THE BEST AMERICANS: COLE PORTER AND SCOTT FITZGERALD IN PARIS
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
The best of America drifts to Paris. The American in Paris is the best American. France has only two things toward which we drift as we grow older. Intelligence and good manners.
Paris, especially for artists of all stripes, was the place to be in the 1920s. If you were rich and freewheeling you could make a soft landing and right away be in the champagne swim and not even have to speak French. If you were poor you could get by on cheap wine and baguettes. The Cole Porters lived in a mansion near the Eiffel Tower with a circular grand staircase, marble columns, platinum wallpaper and Chinese art. The Scott Fitzgerald family lived on the wrong side of town in a pricey but gloomy apartment decorated with bad copies of famous paintings. Ernest Hemingway lived in dirt-cheap rooms above a sawmill.
Mind you, the cheapness of things was one of the attractions for Americans. The dollar was extraordinarily strong—a decent hotel for a dollar a day, a four course dinner for fifty cents. Then there was the exciting promise of freedom—artistic, social and sexual. Doughboys returning from the Great War had tasted the wares of mam’selle and a 1919 hit song pointed up a problem for the authorities back-home: “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm—After They’ve Seen Paree?” Problems for others included the Red Scare, Prohibition, race riots and lynchings. Average Americans were tired of the experimental in art and of progressivism in government. They wanted a little self-imposed repression so that they could raise a family in peace. Their new president coined a word for the temporary post-war mood: “Normalcy”
For other Americans desperate to escape into freedom’s heady—if smoky—air, Paris shone out a welcoming beacon, the source of the Statue of Liberty. The new French president symbolized the wayward life. He fell out of a train and was found wandering the tracks in his pajamas singing cabaret songs waveringly. Later he was retired to a mental institution. Parisians loved the avant-garde and the crazed. Their taxi horns sounded a snatch of Debussy. They adored penniless artists and musical black folks. American military bandsmen who had introduced the jazz word into France via the Hellfighters and the Seventy Black Devils returned to satisfy this adoration and wonderment. There were never enough black musicians for the cabaret and club owners. Make noise, make Le Tumulte Noir. Much of it was chaos, an answer to the prayers of the avant-garde, a siren call to the entrepreneurs of nightlife. Montmartre was the setting, a quiet hill village of huddled red-roofs in narrow streets by day, and a dazzling city of bright light by night……
Zelli’s, an early nightclub of rambunctious raffiness, was a cavernous dive lined with tables and eager girls —“dance hostesses” whose job was to “mount the check”. Joe Zelli, an Italian-American, had been operating an underground dance hall clandestinely in Paris during the war. Now he was almost above ground and he was forever hovering at the front door ready to meet and greet and know you by your first name and slap you on the back. He guaranteed a hell of a racket from the genuine black jazz band. No chansons or accordions here. Open from dusk till dawn.
Mitchell’s was more musical. Louis Mitchell, a black New York drummer who also made raggy records for Pathe with his excellent Jazz Kings, was looking to attract a classier clientele, especially from the American colony and their Broadway visitors. In 1924 he enticed Florence Jones, the only bluesy singer in town, to leave her current club, Le Grand Duc, and perform for him. Why he’d rename his joint Chez Florence in her honor!
Le Grand Duc wasn’t grand. It was a cheerful but cramped joint with only twelve tables and room for a few souls along the bar so long as you didn’t mind instant intimacy. Gene Bullard, the African-American giant of a manager, was famous for his boxing and for being a highly-decorated aviator (the Legion of Honor) who had served France in the recent war. He also liked to bang the drums at the club, stopping now and then to physically deal with white cracker American tourists objecting to his presence.
The music focused on the latest hits played strenuously by the required black band, and sung by Miss Florence, one of the few jazz singers in France. When she agreed to move over to Mitchell’s down the street she recommended a Virginian half-caste, all red hair and freckles, currently in New York. This babe could sing in a manner of speaking, dance to beat the band, and—more importantly—connect with the customers.
There was no table-hopper to match redhead Ada Smith, aka “Bricktop”. She brought over with her a gift from the America of 1924: a wild and jerky dance sensation called the Charleston. From Louis Mitchell she learned the crucial importance of tips. To get good ones you must never get too friendly with the customers. Sometimes she made exceptions.
One of her earliest fans was Scott Fitzgerald. “My only claim to fame”, he later admitted ruefully, “is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter.”
