Does anybody not love the songs of Cole Porter? Well, some no doubt, but not many, surely. “Let’s Do It,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Love For Sale,” “You’re the Top,” “Did you Evah,” to name just a few that I happen particularly to love.
Porter even mentioned walking once in a while, perhaps most famously in these lines:
“The night is young, the skies are clear
So if you want to go walking, dear,
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely.”
That, of course, is from “De-lovely” – a word and a title that’s always rubbed me up the wrong way. Porter’s use of language is generally so great, but here it seems a bit twee, if you ask me, and yet also (damn it) incredibly memorable.
In a different song Porter wrote,
“I’d walk a mile for that schoolgirl complexion,
Palmolive does it every time.”
That’s from “It Pays to Advertise.” And in “When my Baby Comes To Town” you’ll find this:
“Yes, daily she takes a walk
And you should see those natives gawk”
And yes, Porter understood that New York was a walking city, this from “Longing for Dear Old Broadway”
“I’d love to walk
Start for New York
Back where the lobsters thrive.”
Porter himself was quite a walker for the first part of his life. From his time at Yale onwards he’d regularly go off on walking vacations, and as he became rich and famous, his companions were rich and famous too. One of them, Moss Hart, describes Porter as “an indefatigable sightseer, a tourist to end all tourists. Everything held an interest for him. No ruin was too small not to be seen, particularly if it meant a long climb up a steep hill.”
Things changed dramatically in 1937. Porter had recently returned to New York after a walking vacation in Europe (the picture above is from that trip and shows Porter with Howard Sturges and Ed Tauch). Porter was spending time upstate, and riding a horse, which stumbled and fell on him, crushing both his legs; forever changing, and by many lights ruining, his life.
The doctors recommended amputating his right leg, and possibly the left as well, but Porter, supported by his wife (recently estranged, now reconciled) and his mother, refused, and after a seven month stay in hospital he returned to some semblance of his old life, which included what many of us would still think was an awful lot of traveling.
It’s hard to say whether Porter was altogether right to refuse amputation. He could still walk but only with difficulty, using a cane and a leg brace, and over the next twenty years he had 30 agonizing operations on his legs. One of these involved breaking femurs again and resetting them.
Along the way he gave names to his legs, women’s names it might be noted: Josephine was the left leg, just about tolerable; Geraldine was the right — “a hellion, a bitch, a psychopath.”
For all his resistance, Geraldine nevertheless had to be amputated in 1958. Porter was devastated, said he felt like “half a man” and never wrote another song. There was some serious self-medication with alcohol and narcotics, which created problems of their own, and he made a fairly nasty end. He was given a false leg and struggled to use it, though there were times when he had to be carried around by his valet. Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, in St John’s Hospital, Santa Monica.
I once went to a talk given by Ian Dury – he of “Reasons to be Cheerful” – and this was after he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Quite apart from that, he was a man who had his own problems with walking, as a result of childhood polio.
Dury expressed some surprise that Porter, of whom I think he was a fan, had continued to write cheerful, optimistic, upbeat songs even after his accident. Dury thought the accident and the pain would have moved Porter to write melancholy songs of pain and loss.
I’d have thought Dury’s own experience would have taught him that creativity doesn’t necessarily work that way. I can’t find much about walking in Dury’s work, though there is the Dury’s song “Spasticus (Autisticus),” an anti-pity-for-the-disabled song, which was banned by the BBC, in the days when the BBC cared about such things. The relevant couplet runs,
“I'm knobbled on the cobbles
Cos I hobble when I wobble”
That’s not exactly Cole Porter-style word play (you can’t help thinking hobble and wobble should be reversed, but that’s the way they appear on the single, and the way Dury sings them on the one live YouTube version I’ve found) but it ain’t at all bad.