“De-Lovely,” the new film biography of songwriter Cole Porter, has a provocative theme regarding sexual preference and the universality of love. Worth seeing if only for the music (Porter wrote the words and music to dozens of our most familiar and beloved pop standards), the film suggests that some of our greatest and favorite love songs were written from a homosexual perspective.
While heterosexuals mooned and spooned to such tunes as “All of Me” (“why not take all of me?”) “In the Still of the Night,” “From This Moment On,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Good-bye,” “You’re the Top,” and the wonderfully obsessive “Night and Day (“you are the one, only you beneath the moon and under the sun”), the composer was likely inspired not by the thought, desire, image, or memory of a woman, but by that of another man. “Birds do it, bees do it,” Porter famously wrote. “Hetero and homosexuals also do it,” he might have added (were he a polemicist rather than a tunesmith). “Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.”
Lorenz (Larry) Hart, the lyricist who collaborated with composer Richard Rodgers on many other great love songs, was also homosexual. It’s possible that when Hart wrote “My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine, you make me smile with my heart….” he, like Porter, was thinking or dreaming of another man.
What does this mean about love and sexual preference? More to the point: Gay or straight, homo or hetero -- when it comes to matters of love, are issues of sexual preference really important?
Cole Porter, born in Indiana to a wealthy WASP family and made wealthier by the success of his songwriting, had little to fear from public opinion and was flamboyant about his sexuality. Porter wanted it all and expected he could have it, including the domesticity and emotional support of marriage to a beautiful and wealthy woman who knew and accepted his homosexuality and gave him the freedom to have male lovers.
The marriage of Cole and Linda Lee Porter (in reality, eight years his senior, not younger as the film depicts) took place before the modern feminist era. It was a time when it was not uncommon for smart and independent women to seek fulfillment by supporting the careers of genius (or self-proclaimed genius) husbands. This kind of relationship is inexplicable by today’s standards, though it still occurs. The Porters made it work, at least for a while. Relationships are difficult no matter what the sexual preferences are of the partners. The Porters were at least honest with one another. As Cole wrote, “I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my fashion, I’m always true to you, darlin’, in my way.”
Hart more closely reflected the homophobic times in which he lived. He saw his homosexuality in the way that society saw it, as a shameful curse. Typical of homosexuals of the era before gay liberation, he tried to hide it with furtive meetings, impersonal one-night affairs, and much too much alcohol. The love songs he wrote of blissful couples making a life together, (e.g., “Blue Moon,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “My Romance,” and “We’ll have a blue room, a new room, for two room, where ev’ry day’s a holiday because you’re married to me.”) was something he may have yearned for. But unless he did what Porter did and marry a woman, it was something that, by law, he could not have.
But never say never. Gay marriage is on the national agenda. And why not? Is the quality of love and the pleasures (and difficulties) of loving relationships any different between men and men, women and women, and women and men?
The law, as the Massachusetts Supreme Court recognized, is unequivocal on the matter. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which applies to federal and state jurisdictions alike, declares boldly that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, written to protect the rights of freed slaves, took almost one hundred years to enforce with regard to African Americans. Conventional intolerance, forged by history and tradition, is always tough to crack. A 1946 film biography of Porter, “Night and Day,” ignored his homosexuality altogether. But now that the mass media is portraying homosexuality as a normal part of human experience, homophobia will start to seem an embarrassing prejudice of an ignorant past. The live and let live rightness of gay marriage will, in time, become conventional wisdom.
This is what is happening in Vermont, the first state to pass a “marriage-lite” civil union law. When first passed, it caused a political uproar. Legalizing same-sex relationships, opponents argued, would destroy heterosexual marriage and end civilization as we now know it. Four years and hundreds of civil union ceremonies later, organized opposition has disappeared. Except for a few obsessive fanatics fixated on what other people do in the privacy of their homes, no one cares. Divorce and domestic violence still occur, much too frequently, but no one accuses civil unions as being a cause. Neighbors are judged, when they are judged, not by their sexual preference but by standards of character, for how they relate to their neighbors and for what they contribute to their community. As another great pop composer wrote, “the times they are a changin’”
“What is this thing called love?” Cole Porter asked. And we’re still fairly clueless. But one thing we do know is that human sexuality exists along a spectrum of sexual preference. The majority is attracted to the opposite sex, but some aren’t. In the middle are bisexuals who seem to be able to go back on forth. Beyond that, as Porter, Hart and other great musical poets of love have suggested, when it comes to experiencing the passion and mystery of love, sexual preference isn’t an issue; it simply doesn’t matter.
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: 1945-1960 and Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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