She, in turn mothered him. After wife Zelda had slipped away from the club, Bricktop made sure that the sozzled but happy writer was taxied home. Sometimes he gave all his money (and his pockets were stuffed with it) to the taxi-driver, other times he kicked out the taxi windows. She took care of him the night he arrived soaking wet around dawn, escorted by gendarmes who explained that he’d once again jumped into a public fountain and they were handing him over to Bricktop instead of taking him, as before, to jail. She sat him down to egg and fries and sang him a song or two. He knew better than to protest or interrupt her. When Bricktop performed nobody out-voiced her. She could shout-sing louder than the greatest heckler or drunk. If they persisted then she ordered them a mickey finn knockout tonic and pre-paid the taxi home.
But dear Scott, of the curly hair and ruby lips—he was, she reckoned, just a big overgrown schoolboy, up to silly japes in order to grab attention. He appreciated the situation: ”Le Grand Duc”, he said, “was my home from home.”
He was already, in 1924, a famous and happening author. He had just finished writing, in the south of France, “The Great Gatsby”. The literati had to meet him. Gertrude Stein, at home, was charmed and they sang “The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine” as a trio, with her constant companion Alice B. Toklas providing the bass. Edith Wharton, also at home, was bemused by Scott’s outrageous remarks at tea (“You need to live a little!”), quite unaware of his inebriation. James Joyce, again at home, was terrified when, in an expression of his admiration for the Dubliner’s work, the over-excited American attempted to defenestrate himself.
After a while the Fitzgeralds tired of the literary colony and concentrated their energy on having a good time. “A thousand parties and no work”, noted Scott. He took heed of the word “dissipate” but, typically, mis-spelled it. He remembered the old Spanish saying that his wealthy ex-pat friend Gerald Murphy liked to quote: “Living well is the best revenge.” Make an art of your life—that was what it’s all about. To hell with the sedentary!
High-class French art and music were of no interest. Nor was French cuisine. A frisson sped round an elegant restaurant when he loudly demanded, in his awful French, a club sandwich with lots of mayo. But at least he tossed a thousand franc note to the bandleader for granting his request for “Ain’t We Got Fun?”
On forged the restless couple to more attractions, to nightclubs and cabarets but nothing French, of course, such as a bal musette or a café-concert. “Nobody in Paris ever stays home at night”, said Zelda. They smashed precious stemware, they tossed ashtrays about, splashed in more fountains, and fell down stone staircases. Scott paid a visit to the Paris Tribune, one of the four English language newspapers and, before being escorted out by employee James Thurber, tore up all the evening’s copy.
Soon Paris-American society shunned the Fitzgeralds—even their close friends, the very influential and well-connected Murphys, who were pals with Picasso, Leger, Milhaud, and the Cole Porters. Scott got his own back by tossing garbage cans over their wall when the Murphys were throwing a VIP party to which they were not invited.
Nevertheless—on forged the couple into the night. In Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The World’s Fair, there’s a thinly-veiled account of one drink-crazed spree: Six of them, including an aggressive Irish-American called Melarky, riding on top of a carrot wagon in the Ritz lobby, and picking up Mr. Horseprotection, an oil-rich Red Indian, a man “of many faults”, but so splendidly dressed in brown that he can be forgiven. At Le Grand Duc they meet Josephine Baker and a manufacturer of doll’s voices from Newark. Melarky goes crackers when he sees a “huge American Negro” with his arms around a “lovely French tart” and he smashes him in the jaw. They flee and next find themselves in a gay bar, a horrifying experience for Scott. As dawn breaks they sober up on coffee in the American bar at the Ritz, the ritziest and most expensive hotel in Paris.
Fitzgerald remained, in effect, a visitor in Paris, almost a tourist (an occupation he despised in others). He liked American bars and especially the Ritz bar. He haunted it; people talked of finding his “remains” there of an afternoon. He was on intimate terms with the barman as he enjoyed his scotch or bourbon or even rye. He could exchange barbs with Zelda. This was known as the Right Bar. He wouldn’t dream of straying into the Left Bar for that was for men only, often a certain kind of man.
Cole Porter loved his little spot in the Left Bar where, through saucer-syrupy eyes he could, after perhaps changing his gold garters, observe life and think up tricksy rhymes as he sipped a Pernod. He hymned about the bar in an early song:
I simply adorn a secluded corner,
A cozy corner in the Ritz Hotel.
When I wander each afternoon for tea,
‘Cause I like to see the kings
And let the queens see me
In my corner, my dear little corner
Where I gather up the spicy bits…
It’s odd that, as far as I can tell, Fitzgerald and Porter never met, despite having the Murphys and Bricktop in common. But they lived in different worlds intellectually, musically and monetarily. Porter anyway had not the slightest interest in the grubby Left Bank literary scene—he never met Hemingway, Stein, Pound or Joyce. He was a member of the “smart set”, the international-cosmopolitan set. No garret scribbling for him. On the other hand, Fitzgerald had always had a yen to be part of show biz, to have written a hit song or revue. He later said that he regretted not having “gone along with that gang—the pure entertainers like Cole Porter.”
