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Night and Day: The life of Cole Porter

Jun 9, 2015

Cole Porter.
Credit public domain / wikimedia commons

One of America’s supreme songwriters, his melodies and lyrics spoke of a lifestyle that was suave and elegant.

But five years after writing Night and Day, Cole Porter suffered an accident that transformed his debonair life into a constant battle with excruciating pain.

University of Michigan medical historian Dr. Howard Markel tells us of Cole Porter’s life before and after the incident.

Porter came from a wealthy background. He was born in Peru, Indiana and he belonged to the richest family in the state.

At Yale, he excelled at singing and became a member of the Whiffenpoofs, the world’s oldest collegiate a cappella group.

Porter went on study law at Harvard but transferred to the music school  after he found that he hated law.

After hearing the news, his grandfather disowned him and wrote him off his will. His mother picked up the tab by giving Cole a part of her inheritance.

His first show on Broadway was a flop. See America First ran for 14 days in 1916, after which he moved to Europe to explore a life of revelry and excess.

Markel says that in Europe "he met a woman, Lynda Lee Thomas, who was even richer than he was. She was a divorcee and a socialite ... [Theirs] was a marriage of convenience: Cole Porter was a gay man ... yet they were very devoted to one another so there was love and affection for one another.”

As Cole’s career was thriving, writing great musicals such as Anything Goes and Red, Hot, and Blue, he was met with a tragic accident on October 24th, 1937.

He was riding a horse at the posh Piping Rock country club in Long Island when his horse tripped and fell on Cole Porter. His legs fractured in multiple places and he lay on the ground for several hours.

“He claims he wrote a song during that period called At Long Last Love,” says Markel.

Over the next 20 years, he went through multiple orthopedic procedures: removal of bones, splicing of tendons, treatment for Osteomyelitis (the infection and inflammation of the bone).

And yet, during this time, his spirit wasn’t broken.

“He was writing all these lovely, lilting, happy, wonderful songs”, says Markel.

He even named his legs. The left was called Josephine, and the right one was Geraldine.

But after 1957, Geraldine was amputated at mid-thigh.

"That’s when things really went south for Cole," says Markel.

He began drinking and became addicted to narcotic pain killers. Infections, kidney and bladder problems, and many other disabilities plagued him until his death in 1964. 

Despite living the last years of his life as a recluse, Markel says Porter was the very definition of perseverance by providing the world with his signature charm even after losing both his legs.