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Archive for the ‘composers’ Category

Williamstown, Mass.

Cole Porter home

“Buxton Hill”

1411 Main Street

In 1919, composer Cole Porter (June 9, 1891-1964) married sophisticated divorcee Linda Lee Thomas, a woman eight years his senior. Linda proved a perfect “beard” for her husband, agreeing to separate bedrooms early in the marriage and tolerating his frequent, though always brief, sexual encounters with men. Some rumors suggest Linda may have been queer, too.

The Porters had homes in Los Angeles and New York City before purchasing this estate in the northwest corner of Massachusetts in 1940 as a summer getaway. Cole hated the place at first, complaining that it was too far removed from the social life of Manhattan. Later, he grew to love the sprawling estate, when he discovered he could entertain in the style he enjoyed and accommodate numerous guests in the spacious main house and separate guest cottage. Prospective weekend visitors received a detailed map directing them to Buxton Hill (“down dirt road & up over hill”), complete with a schedule of the best train service from Grand Central.

As his private workplace, Cole used the gatekeeper’s cottage, posting a warning sign saying “No Trespassing.” Here he could work any hour of the day or night without disturbance, and he reportedly wrote much of the score for Kiss Me, Kate there.

Linda Porter died in 1954, and during the remaining 10 years of his life, Cole became a virtual recluse at Buxton Hill. He was embarrassed and incapacitated by the amputation of one of his legs, which was crushed in a riding accident in the 1930s. According to one of his biographers, visitors to Buxton Hill became fewer and fewer because most weekends Porter was drunk and ignored his guests, some of whom dubbed the farm “the torture chamber.”

At Cole’s death, Buxton Hill went to Williams College, but returned to private hands in 1966. It is now a luxury inn, with tennis courts, “the largest private swimming pool in the Berkshires,” and nature trails.

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Young Cole

New Haven, Conn.

Cole Porter residence

242 York Street

While an undergraduate at Yale University from 1909 to 1914, Cole Porter (1891-1964) lived at this location in a single room in Garland Lodging House, which is no longer extant. From his home in Indiana, young Cole arrived in New Haven with a wardrobe of checked suits, pink and yellow shirts, and salmon-colored ties, which he considered proper Ivy League attire but which made him stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Luckily, he also brought a battered upright piano. To win over his more genteel, upper-crust Yankee classmates, Porter composed and performed songs with droll, uniquely rhymed lyrics. His earliest known compositions for which he wrote both music and lyrics were “Bridget McGuire” and “When the Summer Moon Comes ‘Long.” He also wrote Yale-themed songs, like “Bull Dog” and “Bingo Eli Yale,” many of which included the names of the young men whose companionship he craved. His close and longtime friendship with actor Monty Woolley dated from their Yale days.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.

Billy Strayhorn marker
Westinghouse High School
1101 North Murtland Street

Billy Strayhorn home
7212 Tioga Street Rear (demolished)

Born in Ohio, composer Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) lived in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh from his early years until he left for New York as a young adult. In those days, white families lived on the main streets of Homewood, while blacks lived in the alleys behind them (the “Rear” in the Strayhorn address). The Strayhorn home was “a four-room shack,” according to one of Billy’s childhood friends, with two rooms on each floor and a toilet in the basement. The kitchen was the biggest and most significant room in the house. Because of the crowded living conditions and Billy’s father’s alcoholic binges, Billy’s mother often sent her eldest son for long stays with his grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Billy’s grandmother owned and played a piano, and it was in Hillsborough that Billy first learned to play.

Though he was a musical prodigy, Strayhorn’s family could not afford lessons to further his talent. As an adolescent, Billy found odd jobs selling papers and working as a soda jerk to purchase his first piano, a broken-down upright. “All the money he [Billy] could get hold of,” a friend remembers, “he bought [sheet] music….the house was swamped with music.”

At Westinghouse High School (where there is now a historical marker honoring him), Strayhorn pursued music, becoming first pianist in the Senior Orchestra and playing at local social events and banquets with the school’s Orchestra Club. Though he was often made fun of at school for being a “sissy,” the shy, withdrawn Strayhorn concentrated on his work and his passion for music. After graduation, Strayhorn formed his own interracial jazz trio, The Madhatters, and played local nightspots. But he still had to work days at the drugstore soda fountain and pick up extra money by arranging music.

His big break came in 1938, when a friend of a friend got him an “audience” with Duke Ellington, who was playing with his band at the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh (now the Benedum Center, a performing arts space). Ellington was impressed by the talented young pianist who could seemingly do everything – write music, lyrics, and arrangements. But he didn’t have an opening in his band. Ellington made Strayhorn a promise of a job if the young musician ever got to New York and gave him exact directions to his home in Harlem. Eager to please Ellington, Strayhorn turned the directions into a song – “Take the A Train” turned out to be his most famous composition and eventually became Ellington’s theme song.

Strayhorn did indeed make it to New York, where he hooked up with Ellington and worked with him for the next 30 years. While Ellington was the public artist, Strayhorn worked behind the scenes as collaborator and arranger. Ellington supported Strayhorn’s career, but he also occasionally took credit for the younger man’s work. Strayhorn consoled himself with drink and died of cancer and alcohol abuse at the age of 51. His song “Lush Life” (1936) sadly defines his own short, intense life.

Strayhorn knew early on that he was gay and was open about his sexual orientation. According to his biographer, he never even danced with a girl. Ellington, who was straight, seems to have been supportive and tolerant of his collaborator’s homosexuality. Strayhorn had a number of significant relationships in his life, most notably in his final years with a graphic designer, a white man named Bill Grove. Grove was the only man Strayhorn ever brought home to meet his family.

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Peru, Ind.

Cole Porter grave site
Mt. Hope Cemetery

He lived at swell-egant addresses in Manhattan, Beverly Hills, and the Berkshires, but the ultra-sophisticated Cole Porter (1891-1964) chose to be buried in his hometown of Peru, Indiana, with an unassuming marker. Porter was the son of a local druggist, and at age 8 was enrolled at the nearby Marion Conservatory of Music. There the boy first studied violin and piano and performed at recitals dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a velvet suit with lace cuffs. Though one of his biographers claims young Porter was “no prodigy,” he played with a vigor and zest that stole the show. At 10, he composed his first song, “Song of the Birds.”

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