This light-as-a-feather entertainer seemed to be leading an effortless life in Paris. He was a long-term resident unlike the temporary Fitzgeralds. As a rich Ivy League boy bachelor, he’d landed there back in 1917, to serve his country in a variety of uniforms.
One day he’d be strutting down the boulevard as a corporal, the next day he’d be a colonel. He claimed to have joined the French Foreign Legion in order to forget, not the usual love affair, but the failure of his first show on Broadway. He formed a coterie of admiring fellow Americans, plus a few senior British officers, who liked to hear him try out the clutch of songs hoarded in a brassbound leather trunk. Everywhere he carried a portable piano-zither contraption. Partygoers roared at his parodies of Jerome Kern ballads and lustily sang along to a bizarre throwaway number he’d heard at a New York party croaked out by his friend Irving Berlin: “If I Had My Way I’d Live Among The Gypsies”. Porter knew that urban Irving only felt at ease with concrete under his feet.
Even in the slough of a brutish war Porter turned his face peacefully to musical delights. Fluffy stuff, no martial war-spirit rousers. He sent his songs to London where veteran American entertainer/songwriter Melville Gideon polished them up and placed them in West End shows. He met a very rich and beautiful American divorcee, Linda Thomas, who’d been a Paris resident since 1912. They got along famously even though she was fifteen years older and more into fine art than pop music. He wrote “I’m Tired Of Living Alone”, despite all the fun.
In 1919, with war long gone, he sailed back to America to see about getting more family money. A performance on the ship won him a commission for the score of a revue. One of the songs, a sweet barbershoppy ballad called “ An Old-Fashioned Garden” became a hit. Loaded with song royalties, family money and a loan from an old Yale classmate, he returned to Paris and set up as a Yankee boulevardier, even a flaneur, who was in demand at parties. He married Linda that year. Elsa Maxwell, the local hostess with the mostest, was mightly pleased. Word was soon out—gossip columnist Walter Winchell cable-esed his readers: “Boy with One Million weds Girl with Two Million.”
Linda bought them a luxurious house in the fashionable Invalides. She had it remodeled to encourage her husband’s muse: an exotic tree to fix on for inspiration as he sat at a white grand piano set amid empty white walls; a hundred sharpened white pencils at his side ready for creamy music manuscript. Of course he’d always had a hard job writing these songs down correctly, as he was musically under-educated and also left-handed.
The valet shaved him, the chauffeur drove him in the open Rolls, there was little he had to do for himself. But Linda felt that his music could be classier. Now that they were getting accepted by Parisian high society as “Les Colporteurs” it was necessary for Cole to be up there as a writer of serious art music. To this end he was enrolled at the exclusive Schola Cantorum whose teachers included Erik Satie and Darius Millhaud. None of them instructed him and he didn’t learn much—although he did develop a love for French romantic music, German lieder, and Tchaikovsky. But the dull and plodding mechanics of orchestration were not for him. He soon dropped out, knowing there were plenty of schooled arrangers lying around just waiting for work. No, he was a songwriter, a spinner of skillfully-fashioned charms. Irving Berlin kept in touch and advised him to develop his own peculiar voice and stop copying.
In 1922, between trips for sybaritic frolics to European watering places and especially to the Venice Lido, Porter steadfastly kept on writing songs. Several were accepted by the London impresario C.B Cochran for his revues. One of them was a clever conceit in which a beloved Gainsborough painting bewails being snatched from his English home by a rich American, Henry Huntington: “The Blue Boy Blues”—reasonably bluesy but not very Tin Pan Alley commercial. Berlin must have shaken his head.
Next year, despite being turned down by Stravinsky when the latter was asked to give Porter lessons in harmony and composition, the long hitless songwriter/playboy got an invitation from avant-garde and jazz-mad composer Darius Milhaud. Would the American write the score for a short curtain-raiser to his experimental ballet, La Creation du Monde, a work based on African legends depicting the gods of creation bringing the birds and the bees and whatnot into the world, escorted by the toots and bangs of jazziness?
Porter’s pal Gerald Murphy, a Yale socialite who knew everybody (including, of course, the Fitzgeralds) had been the instigator of the commission. He was to collaborate with Porter, writing a story about jazz babies and prohibition entitled Within The Quota. Linda was thrilled at her husband’s chance to enter the realm of serious music, even if the subject matter was a bit seamy and the music rather sour, despite (or because of) the orchestration by noted French composer Charles Koechlin. There was lots of dissonance as well as blues effects-- to demonstrate, as one journalist put it, “the hurly-burly of superficial American life”.
