What I Learned from Cole Porter
To a bookish boy in a Boston suburb in the mid-1970s, the lyrics of Cole Porter came as something of a revelation. The world I inhabited was relatively carefree; but it was also homogeneous, socially constrained and politically benign (with parental votes for Nixon and McGovern efficiently canceling each other out). Outside, there was a lawn to be mowed, leaves to be raked, snow to be shoveled. Inside, there were appliances made by Amana, Frigidaire and Zenith; and kitchen cabinets stocked with Wheaties, Hamburger Helper and Aunt Jemima pancake mix. But in our appropriately staid living room—where we housed all of our upholstered furniture—on holidays and Saturday nights, we heard the likes of "Anything Goes," "Too Darn Hot" and "Let's Do It."
The illicit behavior in the lyrics was a plus, but more important to me was the destination. In 32 songs, Cole Porter had fashioned a travel guide to a distant, unnamed and heretofore unimagined metropolis. His was an urbane and sophisticated capital, where one's budget was unlimited, the hour was eternally twilight and the sights to be seen included all things delightful, delicious and de-lovely. In his offhand manner, Porter revealed—to me, a kid—that somewhere out there was a place where "old hymns" rhymed with "bare limbs" and where all young men and women were knowing, wry, blasé and bold.
But I also loved the starring citizen of this musical Metropolis, Ella Fitzgerald. As with most great vocalists, she didn't simply draw on her technical skill but on a breadth of experience and a depth of feeling. Later I would learn that Fitzgerald's singing of Cole Porter might not represent the most adventurous of jazz interpretations, but at the time, she was taking me one step closer to the furnace; and from there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, those inner circles where earthly bounds are briefly shed through some magical combination of passion, honesty and competence—at 2 in the morning before an audience of loners and aficionados. The result? I loved Paris in the springtime, long before I knew who, what or where Paris was. If, through these four sides of vinyl, I was receiving an urbane sensibility from Porter and a will for experience from Fitzgerald, I was also receiving a lasting gift from my father.
Dad has worked as a banker at the same firm in Boston, living in the same suburban neighborhood for over 50 years. Later in life, when I got out of graduate school and imagined myself living the life of a writer like Hemingway or Kerouac, his practical self inevitably encouraged me to get a steady a job and raise a family, just like he did.
I heeded his advice. I got a steady job and raised a family (albeit with Annie's organic macaroni and cheese in the kitchen cabinets). At the same time, I never quite set aside the dream of being a writer, and to some degree, my father deserves credit for that. Because even as he was counseling that I follow in his footsteps, I knew that, in the off-hours, his love of the Songbook was as wistful as mine, and that a part of him secretly hoped that I wouldn't forget to pursue my dreams...
Amor Towles is the author of Rules of Civility (Viking).
More on Rules of Civility