick out of You” and “Night and Day.” Of the many famous people from Indianapolis and its immediate environs, the name of Cole Porter is perhaps one of the most universally recognizable.

The Porter family came from big money, with a maternal grandfather, J.O. Cole, who carried around the moniker “the richest man in Indiana.” When he was only six, Cole’s mother recognized his precocious ability in music and started him off with violin and piano lessons. His father was an amateur poet, which doubtless contributed to Cole’s unique abilities to turn a phrase through meter, rhyme and melody.

Porter’s unconventional life and the extraordinary cards dealt him led him to stardom by way of Yale, Harvard, Paris, Venice, Broadway, and possibly even a stint in the French Foreign Legion. He was a distinguished student, class valedictorian of the Worcester Academy, president of the Yale Glee Club and composer of more than 300 songs during his college years at Yale alone. He went on to study music theory and composition at Harvard, after a short but unsatisfactory year of studying law at the Harvard Law School.

Here’s a great video with Pat Enz playing a jazzy version of “I Love You,” by Cole Porter.

 

Porter’s years in Paris were reportedly every bit as bawdy as some of his lyrics, and then some. He staged extravagant parties, particularly for the upper-crust gay community from all over Europe, and the scandals abounded but only served to increase his reputation for amusing largesse. Though he was strictly homosexual, he married a rich divorcee from Kentucky, who found the arrangement socially advantageous. For Porter’s part, the union made for a convenient cover story, and his money and thirst for exorbitant, luxurious living made the couple something of a legend even before he found musical success.

Upon his return to the States, however, Cole Porter became an instant golden goose, musically speaking. He produced one enormous hit musical comedy after another, starting with the famous 1928 musical called Paris, which contained his still well-known song “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” There was simply no stopping Porter after he came back to Broadway and started writing saucy, bawdy, fanciful and clever hits such as “You Do Something to Me,” What Is this Thing Called Love,” “Love for Sale,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Just One of those Things,” and of course, “Night and Day.”

There inevitably followed, (as the night follows the day), a long list of Hollywood hit songs and scores, including “In the Still of the Night,” “I’ve Got You Under my Skin” and, believe it or not, the famous cowboy song “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Riding high on success for many years, in the end Porter found himself a cripple in continuous pain after a horseback-riding accident in 1937. The incident began a long and gradual downturn for Porter, but he continued to produce hit shows through his haze of pain and over 30 unsuccessful corrective surgeries. During this period, his most successful work, Kiss Me, Kate, won a Best Musical Tony Award, and he took home the award for Best Composer and Lyricist. He turned out several more hits after Kiss Me, Kate, including “Be a Clown,” High Society and “True Love.”

Nevertheless, he ended his long, eventful life in a deep depression, and died in Santa Monica, California at the age of 73, never having written another song from the year 1958 until his death in 1964. His interesting life story was portrayed in two films, Night and Day with Cary Grant and De-Lovely with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd.

Though Peru is now a moderate-sized town with a population count of about 12,500, it was only founded about sixty years prior to Cole Porter’s appearance on the planet in 1891. The community is some 70 miles north of Indianapolis in Central Indiana. In 2004, the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation joined with Peru’s Mayor Jim Walker, local volunteers and the Ole Olsen Memorial Theater Group to purchase and renovate Porter’s birth home, saving it from demolition. Unfortunately, the group was forced to put the historic site up for sale. As recently as April 27, 2010, the house, frequently referred to as the Cole Porter Inn, was still listed, with a modest price tag of $250,000. The important greater Indianapolis real estate deal comes with a caveat, however. The new owners will agree to maintain the historic flavor of the site, hopefully by keeping the many antiques and Porter memorabilia in it and continuing to run the Cole Porter Inn as a bed and breakfast.

Peru Hoosiers understandably want to keep the landmark and honor the legacy of Cole Porter, the town’s most famous native son.

“Anything Goes”
Words and music by Cole Porter

In olden days a glimpse of stockings
Was looked on as something shocking,
Now heaven knows,
Anything goes.

Good authors too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose,
Anything goes.

Other famous musicians from Indianapolis and nearby

See an article and photos about the famous Victorian Indianapolis attraction, The Morris-Butler House Museum, also maintained by the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation.

Mike Woods