Milhaud’s ballet, with sets by Leger, went on to settle down as a masterpiece. Porter’s little “jazz ballet” was soon forgotten.
In 1924 Porter provided the songs for the Greenwich Village Follies on Broadway. By the time the revue reached the road all his work had been eliminated. But one of the numbers had already established itself as a howling hit in Paris, where, at parties and such, he had always liked to demonstrate his new material with party-woman Elsa Maxwell accompanying on piano and him singing in that piping, precious voice: “I’m In Love Again”, a jolly foxtrot with a simple chromatic melody hook, soon found its way to Le Grand Duc where Bricktop put her stamp on it.
“I’m in love again and the hymn I’m hummin’ is the ‘Huddle up, cuddle up blues!’”…Porter had dropped in around 3am for poached eggs and corned beef hash but he laid down his knife and fork to applaud the Bricktop version. He was fastidious about how his songs were performed but he’d never say anything—he’d simply leave quietly. In this case he applauded and left—but not before receiving a hearty embrace from the black drummer Buddy Gilmore, an ex-Jim Europe Hellfighter.
Gilmore told her who Porter was and who he knew. Bricktop was stunned and excited. Next night Porter brought a party with him. And the next…. Soon he had a permanent table. How come he never seemed to have encountered Fitzgerald? Maybe he did and was put off by the drinking antics. He never could stand drunks. They were bores. Porter was a very quiet man with impeccable manners, always standing up if a woman approached the table. Gradually the artsy crowd moved away. Said Bricktop later: “Montparnasse and St. Germain didn’t mix.”
Porter admired her jazz dancing: “You have talking feet and legs”. He introduced Elsa Maxwell and her cafe society cronies to the pleasures of Bricktop. Elsa led with an appreciative shriek. Then he threw Charleston cocktail parties three times a week at his house. Bricktop gave the lessons. Among her pupils were dukes and duchesses. Later the Prince of Wales asked for Black Bottom instruction.
However the club and party life began to tell on the boulevardier, the songwriter manqué. By 1928 Porter, pushing 40, had become dispirited by his lack of success in the big and proper world of Broadway. He wanted a hit. True, he had Paris all sewn up what with his sassy revue songs like “Let’s Misbehave” which Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, a visiting American band, had introduced at the Theatre-Restaurant des Ambassadeurs, a very expensive place with indoor trees and a movable steel roof. But then off he sailed to bust into New York again. Taking the bull by the horns, he got himself a powerful hotshot agent. The result was a show with a slight plot called Paris, very apt, in which the sexy Irene Bordoni, a specialist in risqué material, tried out “Let’s Misbehave” but gave in to criticism that it was “disgusting”. “Let’s Do it”, less on the bone mark, was the replacement. Porter didn’t stay for the opening—dashing back to Paris for another revue at the Ambassadeurs. This one starred Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians, joined later by Clifton Webb who sang the sophisticated “Looking At You” which includes “poets telling of “lovely Helen of Troy.” On opening night George Gershwin, in town to work on An American In Paris, accompanied his neophyte sister, but she flopped just the same.
Word was spreading on Broadway concerning the skills of this wealthy playboy-songwriter from Paris. Irving Berlin was his biggest fan. After contributing “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, in his special major-minor mode with tom toms attached, to a London show, Porter moved back to America in 1929 to write for Hollywood and once more for Broadway: Irving Berlin recommended him for Fifty Million Frenchmen and he was right: The score rendered up a smash in “You Do Something To Me.”
There was also “The Happy Heaven Of Harlem”, a fond remembrance of nights at the Le Grand Duc and other boites where black jazzers abounded: “Where you’re never blue ‘cause all you do is eat, sleep and make love.”
Another number from the show, “You Don’t Know Paree”, warns “Paree will still be laughing after every one of us disappears”. Porter is wistful, missing the wondrous city in which he learned his trade, not least the ability to mix minor with major in a style that, far from being “Jewish” (as he claimed in a famous story-joke to Richard Rodgers), was in fact influenced by the chansons of the Parisian cabarets and cafes.
As the Jazz Age lights dimmed and the gray of the 1930s approached, Scott Fitzgerald revisited the Ritz bar and found it deserted and depressing. Where were all those colorful characters he once knew? Gone, said the barman. Now Paris was filled with vulgar American tourists. Wrote the sadder but wiser boy-man: “There was something sinister about the crazy boatloads. There were citizens travelling in luxury in 1928-29 who, in the distortion of their new condition had the human value of Pekinese, bi-valves, cretins, goats.”
Porter, back home and safe in his American splendor, wisely kept his own counsel, wrapped snugly in the warm romance of song.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com