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Sharing memories of Cole Porter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 27, 2011 - Songwriter Cole Porter and I share something in common. We both were born in Peru, Indiana.

Porter, of course, is the one who became a legend. He created a daunting body of work -- the lyrics and music for more than 1,500 songs, many of them standards that live on, more than 50 years after his death.

The Muny's newest musical offering, "Kiss Me Kate," was one of his biggest hits, in 1947. In it, Cole Porter successfully retells -- in his distinctive sophisticated and suggestive style -- Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." (The latter, coincidentally, was this summer's Shakespeare Festival offering.)

Porter's music -- with a cameo of the songwriter (or rather, an actor playing him) -- also is a key aspect of Woody Allen's latest well-received movie, "Midnight in Paris."

The man who wrote "I Get A Kick Out of You" would no doubt get a kick out of the mini-renaissance of his life and legacy now underway. The attention arguably got a kick-start by the generally honest 2004 bio-pic "DeLovely" starring St. Louis native Kevin Kline as the colorful, complicated and conflicted Porter. The movie, however, overlooked Peru.

But Peru -- also known as Circus City, USA -- has never overlooked Porter, who, along with the circuses that for decades camped outside town for the winter, put the northern Indiana community on the national map.

Like Porter, I often have returned to Peru to visit my mother. And this month's visit happened to coincide with the city's annual four-day Cole Porter Festival, which this year marked the 120th anniversary of his birth on June 9, 1891.

The festivities included a whimsical locally written musical, "Cole Blooded Murder," that featured standards like "Night and Day"' along with lesser-known tunes that highlighted his wit, like "Plumbing:"

Plumbing, making life so sweet and so clean.
Plumbing, giving us such moments serene.
When do I miss my little home at the end of the garden path?
Not when I miss a mother's love, but when I need a bath.

The festival also featured local artists singing his top hits, experts delivering lectures on his life and lyrics, and a bus tour of his family's homes, favorite haunts and his gravesite in Hope Cemetery.

In addition, the festival shines a spotlight on the permanent exhibit of some of Porter's belongings, including his custom-made limousine used to tour Europe, that now are housed in the Miami County Museum in downtown Peru.

Museum director Catherine Anderson praises tour guides like Ron Withers (who has a master's degree in Peru history, as well as running an "elephant ears" concession at carnivals), who are among the Porterites who regale anyone who asks with humorous and allegedly honest accounts of the composer's early years.

Porter's mother, Kate Cole, was from a wealthy Peru family. Displaying an independent streak that carried down to her son, she married the much-poorer owner of the local drug store, Sam Porter. (Although the composer was closer to his mother, Withers says that Sam Porter also was a talented musician and played the calliope for one of the circuses.)

The Porters initially lived in a two-story house near downtown and his store; their son was born at home. Allegedly, as a boy, Cole Porter once wrote on his bedroom wall, "I will not be a lawyer," in defiance of his strong-willed grandfather's wishes.

The house was rescued from demolition -- and from its most recent past as an illegal meth lab -- just a few years ago by a group of theater enthusiasts. They include Peru's current mayor, Jim Walker, who also had a part in the festival's musical.

The mayor led some of the festival's tours of the house, which has been transformed into the Porter Inn and largely decorated with 1890s furniture and Cole Porter memorabilia. Walker offers a rather graphic account of the structure's condition when it was first rescued. With all the illegal drug activity, Walker quipped, "It's a wonder the house didn't explode."

Local lore has it that young Cole's talent at the piano was noticeable early, and that his mother paid to get 100 copies of his first song published when he was only 10. Withers says his mother also got county officials to shave a couple years off Cole Porter's birth date, to 1893, to make him appear to be even more of a child prodigy.

As a youth, Porter is said to have worked occasionally as a pianist for many local churches and movie theaters, although one story has it that he was fired from a movie-house job because he improvised at the keyboard. Locals say Porter was enamored of the circus performers who descended on Peru each winter and as a boy sported a clown outfit.

At the age of 10 or so, he weekly took the train alone to Marion, Ind., to take violin lessons, which he apparently hated. Withers said that Porter also discovered adult magazines in Marion and used to sneak them back home in his violin case. The Peru festival doesn't shy away from the more licentious aspects of Porter's life.

Porter was sent to boarding school at the age of 12 and never lived in Peru year-round after that. His parents, meanwhile, moved to a huge brick mansion that his grandfather built on an estate outside of town called Westleigh Farms. Nearby is a cottage built for young Porter's step-grandmother, with whom he was close. Bessie Cole's roses are said to be the inspiration for one of his early hits, "An Old-Fashioned Garden."

Cole Porter attended Yale University, where he wrote a string of musicals. Then he went to Harvard Law, which he hated, before switching to the university's arts program (irking the grandfather paying the bill), and then going on to Broadway -- without a law degree. After a rocky start, Porter moved to Paris and joined the cadre of talented American expats (Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among them) and met his wife, Linda, a wealthy divorcee.

The couple was married 35 years and by all accounts was close, even though Cole Porter had gay romances that his wife helped keep private. The couple had no children. She died in 1954. (Go to www.coleporter.org/bio to read more of his biography.)

During his heyday in the 1920s through '40s, when he was the toast of New York and Hollywood, Porter often returned to Peru to visit his relatives -- in particular, his mother.

As a widow, Kate Porter moved to a comfortable brick house within a block of downtown Peru, next to the police station, perhaps for security reasons since her son often stayed there. Even so, in 1933, notorious outlaw John Dillinger broke into the police station to steal weapons. 

Porter's legs were crushed in a riding accident in 1937, and caused him pain -- and walking difficulties -- for the rest of his life. One of the legs had to be amputated in the 1950s. The Kevin Kline/Ashley Judd movie focuses on the accident's damaging effect on his mental and emotional health, and on his later career.

Through it all, Porter maintained a lifelong hankering for the goodies from a local Peru store, Arnold's Candies. He had Arnold's fudge shipped to him all over the world. Locals say that when he died in California, his secretary alerted the store that no more shipments would be needed.

Although the store long since closed, Peru's festival featured fudge allegedly made from Arnold's old recipe.

Cole Porter now rests between his wife and father in the Cole family plot at Hope Cemetery at the north end of town. Several signs, featuring a grand piano, guide visitors to his headstone.

I need no directions to the graves. Several of my relatives, including my father, are nearby so I usually catch a glimpse of the composer fairly often. Or as Cole would put it: "It's just one of those things."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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