Behind the Beard
Woolley, so I've feared
Has boll weevils in his beard.
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
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
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.
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
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
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