The Man Behind the Beard

Monty Woolley, so I've feared
Has boll weevils in his beard.

Cole Porter is acknowledged as one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century. His contribution to popular music is without doubt but if were not for a lifelong friend some of his numbers may never have been written. 'Miss Otis Regrets' and 'It's de-lovely' owing their genesis, in part if not wholly, to the man some referred to as the Beard but movie audiences around the world knew as the irascible, witty, urbane curmudgeon Monty Woolley.

Edgar Montillon Woolley was born in 1888, his birthplace New York, to parents of a wealthy hotel-owning family (it owned hotels in New York City and Saratoga Springs), who sent him to Yale, which is where he met the young Porter, a few years younger than himself. Both of them shared a similar background, although Porter's hailed from the more rural Indiana, and an interest in the arts, but it was their more primal urges that cemented their friendship.

For Woolley and Porter were inveterate cruisers, accompanying each other on sexual escapades, usually on the wrong side of the tracks, in a time when homosexuality was still a crime. The phrase meant they cruised together, looking for trade, on the seamier side of towns and cities. One story, fondly recalled by Woolley, explains their general attitude towards their pick-ups.

Cruising with Porter in New York, they saw a sailor on the sidewalk and called him over to the car. The young man knew the score from the off as he asked a somewhat impertinent question as to what their true intentions were but it was little more than an overture. Both parties knew exactly what were up to and about. Woolley hardly batted an eye and his riposte was: 'Now that the preliminaries are over, why don't you get in the car and we can discuss the details.' These sexual sojourns were rarely unsuccessful -and if they could not find what they were looking for in the street or on the docks - there was a brothel in Harlem, led by the infamous Clint Moore, where they could while away the hours.

Porter went with black and white men, although
Woolley's more avid attraction to black men would later cause a major rift in their relationship, but in the early days their shared lust would bring them together rather than drive them apart.

For many years Woolley harboured an ambition to play George Bernard Shaw, whom he closely resembled but it would be his portrayal, both on stage and screen, of Alexander Woolcott that catapulted him into the public consciousness as The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Monty Woolley, Cole, and his wife Linda.

The role of Sheridan Whiteside, as he was called in the play, typecast him for the rest of his career leading to roles in The Pied Piper and Since You Went Away. Robert Morley, the rotund English thespian, loved the role so much he even called his son after the main character. Sheridan Morley grew up into one of this country's finest theatrical biographers, including that of his father, Elizabeth Taylor and the Master himself, Noel Coward.

It is impossible to write about Woolley without reference to Porter but Coward is almost equally pertinent. Both songwriters were popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the middle part of the twentieth century and they clearly admired each other's talent and met on several occasions, even holidaying together.

Coward's Man Friday, Cole Lesley, raised Porter's eyebrow, metaphorically or otherwise, because he shared a Christian name with a mere servant, despite the fact that Lesley's real name was actually Leonard Cole. He had only changed it because the Master was not keen on his original Christian name, Leonard.

Woolley, himself, had a Coward connection, although he would not have known it at the time. During his time as dramatics coach at Yale, where he had returned after graduating, he had taught the likes of Thornton Wilder, the writer, and Jack Wilson, who would later become Noel's first lover. Wilson would later become a producer, not only facilitating the productions of his boyfriend but also Porter. Their rivalry was similar to that of the Beatles to the Beach Boys later on in the twentieth century and came with a competitive edge but a healthy respect for each other's talent.

Before he came to dinner, Woolley had returned from service in Europe in World War I Paris to Yale as assistant professor of drama at Yale. He had previously earned degrees at Harvard and Yale and served at the latter from 1914 to 1917, before leaving to his stint in the army, where he had renewed his friendship with Porter.

Under his aegis, undergraduate theatre flourished, both financially and artistically, which led to Edward S Harkness in 1924 donating a million dollars to establish the first drama department at Yale, the first in the United States. Everyone assumed that Woolley been offered a position but he was overlooked by George Pierce Baker, the new department head, forcing Woolley to resign. Woolley's supporters were outraged, students and alumni were united in protest at this snub, and eventually Woolley was appointed coach.

