Cole Porter’s Secret Life

Share via
Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

The Cole Porter song “I Loved Him, but He Didn’t Love Me” is usually sung by a woman. But in “Confidentially, Cole,” the one-person show opening Saturday at the Tiffany Theater, the 1929 tune will be sung by a young man, Sean Hayden. And that’s where the “confidentially” comes in.

For the inspiration of the show is not the Porter who was the darling of cafe society, the soigne composer of “Anything Goes” and “Kiss Me, Kate” who held court with his socialite wife, Linda, in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria and his palazzo in Venice. It’s also far from the Porter whom Cary Grant played in the 1946 movie “Night and Day,” as a devoted lover and husband whose songs were more witty than passionate.

The ghost that hovers over “Confidentially, Cole” is the Porter who picked up sailors on the docks, who dressed up his tricks as delivery men, and who wrote desperate and passionate love letters, like this one to the Russian poet Boris Kochno: “I miss you so much that I am falling apart and if this continues this utter silence I don’t dare think what I could do.”


“This was a man who was pouring his heart out in these songs, and I wondered how many people really knew about that side of him,” says Hayden over lunch at the Monkey Bar in midtown Manhattan, which, in the ’40 and ‘50s, had been a favorite watering hole for the likes of Porter, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams (who lived upstairs), Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and other celebrities whose pictures now adorn its walls. “He was screaming to be heard.”

William McBrien, author of “Cole Porter: A Biography” (Knopf, 1998, and to be released in paperback by Vintage next month), makes a compelling argument that the composer’s homosexual love affairs inspired his most personal and passionate work. “Easy to Love,” for example, was written for Ed Tauch, an architect whom Porter fancied; “Night and Day” was inspired by Nelson Barclift, a choreographer who, like Kochno, was one of the composer’s great loves.

“The love songs were very coded. They make sly references,” McBrien says. “And there is a wonderful ambiguity to most of them. That’s why they could get so much heterosexual mileage. Cole was aware that if you disclosed too much in Hollywood, you were likely to lose your job--and your audience.”

Hayden was never much of a fan of Cole Porter, whose currency has been increased lately by the smash hit revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” on Broadway. The performer says he always found Porter too aloof. But a couple of years ago, as a 33-year-old Dallas lawyer moonlighting as an actor, he discovered “I Loved Him, but He Didn’t Love Me.” The bittersweet lyrics struck Hayden as contemporary as the conversation he’d had the night before with some gay friends. “I played the song on my piano, and it nearly knocked me off the bench,” he says. “It was so fresh, so cutting edge.”

Moving to New York two years ago to escape the boredom of corporate law and further a theatrical career, Hayden delved deeper into the composer’s trunk of more than 800 songs, hoping he might develop a vehicle for himself. As he did, the actor says, he was overwhelmed by the fiery emotions he encountered. His thesis of Porter as a tortured, not to mention libidinous, romantic became the basis for “Confidentially, Cole,” which premiered last fall in a well-received showcase at the Triad on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The objective, says Hayden, “wasn’t to ‘out’ Cole but to show that he was a very complex individual whose music had so many different levels. I think that makes him even more of a genius.”


In the show, which is directed by Matt Lenz, Porter’s nostalgie de la boue (“nostalgia for the mud”), as the French call it, is expressed through the alter-egos of two characters (both played by Hayden): Cliff is a jaded bisexual gigolo and entertainer who gets drafted during World War II and finds himself in love with “a soldier boy.” Decades later his nephew, Chase, must confront some of the same emotional contradictions while navigating the treacherous terrain of gay love in the 21st century. Within that context, the lust and longing expressed in Porter’s lyrics--”my daddy might spank” or “a marine for his queen?” or “this torment won’t be through till you let me spend my life making love to you”--take on a more loaded meaning.

The need to lead a double life can spawn cynicism, rage and even rebellion, and Hayden says that he can detect that subtext in the composer’s work--even in such light mischief as “Let’s Misbehave.”

“It’s not polite music,” he says, adding that Porter’s icon status and the “conservatism” of the cabaret world have been responsible for glossing over the complexities of his music.


As the son of a Southern fundamentalist preacher who led tent revivals first in Florida and then in Texas, Hayden himself is familiar with repression and rebellion. As his father’s accompanist at the services, he also learned something about raw theatricality and holding an audience.

After attending a Baptist college where dancing was forbidden, the strapping blue-eyed actor finally caught up with popular music when he attended law school in Tulane, La., where he met and married a fellow student. The couple divorced eight years later after they had moved to Dallas and before Hayden left for New York. There he flopped on a friend’s couch for six months, paying his dues and putting together “Confidentially, Cole.”

Adding a certain resonance to his research was the fact that he himself was struggling with issues of identity and sexuality, rethinking theological doctrines that had told him that all gay men were going to go to hell.


When asked about his own sexuality, however, Hayden is ambiguous. “It sounds like a cliche but I want so hard to refuse to be defined,” he says, sounding like the lawyer he once was. “Did I come to a point in my life where boundaries of sexuality were lifted for me? Absolutely. Will I let anyone tell me that I can’t have the option to be in love with a woman or to be in love with a man? No, I won’t allow that. My life is not that anymore, it’s not black and white.”

While the entertainer declares a personal liberation of sorts, his show is about how love imprisons and torments. In Porter’s world, the heart is a faulty compass, indeed. Love is fatalistic, beyond control, a cruel trick. “The gods have all the cards,” Hayden says. “Love is a sexual tantalization that’s going to burn you. You will be miserable and tormented. It’s sad to think about Cole Porter, alone in his hotel suite, drinking heavily and writing these songs at 3 in the morning. I get emotional just thinking about that.”

Ironically, Hayden notes that Porter’s most fulfilled love relationship appears to have been with wife Linda. According to Hayden, she turned a blind eye to her husband’s sexual adventurism. A domestic crisis arose when Porter went to Hollywood in the ‘30s and became a bit more flamboyant in his flirtations. Hayden says that Linda had decided to leave Porter when, in 1937, the songwriter had a terrible horse-riding accident that left him disabled. “That brought her back to care for him and stay with him, which she did until her death in 1954,” he says. (Porter died in 1964 at 73.) “It was a very complex relationship with a lot of love. I find it very touching. The song ‘True Love’ typifies their relationship. It’s one of the few songs [in which] Cole writes about nice, happy, uncomplicated love.”

Hayden speculates that even if Porter had the chance to settle down with one of his lovers, he probably would not have chosen to do so. The excitement of the forbidden was a large part of the game.

In “Confidentially, Cole,” however, the prospects for gay love, at least for Chase, are healthier. While he doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset with his true love--”That wouldn’t be true to the spirit of the music,” says Hayden--the prison cell door is left ajar a little bit. “If love is fatalistic, do you turn your back on it or do you embrace it? Do you hide or do you give it a chance? As Porter writes, ‘To say as every cynic says, love has only lonely hours or to say, sweetheart, if ever we should part, let’s die for love and start to live.’

“It’s complex,” adds Hayden. “But hopefully, Chase won’t be making the same mistakes as his uncle and all those men who lived in that same period.”



“CONFIDENTIALLY, COLE,” Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Dates: Opens Saturday. Regular dates: Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Closes Nov. 5. Price: $30. Phone: (310) 289-2999.