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
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
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
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,
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.