by John Haskell
An apocryphal event is about to happen. The difference between it and a real event is that although Cole Porter said it happened — and although he ought to know because it happened to him — we can never really be sure.
All we know is, he was at a party. It was one of those perfect, exclusive Long Island affairs when the idea of ritz still meant something. In 1937 ritz was still a word. The hostess was charming and the guests were charming, and Cole Porter, standing with his back against the large marble fireplace, his eyes smiling, a flower perched in his lapel, had a sense he could live forever. And happily.
And why not? He saw, across the room, a young man, tanned and handsome, wearing some kind of uniform. He was attracted to physical beauty and so he broadened his smile hoping the young man would broaden his, which he did. Cole Porter had a certain youthfulness and a certain beauty, but his power to attract was rooted in his songs. In an effort to trigger that attraction in the young man he sat at the piano and sang. About love. Because he was in love. And so he sang about the admiration and love he longed for.
Cole Porter wanted to control what was happening, including that admiration and love, but when he looked up after the last refrain he saw that the young man was gone. In the midst of all the laughing and the clinking of glasses, behind the facade of perfection, something was not quite right. There would be other young men, he knew that, and more or less he accepted it. But not really. Which is why he went horse-back riding.
The interaction with the young man left him with a feeling of uneasiness (that his youth and beauty might actually be impermanent) and to dispel that uneasiness he organized an expedition to the stables. He spotted a horse there, this one particular horse. The groom tried to steer him away, told him the horse was headstrong and fiery, but Cole Porter had a whim of iron, and he saw the recklessness of the horse as a virtue, and he wanted that horse, and he got on that horse, and riding along the trail he thought he'd tamed its fire.
He thought everything was under control, including the animal body between his legs. He could feel that body and he could hear the hoofs and he could see the leaves falling from the trees. But he didn't notice the bush. There was something about the bush by the side of the trail — some reflected light or a small bird — whatever it was the horse got frightened and reared up. Maybe that particular horse wasn't trained for the trails, or maybe it just wanted the man with the sharp boots off its back, and the bush was a perfect excuse to throw off everything, including the man on the saddle.
They say that life-altering moments often happen, or seem to, in slow-motion. But this happened in the time it took to take a breath. The horse had reared up, turned, stumbled, fell back, and landed on Cole Porter, on his leg which was still in the stirrup. The leg was crushed and the bone was broken into pieces. The horse was writhing, trying to get up, and as it almost did, but unsuccessfully, it fell back onto the other leg, and because a horse weighs about a thousand pounds that leg was also crushed.
The horse, we assume, righted itself, shook itself, and was standing off to the side. Cole Porter was alone so we don't know everything, especially in his mind. We know he was lying on the ground, not far from the bush, his legs crushed and twisted, and we have to assume, as he waited for the ambulance, that he was worried.
Cole Porter couldn't see into the future, to the eventual amputation of his leg. He couldn't see the twenty-one years of living with pain, and in spite of pain, and the daily ration of sedatives and narcotics to dull the pain, but he knew. That was the end. Of his youth and also his beauty, and it's why he wasn't getting up. Something there is that doesn't want to change, and he certainly didn't want to change. He wanted what was happening to change. Which is why he told himself that everything was fine, that he was fine, and that whatever had happened was not that bad.
There's a picture of Cole Porter hiking in the Alps not long before his accident. He's wearing shorts, carrying a knapsack, bending down and petting a dog or small goat. And that's what he wanted. Not to pet the animal, but to remain the person in the photo who could tramp through Switzerland or swim in Venice: to stay what he was. He had his habits, and he was determined not to change them.
His habit was to walk and he planned on walking, and anything that wasn't part of his plan he wanted to cut from the picture. But certain things he couldn't cut. Certain things weren't going according to plan. And lying there, it wasn't that he wasn't worried; he was. He was desperately worried. There was no turning over a new leaf because there was no new leaf; it was broken and brittle and dead. Sprawled out in the dirt, he had lost, not only his control, but also his hope. It ought to be clear at this point that all his hope had disappeared.
Because now comes the apocryphal part of the story. According to him he's sitting in the dirt and he pulls out a pencil — a pen or a pencil — and he begins writing down lyrics to a song that needs a final verse. At Long Last Love is the name of the song, and you can almost see him, propped on his elbow in the dirt, scribbling words in his notebook. He seems almost relaxed, humming the tune, having almost forgotten exactly where he was. And the question is, did he sit in what was probably mud and work on one of his shows? With his feet numb, his face shivering, did he write a song about love? Whether he did nor not doesn't really matter. What matters is that he changed, not the thing that was happening, but how that thing was happening, to him.
John Haskell was born and raised in California. He founded the Huron Theater in Chicago, where he began performing his own writing. He received an M.F.A. from Columbia University, and is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. His books, I Am Not Jackson Pollock and American Purgatorio, were published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in Brooklyn.
Cole Porter was first read on the radio show The Next Big Thing.