‘I Figured Out the Secret of Writing Hits’: Cole Porter's 'Jewish' Side

In the 1920s, composer-lyricist Cole Porter started inserting Jewish-sounding motifs into his songs. Was his invented Jewishness part of the array of disguises he assumed in order to escape his sexual identity?

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Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga preform at the 2015 Annual GRAMMY Awards.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. New cover versions of Porter's songs.

“It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theatre that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring ‘Jewish’ music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana,” the Jewish composer Richard Rodgers wrote in his autobiography, about fellow composer and lyricist Cole Porter.

This past October marked the 57th anniversary of Porter’s death at age 73. A few weeks before that, Lady Gaga and 95-year-old Tony Bennett released their album featuring new cover versions of his songs. On her most recent album, Achinoam Nini – known professionally as Noa – covered two Porter songs. A new production of his musical “Anything Goes” (whose title track features on Noa’s album, “Afterallogy”) ran at London’s Barbican Centre last year. That production can be seen at movie theaters worldwide soon and will return to the Barbican stage this summer.

Porter was not an outsider in Christian America – but he was gay. He was not completely closeted, but neither was he fully 'out of the closet' in today’s terms. He married a woman and wrote about heterosexual passion.

Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd portray Cole Porter and his wife, Linda, in the 2004 film 'De-Lovely.'

“Anything Goes” premiered in 1934, but for Porter its success was a long time coming. His first Broadway musical, “See America First,” opened in 1916 but closed after just a few performances. Porter was certain his Broadway career was over, but then came his association with Rodgers.

I figured out the secret of writing hits

They met for the first time in 1926, through English composer and lyricist Noël Coward. Rodgers was impressed by Porter’s broad knowledge of both classical and popular music. According to Rodgers, “Porter confided that despite his failures on Broadway, he thought he had finally figured out the secret of writing hits. … He leaned over and said: ‘I’ll write Jewish tunes.’ I laughed at what I took to be a joke.”

But Rodgers later recognized that Porter was completely serious and “ultimately, that is exactly what he did.”

Rodgers cited several of Porter’s most popular songs as sounding particularly Jewish: “Love for Sale,” which gave the Bennett and Lady Gaga album its title; “Night and Day,” which they also perform; “I Love Paris” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, ' Love for sale' album trailer.

In the latter, the Jewish connection is heard in the way Porter expresses the singer’s relationship to “Daddy” with a musical motif that resembles a Hasidic nigun. He also uses Yiddish in some of his songs, most overtly in the song “Lomer sich Iberbetn” (“Let’s Be Reconciled”). Yiddish songs are usually written in a minor key (aka the “melancholy” key), and this is also the case with many of Porter’s songs.

A notable characteristic of Porter’s melodies are the frequent transitions from a minor to major key. Porter alludes to this tendency in his song 'Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye' with the line 'How strange the change from major to minor.'

Another notable characteristic of Porter’s melodies are the frequent transitions from a minor to major key, the “optimistic” key. Porter even alludes to this tendency in his classic song “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (the final track on Noa’s latest album) with the line “How strange the change from major to minor.” And indeed, he makes seven such shifts during just this one song.

Irving Berlin, the Jewish songwriter who was Porter’s contemporary and the only one besides Porter who wrote both the music and lyrics for his songs, also tended to shift frequently between keys. Porter was a great admirer of Berlin and may have taken the inspiration for those frequent modulations from him. Generally speaking, in the first half of the 20th century, hearing a shift from a minor key to a major key would prompt a listener in New York to label a tune as “Jewish.”

Cole Porter. A musical motif that resembles a Hasidic nigun.

Porter did not leave the analysis of his music to others. In one interview, he said of himself: “You might describe me as a cross between [Jewish-American entertainer] Eddie Cantor and the Duke of Windsor,” acknowledging the hybrid nature of his life and work.

If Porter wasn’t totally joking, as Rodgers initially thought, when he declared his intention to write “Jewish tunes,” perhaps what he had in mind was a mixture of the influences that characterized the writing of Jewish composers and spawned the Great American Songbook.

However, it’s hard to ignore the irony that immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe were the ones who created the genre that became a trademark of American culture. Could the humorous aspect of Porter’s plan of action also have contained an element of frustration on the part of a Midwestern Protestant who felt excluded from the Jewish club?

What was it that drew Porter to Jewish outsider-ness? And how can it be explained that the composer who influenced him most was his good friend Irving Berlin (originally Israel Baline, born in Temun, Siberia)?

Ostensibly, Porter was not an outsider in Christian America – but he was gay. He was not completely closeted, but neither was he fully “out of the closet” in today’s terms. He shaped a normative identity for himself. He married a woman and wrote about heterosexual passion.

The cast of the 2021 London production of Cole Porter’s 'Anything Goes.'

But it’s worth taking a more in-depth look at some of his lyrics, such as those to “You’re the Top,” which was part of the musical “Anything Goes” and is the final track on Gaga and Bennett’s album.

It is a “list song” in which Porter has the duet partners go through an incredible collection of rhymed cultural references as a way of expressing their love for each other. For three minutes, the song’s listeners were invited to forget all the troubles of the Great Depression that was afflicting the entire nation in the 1930s, to enjoy a taste of high society and imagine themselves to be part of a small party taking place in Porter’s apartment in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. But the climax of the party, the final line in the song, could have even then been read as erotic homosexual slang: “But if baby I’m the bottom / you’re the top.”

Noa (Achinoam Nini) preforms 'Anything Goes.'

The inspiration for the love songs

And here are lyrics that Porter wrote in 1929 which in light of his sexual identity perhaps take on a broader meaning – especially the word “thing”:

“I have often wondered, dear / Why gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees / The moment that you appear… / But I’ll tell you what you’ve got / You’ve got that thing.”

“The love songs were very coded,” explained Porter’s biographer William McBrien. “They make sly references. And there is a wonderful ambiguity to most of them. That’s why they could get so much heterosexual mileage. Cole was aware that if you disclosed too much in Hollywood, you were likely to lose your job – and your audience.” Porter also wrote songs for movies in the ’30s, but the statement obviously held true for Broadway too.

In his 1981 biography, McBrien shows that Porter’s affairs with men served in many ways as the inspiration for the love songs he wrote. One example is “Night and Day,” which was inspired by his affair with the choreographer Nelson Barclift, who was one of Porter’s great loves. (The song also appears on the Gaga-Bennett album.) That same “ambiguous” approach appears repeatedly in the titles of Porter’s early hits.

The title track on Bennett and Lady Gaga’s album, “Love for Sale,” was the title of a song from a 1930 musical. In the musical, the character who performed the song was a prostitute, and consequently the song was banned from radio airwaves. In the song, which was one of those that Rodgers considered Jewish, the prostitute promises that she has every kind of love to offer, “old love, new love” – all except for one type: “any love but true love.”

Whether employing the brooding mood embodied by a minor key, as an ambassador of Franz Schubert, as a French connoisseur or borrowing from the Jewish liturgy, Porter unfailingly delights us with his attempts to crack life’s eternal mystery.