Talk about serendipity! For over a year, I’ve been thinking to drive down and look at Peru, IN. (Only the natives are allowed to pronounce it “Pee-roo,“ I’m told.) When I finally quit procrastinating and toddled off to look at the website to see what things Peru has to offer other than the thing that I had in mind to visit, I was amazed to see that that very weekend was the annual festival of their famous native son. In the mode of sometimes-Indiana-surprises-me, some years ago I had learned that Cole Porter was from there and wanted to visit his birthplace.
My infatuation with him began after seeing the bio-pic, “De-Lovely”. Until then I was embarrassingly ignorant of the genius of Cole Porter, but hearing the lyrics of his songs that once was enough; I was hooked. He was Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker, in more ways than one, rolled into one. Such clever lyrics: interesting rhymes, the occasional double-entendre: everything that a word-lover worships! One commentator described even his early songs, written while he was an undergraduate at Yale, as “suave and audacious.” Yup, you bettcha’.
No matter to me that critics and biographers discount much of the structure of “De-Lovely”, two things bonded me to the idea of Cole: he married a woman, Linda, from Louisville, KY—my hometown—and, there are those lyrics. Those two things are the sorts of teasers that send me off wanting to know more, so after years of the idea gestating, I was going to Peru, IN just in time. Their Cole Porter Festival is held annually on the weekend closest to his birthday, June 9, and I had managed to get my act together about 10 seconds before.
That weekend, in addition to musical treats with a variety of folks singing and playing Cole’s songs, there was the ongoing display of some of Cole’s personal effects at the Miami County Museum, and there was a little bus tour.
The guide on that tour was a Peru native, thus entitled to say “Pee-roo” and was full of information about Cole Porter’s life there. We saw and toured Cole’s birth home where he lived his first years; the site of his father’s drugstore; the home of his grandfather, J. O. Cole (more about him in a minute); the country home in which Cole’s mother, Kate, and father, Sam, lived after Cole left home for school; and the family’s final resting places in the Porter/Cole burial site.
When young, J. O. Cole, Cole’s maternal grandfather, had determined to, in his words, “make a pile,” and he succeeded. He made a ton of money in merchandising, land, timber, coal and oil. One of the richer men in America, he was in a position to indulge his daughter and her son, and, although reputed to be quite an autocrat, he did so. Thus at an early age, one of Cole’s advantages was being sent alone, weekly, by train down to Marion, IN for violin lessons. During those trips, having extra time and adequate pocket money, he discovered a store that sold risqué magazines and later said, “some of my lyrics owe a debt to those naughty books.”
Maybe you already are a Cole Porter fan. Maybe, you, like I, will come to him later. Whichever, it’s a trip worth taking. Woody Allen paid homage to Cole by including him as a character in his film, “Midnight in Paris.” A diversity of artists, over the decades, have recorded his songs: Ella Fitzgerald, Yo-Yo Ma and Sheryl Crow are a few. That Cole has songs/lyrics for every mood is evidenced by the catalogue. Consider the very steamy “Begin the Beguine,” and “Love for Sale;” the oh-so-romantic, “In the Still of the Night;” the jocular, Peru-circus-background-based, “Be a Clown;” the socially-observant, “Anything Goes;” and the rhyming-genius of “You’re the Top.” They’re just a few of the delights that the child from Peru, Indiana grew up to give us as gifts. The only polite thing to do is say “Thank you,” and enjoy them.