Unfortunately, relations between Baker and Woolley were far from amicable and he resigned for a second time. Despite protestations from the students and reports of a sinister plan by the Yale Corporation by one newspaper, Woolley had made up his mind. What was Yale's loss became Broadway and Hollywood's gain.

Starting off as a director of musicals and revues, he took to the boards in 1936 and his portrayal of Sheridan Whiteside, a character based on the drama critic Alexander Woollcott, on Broadway catapulted him to stardom. Bette Davis insisting that Woolley play the part on screen leading to a now classic film and appearing in another twenty films, including two Oscar nominations for The Pied Piper and Since You Went Away. He even appeared as himself in the Cole Porter biopic, starring alongside Cary Grant, giving the impression that he was a great deal older than his friend, but that was nothing to the lie that both he and Porter were exclusively heterosexual. A parallel that Coward too played in public, despite the fact that their lyrics have a multitude of gay innuendo.

George S Kaufman, and his co-writer Moss Hart, even encouraged Porter to write a Cowardesque number for their play, which he duly did called 'What Am I To Do', signing the manuscript as Noel Porter. It was at a party, given some time after its opening on Broadway that led to one of Porter's many pranks on an unsuspecting Woolley.

Porter, as a child, had been deeply enthralled by the circus, which continued throughout his life and surely inspired him to write numbers such as 'Be a Clown' which was made famous by Gene Kelly.

Knowing that Woolley be at the Ritz-Carlton, where the party was being held, he managed to track a woman called Lady Olga, a bearded lady. He turned up at the party with the lady in question, suitably veiled, and introduced her as Woolley's sister!

Not only was Porter a notorious prankster and Woolley, one of his main victims, which could at times lead to exasperation on his part, the songwriter was, according to one of his biographers, somewhat of a serial fibber.

There are differing, if similar, accounts of the genesis of one of Porter's greatest songs, 'It's de-lovely' but the general consensus appears that it Woolley was the one who first came up with the line that gave the lyric its title. The most plausible is the following:

Sailing on a cruise ship, with his wife Linda and Woolley in tow, they were all enjoying the sunrise over Rio, as their vessel approached the harbour, Porter remarked: 'It's delightful!' To which Linda countered with 'It's delicious!' Then, Woolley cried, rather squiffy by this account 'It's de-lovely!'

Porter was fond of namedropping in his songs, not only his friends, but famous names too. 'Farming' been one song where he not only mentions Woolley, but also Mae West and George Raft, whose cow has never calved and his bull is also gay!

'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' is considered by many to be Noel Coward's signature tune. If one had to select a song that did the same for Cole Porter, one would have to select 'Miss Otis Regrets' which was covered by Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues for an AIDS charity record in the late twentieth century. It was also the favourite party piece of Woolley's, who would often perform it in the guise of a butler, draping a towel over one arm, as if he were informing his employer.

With the death of his wife in 1954, his continuing illnesses and his paranoia over the loss of his looks led him to being estranging from his friends, including Woolley. His friend's fondness for a black manservant may have precipitated their falling out, but it may just have been their egos finally coming into land, although Woolley did try, both by himself and through intermediaries, to contact Porter in his final years. Within eighteen months they had both died. Woolley was the first to go in 1963 through kidney and heart complications and then Porter in 1964, also with kidney problems.

However sad a conclusion to their friendship, the sparks that flew between them led to some great American art, both in song and on screen. Porter with his musicals and lyrics, which are still performed today, and Woolley with his work not only in the cinema and stage as an actor but also in helping revitalise the theatre in the United States with his contribution as one of the leading drama coaches of his day. His tradition of witty, escapist sophistication reflected his persona to a T and lives on in black and white and some of the best-loved songs of the twentieth century.

© Howard Watson 2002

 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001