On the face of it Cole Porter - a wealthy, pampered socialite living as a gay man in a sexless marriage of convenience - may not seem to be the ideal candidate to have written some of the greatest love songs of all time. After all, unlike that other great composer / lyricist, Irving Berlin, there was no pressure on Cole even to get out of bed in the morning, never mind pick up a pen and write music. And the passions he naturally felt for other men could not be openly expressed at the time. For Cole, therefore, his music must have been both a labour of love and an outlet for his desire.
For me, three of Cole's songs - Night And Day, Every Time We Say Goodbye and So In Love - are amongst the most powerful love songs ever written, demonstrating the art at it's classic best. The undercurrent of passion and the pain and longing of separation are so succintly and beautifully expressed that I regard them as minor masterpieces.
Looking at his work more generally it is clear that some of the power of his songs comes from the fact that "the words and music are so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one", a skill Cole mastered early on under the guidance of Dr. Abercrombie, his teacher at Worcester Academy and which he employed in a manner that has rarely been bettered. As he began to achieve success in both Paris and New York in the 1920's and 30's, Cole brought a new level of sophistication to musical theatre, not only through his lyrics - he was a master of the "internal rhyme" - but also through his exploition of the tension between time signatures and his use of minor keys and semitones, which gave many of his songs an unfamiliar, "exotic" flavour. Many of his songs admittedly were light, possibly even flippant, but he was also able to express complex emotions felt by everyone, not just the privileged classes.
It is true that significant parts of Cole Porter's life were a lie - not just his marriage, but also the myths he peddled about activities during the First World War, myths he never came clean about. Perhaps partly for this reason he has been labelled a dilettante, a society fop, a salon composer etc. etc. Looking purely at his musical career I believe these labels are meaningless, and derive to some extent from a kind of inverted snobbery which holds that any artist worth his or her salt must spend their formative years in abject poverty and misery. To be an artist, surely all that is necessary is to be human and to feel, understand, and express in a way understood by others what that entails. If you accept that point of view, Cole Porter is surely one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.