J25: Local songwriters, part III, Cole Porter found his voice at Worcester Academy

He is the songwriter’s songwriter, a genius, who is considered one of the first great American composers of popular song to seamlessly combine his words to his music. As Sammy Cahn once said: “When I met Cole Porter for the first time in my life, it was one of the great thrills for me because I think that he, alongside Irving Berlin, are the two most gifted men of American words and music – because they wrote both.”

Worcester certainly can’t claim Cole Porter as one of our own, but the fact is, he did spend his formative years here and by the accounts of his many biographers, this is where Porter began marrying melody to lyric. Dr. Daniel Webster Abercrombie, who was the headmaster of Worcester Academy before and after Porter’s tenure, is often attributed as the person who encouraged the young songwriter in that direction.

Charles Schwartz, in his biography on Porter, writes: “Harvard-trained, with a reputation among Worcester students and faculty as an enlightened but demanding pedagogue, Abercrombie turned out to be an important influence on Cole; in fact, practically a godsend for the youngster. Not only did Abercrombie respond to Cole’s avid attention in class and polite ways by taking a personal interest – almost as a substitute father would – in his progress at the school and his development as a human being, but he also influenced the youth’s future work as a lyricist-composer.

“Looking back on his stay at Worcester after he had established himself in the popular music field, Cole freely admitted that it was Abercrombie who first made him aware, by example, of the close correlation between meter and verse in the epic poems of Homer and other great Greek poets, of the importance of unifying music and text in his own popular songs. Speaking about the lesson learned from Abercrombie as it related to his own work, Cole said: ‘Words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one.’ Cole’s songs are a testament to this philosophy.”

Porter’s connection to jazz is equally inseparable. Consider the repertoire without such classics as “All of You,” “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “From this Moment On,” “I Concentrate on You,” “I Get a Kick Out of You, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin, “I Love You,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Love for Sale,” “Night & Day,” “What is This Thing Called Love?” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” among others.

Singers also recognized Porter’s lyricism as indivisible between its poetics and song. “I particularly like Cole’s lyrics to sing because he made it fun to sing a song,” said Frank Sinatra. “He gave it a freshness. When I first would see one of his songs, the surprise of the couplet or the inner rhyme was always exciting to me. Consequently, when I worked in clubs – particularly in clubs – the material was fun to do because it was sophisticated enough for drunk audiences.”

Cole attended Worcester Academy from 1905 to 1909. That year the school’s registration numbered 240 students with 21 faculty members. Founded in 1834 as the Worcester County Manual Labor High School, the academy has a storied history with such prestigious and infamous alum as Abbie Hoffman, Congressman James McGovern, actor Charles Starrett (Durango Kid) and Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch.

In a 2004 profile in the New Yorker magazine, titled King Cole: The not so merry soul of Cole Porter, writer John Lahr describes Porter’s state of being as he arrived in Worcester. He says that the composer’s entire life was one fashioned on not revealing his true self.

“From the moment in 1905 when the elfin fourteen-year-old from a powerful lumber and mining family in Peru, Indiana — the pampered and only surviving one of three siblings — arrived at Worcester Academy, in Massachusetts, with his paintings and an upright piano for his dorm room, he cast himself as a kind of dandy,” Lahr wrote. “The dandy’s strategy is to combine daring with tact, flamboyance with distance. Instead of breaking the rules, Porter learned to play with them. “At boarding school I was always taught,” he wrote in ‘I’m in Love,’ “not to reveal what I really thought, / Nor ever once let my eyes betray / The dreadful things I longed to say.”

In his book, The Life That Late He Led, another Porter biographer George Eells wrote this about Porter’s arrival at Worcester Academy: “From the first, he used his considerable array of talents – wit, music, energy, intelligence, enthusiasm and precocious conversational powers – to ingratiate himself with everyone from the headmaster’s wife to the athletic coach. It was typical of him that during his freshman year, having discovered picture postcards, he bombarded acquaintances with witty messages, even those classmates whom he saw every day.”

Porter excelled both socially and academically at Worcester Academy. He was a member of the drama, mandolin (music) and glee clubs. In his junior year, as a member of Sigma Zeta Kappa, the school’s debating society, he won the Dexter prize for public speaking and upon graduating, he was the class valedictorian.

