Writer William Zinsser puts it this way in regard to Cole Porter's unequaled "list song",
"You're the Top". He quotes,
You're the top, you're Mahatma Gandhi,
You're the top, you're Napoleon brandy,
You're the nimble tread/ of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You're an O'Neil drama, you're Whistler's mama,
"I had never heard of Napoleon brandy of Camembert. I knew who Gandhi was--his picture was often in the newspapers--and I had probably heard of the colosseum and the Louvre Museum, the Tower of Pisa and the Mona Lisa, Inferno's Dante and the nose of the great Durante. But I knew I wasn't up on my brandies and cheeses. After "You're the Top", I knew that Napoleon was the best brandy, Camembert the best cheese, Bendel's, the best bonnet..."
Mr. Zinsser sums him up by describing Mr. Porter as a rich boy from Indiana who came east to Yale
and kept going east to Paris and the Riviera, where he found his lifelong subject: the world-weary
folk of high society. Not for nothing did giggling musicians of an earlier era refer to the songs
of which Porter's were so integral as "society music", nor was it entirely off the mark when one
wit referred to Porter's work as "folk songs of the wealthy".
Notwithstanding this commentary on Porter's ingenious lyrics, which certainly led to the urbanity
of much of Stephen Sondheim's, it is his music which at least as much as his interlineal rhymes
has gotten under our skin. Great instrumental hits have been made of many of these compositions,
and they have become the working material of the hippest of contemporary jazz players.
"Begin the Beguine", "Just one of Those Things", and "You'd be so Nice to Come Home To" come to mind.
In the last three decades of his life Cole Porter lived at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel,
in a luxurious towers suite furnished with Oriental rugs and parquet floors brought from a French c
hateau. Although a riding accident in 1937 shattered both his legs and required 35 operations,
his career continued to flourish with shows and films such as DuBarry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, Something for the Boys, Mexican Hayride, Kiss Me Kate, Can-Can, Silk Stockings and
High Society. He died in 1964. -- Dick Hyman