Traveling with Cole Porter

Actress and photographer Jean Howard was a great favorite of Cole Porter, the urbane composer and songwriter known for scoring such successful productions as Kiss Me Kate (1948) and High Society (1956). His numerous hit songs include Begin the Beguine, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Photograph of Cole Porter by Jean Howard, 1950.
Box 14, Folder 5, Jean Howard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Porter was an avid traveler, even after a serious horseback riding accident in 1937 left him disabled and in constant pain. The travel bug helped bring Cole and wealthy socialite Linda Lee Thomas together in marriage in 1919. Although he was openly gay, their marriage was a close one as the couple spent the next two decades in lively partying and social traveling, sometimes together, sometimes apart. The Porters bought a home in Hollywood in 1935 and became famous for their lavish parties and the circle of celebrities in which they moved.

Linda Lee Thomas’ passport photo at the time of her marriage to
Cole Porter in 1919.
U.S. Government photograph, Public Domain.

One of those celebrities to whom the Porters became particularly close was a new starlet in town, Jean Howard. Jean arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s ready to make her mark. She appeared as a glamour girl in a Busby Berkeley musical and in Florenz Ziegfeld’s last Follies. But, before she could launch a serious career, she met and married talent agent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman in 1934. This led Jean to the role of a high-level film executive’s wife who was expected to frequently entertain, mother-hen new stars, and help ensure that the Feldman’s remained a sought-after Hollywood couple.

From her early days in Hollywood, Jean Howard benefited from her close friendship with Linda Porter. It was from Linda that she learned how to dress, how to serve simple food for small lunches, how to manage giant parties, and how to be a friend to the famous.

After Linda’s death in 1954, Jean became one of Cole Porter’s favorite traveling companions. She joined Porter and other friends on two luxurious trips in 1955 and 1956. No matter where he journeyed, Porter always did it in style. He often traveled on the yacht Eros, owned by Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. When on land, Porter frequently rented private railroad cars for long trips. For shorter jaunts, such as the commute from his suite at the Waldorf Towers to his Massachusetts country home, or for spins around Palermo and Monte Carlo, he used his chauffeured Cadillac limousine.

Cole Porter is served breakfast by his valet while visiting Petra, 1956.
Box 14, Folder 7, Jean Howard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

For an unpublished autobiography, Jean wrote a funny anecdote that occurred on one of her trips with Cole Porter.

Porter, driving through Spain with [me], would sit in the front seat with the driver to compose in his head. Once he leaned over the seat towards me to hum a song he had just though up, True Love, which Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby would sing in High Society. What did she think? [I] said it was as good as anything he had ever written. Porter threw up his hands. “How would you know?” he snapped. “You can’t carry a tune!”

Box 32, Jean Howard Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Jean’s journeys with Cole ultimately resulted in a book titled Travels with Cole Porter (1991). The book is both a travelogue and a memoir of her 33-year friendship with the Porters. So devoted were they to Jean, they left her a fortune in jewels upon Cole’s death in 1964.

Jean Howard with Cole Porter and their friend Howard Sturges in Athens, 1955.
Box 14, Folder 5, Jean Howard papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Learn more about Jean’s relationship with Porters, and her wonderful photographs of her travels with Cole Porter, in the Jean Howard papers.

Post submitted by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


This entry was posted in Composers, Hollywood history, Motion picture actors and actresses, Photographic collections, popular culture, Uncategorized, women's history and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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