If Porter was a favorite of the headmaster, it was Mrs. Abercrombie who became his patron. Schwartz wrote: “In her drawing room, she plopped a cushion on the piano stool (so that Cole could reach the keyboard) and sat enthralled as he played selections from MacDowell. Mrs. Abercrombie thought him brilliant and Cole soon realized that his musical accomplishments were to stand him in even better stead in Massachusetts than in Indiana. For after his success at the Abercrombies, he was often invited to faculty wives’ parlors where his good manners, worldly chatter and easy amiability delighted adults.”

While Porter reportedly wrote a number of tunes attending the school, sadly none of the pieces have ever been located. Schwartz wrote that Porter had his own upright piano in his living quarters where he played and sang popular tunes for his classmates. “Cole often amused friends with musical takeoffs on the more obvious
idiosyncrasies of faculty members as well as with renditions of risque tunes of his own … From all reports all these early smutty songs were particular favorites of Cole’s peers.”

According to Eells, Porter characterized the songs years later as the kind of material that was heard in second-rate dives. “But, in 1908 these songs garnered enormous popularity for him as he performed them privately for his classmates and the more liberal minded faculty members,” Eells said. “The only three numbers that he could recall in later years were “The Tattooed Gentleman,,” “Fi Fi, Fifi,” and The Bearded Lady.”

These bawdy tunes almost got Porter expelled. Evidently Headmaster Abercrombie caught wind of the off-color pieces and demanded that Porter play them for him. Legend has it that in the middle of “Bearded Lady,” Abercrombie was so outraged by what he had heard and forbade the composer to ever play the songs again.

Porter recounted the incident in the Eells biography. “My own peculiar talents in musical composition first came to light at Worcester,” he said. “I indulged in writing songs that today would be considered rather boring in any good café but then were damned as downright risqué. I sang them to assorted groups, including a select number of the faculty. Finally the headmaster called me in. After hearing one, he threatened me with expulsion if I wrote more. I continued writing, of course, and my friends said nothing about it.”

In 1983, Worcester Telegram & Gazette reporter Robert Connelly wrote about Porter’s near expulsion and his social life spent on campus. “Porter was known for entertaining his fellow students by banging out the songs of the day on the upright piano he had in his room,” Connelly wrote. “He also improvised many songs, most of which dealt with school life or contemporary issues.”

On the school’s Website under the heading of “History: Influential Alum” there is a profile of Porter. Frank Callahan, class of 71, Director of Planned Gifts at Worcester Academy, is singled out for his contribution to the article that reads: “Cole was small and not athletic, but he had an ebullient personality and gained many friends by playing tunes on the piano. Most classmates remember him either playing the upright in his room or playing the Chickering grand piano in the Megaron. His formal performances were with the school band, then called the Mandolin Club, but sometimes Cole wrote and performed on the Megaron piano comical impersonations of the faculty.”

Callahan is a kind of on-campus expert on Porter. A couple of years ago Callahan produced a video about the great American composer called Cole Porter at Worcester Academy and Beyond. He says the first few minutes include pictures of Porter in Worcester. The last 35 minutes are clips of his songs in the movies featuring such stars as Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and more.

“I did it in anticipation of the movie, De-Lovely coming out,” Callahan says. “He is our celebrity alumnus, so I wanted to tell the students about him. I also have some clips from the first movie done about his life, called Night and Day, with Cary Grant. They do have Yale in it but nothing about Worcester Academy.”

Callahan also noted that the school has a Grammy Award on campus that the Porter family donated to Worcester Academy. “It’s for the best score in the movie, Can-Can. There’s also a piano here, that I know he played, in the attic of the gymnasium. We should do something to get that fixed. It’s in really bad shape.”

In addition to three aforementioned tunes, Porter also wrote the “Class Song” of 1909. Unfortunately, that tune is also among the missing.

In his four years at Worcester Academy, Porter rarely went home. During his stay in town he often ventured off campus. Callahan says, “You will hear stories about playing a piano on Germaine Street in a house of a family.”

