- Wikimedia Commons
- Cole Porter
When World War I ended and Paris returned to its full effervescence, Cole Porter was there as a dashing young American, Linda Thomas as a divorced socialite eight years Porter’s senior. They met and became excellent friends. This capsule biography of Porter I found online tells us more of their story:
“Their financial status and social standing also made them ideal candidates for marriage—as a business contract, not for passion. The fact that Linda’s ex-husband was abusive and Cole was gay made the arrangement even more palatable. Linda was always one of Cole’s best supporters and being married increased his chance of success, and Cole allowed Linda to keep high social status for the rest of her life. They married on December 19, 1919 and lived a happy friendship, a mostly successful public relationship, but a sexless marriage until Linda’s death in 1954.”
In the 1946 biopic Night and Day, Cole is straight and played by Cary Grant, and he is also a French war hero. Linda leaves him because Cole is neglecting her for his work but she returns to his side after Cole is severely injured in a horse-riding accident. This accident actually took place, in 1937. The movie’s ending is happy.
Hollywood tried again in 2004 with De-Lovely, a film I happened to see the other day on TV. I’m sure its creators would be the first to tell us how different it is. Their Linda knew what she was getting into—Cole made sure of that—but what they feel for each other is authentic and tenacious. There is talk of having children, though nothing comes of it. The tone is bittersweet. The case De-Lovely makes for the depth of Porter’s feelings is hard to argue with: when you’ve been with someone over the long haul, and now that you are old and crippled—as Porter was for the last 27 years of his life—that someone sticks by you and takes care of you, what you wind up feeling might not be carnal but it’s love. After Linda died, Cole wasn’t good for much of anything. He was buried at her side.
De-Lovely reminded me of a one-man show I’d seen at the Royal George a couple of years earlier: Hershey Felder’s Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein. Like Porter, Bernstein was gay; like Porter, he married. Like De-Lovely, Maestro was frank about the marriage. The union of Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre had its stresses, but they were quite the couple—the swells Tom Wolfe had so much fun with in “Radical Chic,” his 1970 account in New York magazine of the Bernsteins’ reception in their “13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue” for various Black Panthers. The Bernsteins, unlike the Porters, did have children; and although Lennie, at an age when men get silly, left her for a young stud muffin, it didn’t last, and he soon moved back in and cared for Felicia, who was sick with cancer and died in 1978. Lennie died in 1990, and last year a collection was published of letters he’d written and received. A reviewer observed that they showed his marriage, “until its painful breakup, was not simply a convenience for Bernstein, a hedge to protect his public reputation; The letters demonstrate beyond a doubt that this was an intimate and loving relationship, not an arrangement.” Like the Porters, the Bernsteins are buried side by side.
Maestro and De-Lovely each looked at its marriage in the same way: as a genuine love match skewed by that other thing, that other life a gay musical genius was helpless not to lead. Neither pretended homosexuality is a choice, let alone a selfish, self-indulgent choice. Yet in each work its primary dramatic role was to blight the marriage the artist clung to.
A few days after watching De-Lovely, I attended a wedding reception at Riccardo’s. The happy couple were Ron Dorfman and Ken Ilio, the first gay men ever to marry legally in Illinois. Toasts were offered, the cake was cut, and realism was among the guests: everyone there was much too old to believe for a second Ron and Ken were setting sail on a sea of bliss. But everyone was very happy. I suppose this is the beginning of the end, I thought, as the speeches wore on—the end of those profound, hopeless romances between gay men and sheltering women. When that other thing is no longer forbidden, there will be one less source of exquisite anguish in the world to inspire great music and all sorts of magnificent coded art. Men who love men will marry men and make the best of it like everyone else.
I wondered if I should have mixed feelings about this. I didn’t.