Money worries, scandalous affairs and chronic health problems: letters reveal fascinating insights into the life of Cole Porter

A new collection of letters providing an unprecedented insight into the personal and professional life of one of the most successful American songwriters of the 20th century has been published by a researcher at the University of Sheffield.

A reclining Cole Porter

The letters, uncovered by Dr Dominic McHugh from the University’s Department of Music in collaboration with Professor Cliff Eisen from King’s College London, reveal previously hidden details about the life and work of Cole Porter.

From Anything Goes to Kiss Me, Kate, the famous composer and songwriter has left a lasting legacy of iconic songs including You’re the Top, Love for Sale, and Night and Day.

Yet alongside his professional success, Porter led an eclectic personal life filled with exuberant parties and scandalous affairs but also overshadowed by chronic health problems.

This extensive collection of letters uncovered by the researchers – most of which are being published for the first time – feature Cole’s correspondence with stars such as Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman and Orson Welles, as well as his friends and lovers.

Examples of the letters, which were sometimes written casually by Cole and span his early interest in music through to his marriage, affairs, battles with clinical depression and money worries, include:

  • Letters from Porter's headmaster to his mother, revealing Porter's early interest in music and tendency to entertain rather than study;
  • Love letters in French from Porter to his lover, the Russian dancer Boris Kochno;
  • A surprising letter from Porter to his best friend, describing how he has just met and fallen in love with his future wife;
  • Letters describing his money worries, because he struggled to fund his lavish lifestyle;
  • Letters about Porter's clinical depression and pain following a violent horse-riding injury;
  • Letters in which Porter responds to the Hollywood censor about some of his risqué lyrics and is forced to make changes;
  • Letters that document his final years as a recluse, following the amputation of his injured leg.

Dr Dominic McHugh, Reader in Musicology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Cole Porter remains the most enduring of all the great American songwriters of the 20th century, partly because of the lavish lifestyle that we associate him with. Yet his letters frequently reveal the opposite to the images we expect.

“Alongside his numerous affairs with men, he was absolutely devoted to his wife; alongside the lavish parties, he was agonised about how to pay his bills; and although he was witty, there was a darker side to his personality in which he was tormented about whether he was losing his talent.

“The Letters of Cole Porter offers a new, more personal spin on the life and works of one of the artistic greats of the last century.”

To uncover the letters, Dr McHugh and Professor Cliff Eisen spent five years searching archives held by the Cole Porter Trust as well as the Library of Congress and Yale University – where Porter studied.

However, the letters held in these collections by no means cover Porter’s entire life. This led the researchers to look into the papers of other major songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Noel Coward along with the papers of Cole Porter’s best friend, who was an antiques dealer and whose papers are now held at Stanford University. The researchers also discovered some of Cole Porter’s letters were being sold on eBay.

Dr McHugh added: "These new insights into Porter's personal life give us a true understanding of who he was: a complex figure with a much more varied inner life than we might expect. It presents a completely new spin on his enormous song catalogue and helps us to understand why his work continues to resonate over 50 years after his death."

The collection of letters is published in The Letters of Cole Porter, Yale University Press, London 

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.