In the school history of 1909 it mentions that socially, there were dancing classes held at Dean Hall in the city. “Seniors were given a reception at Piedmont Church. The Glee Club, under John W. Leydon, and the Mandolin Club, under Harold N. Cummings, gave concerts at Piedmont Church and at Shrewsbury High School, in addition to their annual concert on campus.”

William McBrien, in his book, Cole Porter, A Biography, wrote: Cole’s senior year is described in a history of Worcester Academy as a ‘great year.’ The boys were ‘thrilled by the singing of Geraldine Farrar [and] later they listened to two concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performances by Paderewski’ [no doubt at Mechanics Hall].”

Porter also tried his hand at acting, appearing in the commencement play as Bob Acres in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals.” In a publicity photo, published by Worcester Academy, the caption reads: ‘Cole began his theatrical work as Bob Acres in The Rivals on Kingsley stage. At W.A., he started composing lyrics and the music for them for the entertainment of his friends among students and faculty.’”

The history also states, “Cole Porter starred again with a violin selection from Flotow’s opera Martha. Applause was prolonged, and as an encore, he sat down at the piano and sang … ‘original squibs on school life and faculty,’ which brought down the house. Never again would he be tied to the violin.”

In 2003, Robert C. Achorn, a former editor, publisher and president of the Telegram & Gazette wrote a terrific piece on Porter after the announcement of the making of De-Lovely, which at the time had the working title of Just One of Those Things.

Achorn opens with “At first glance, Cole Porter and Worcester are an odd mix. Porter was a small-town boy who lived most of his later years in a grand house in Paris, a palace in Venice and the Waldorf Towers in New York. But he warmed up for all that opulence with four years in Dexter Hall at Worcester Academy.

“Worcester bursts forth as the place he first attached clever lyrics to jaunty tunes and launched a career that ultimately produced 800 popular songs, many of them brilliant — songs such as “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Anything Goes,” “You’re the Top,” the entire glorious score of “Kiss Me, Kate,” and the classic pop number “Just One of Those Things” (“a trip to the moon on gossamer wings …”).

Achorn then proceeds to write that a half-dozen biographies of Porter tell certain stories about his Worcester years, but don’t answer all the questions. “Some mysteries have been solved,” he writes. “Some endure. Although Callahan doesn’t say so, it is conceivable that past academy movers and shakers were sometimes uncertain about the appropriate recognition for the school’s most famous graduate in its 170 years.

“There is no Cole Porter building on campus, no Cole Porter room. The archives from 1905 to 1909 — Porter’s time — cry for further indexing and study. When the academy created its Hall of Fame in 1976, the oh-so-famed Porter was not in the first group to be honored, or in the second. In fact, it took five years before his name was added to the 25 men and women already honored.

The harshest criticism Achorn fires at the school may be directed towards the fate of one of the pianos Porter played. “He was allowed to bring an upright piano into his dormitory room. He played it often for the enjoyment of fellow students,” he wrote. “At other times, he played classical works, and some of his own, on the Chickering grand piano in the Megaron recreation hall right behind Walker Hall on campus. The Megaron is still in rich use today, but the Chickering, replaced and in disrepair, collects dust in the attic. The contrast with the Waldorf-Astoria’s long-term zeal in keeping “Cole Porter’s piano” in a place of honor in its Peacock Alley restaurant may be suggestive of a campus attitude.”

Achorn lists a litany of reasons why Worcester Academy should proudly celebrate Porter. He also recognizes the contribution of Callahan, saying, “He is not the first academy staffer over the years to be interested in Porter, but he is determined to find answers that have eluded everyone… Unfortunately, neither Frank Callahan nor the Porter aficionados of past years have been able to track down the songs Porter wrote in his Worcester stay.”

Achorn said that Callahan still hopes that academy records will produce the “Class Song” Porter wrote for the June 1909 graduation. “It might be printed in the graduation program,” he wrote. “That at least could provide some hint of the quality of his work in Worcester.

In summation, Achorn wrote that the broader influence of Worcester and the academy on Porter is difficult to quantify. “Obviously, Abercrombie’s love of Greek language and tradition was significant. Porter’s later work is laced with references to Greek and Roman mythology, particularly in his 1950 musical Out of This World. So there were many influences here. Not all are clear and sharp. But Frank Callahan, with his growing collection of Porter material reflecting his interest, continues to follow every lead.”

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