5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Stevie Holland

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Say the name Cole Porter to a theater practitioner (one hopes), or, most certainly, to a musical comedy lover, and a mountain of words associated with the composer-lyricist may soon tumble forth: sophisticated, luxe, urbane, wit, clever, martini, dahling, and so forth. Say the name Linda Porter to a theater practitioner or a musical comedy lover — especially if uttered in some way unconnected to the aforementioned Cole — and you may not find the same response. Nice name, but so what?

Photo by Haley Jane Samuelson
Photo by Haley Jane Samuelson

The “so what?” is the raison d’etre behind Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter, a new musical starring jazz vocalist Stevie Holland running at the Triad Theater (158 W. 72nd St.) from Oct. 28 through Nov. 21. Linda was Cole’s muse, his beard, his soul mate, his life partner, his inspiration, his exasperation, his conscience, his mindset, his heart-stopper, his defibrillator, his adrenalin pump, his vinegar, his raspberry, his cinnamon, his saccharine, his acid, his valentine, his sweetheart, his wife. She was a well known Southern beauty who married Cole knowing full well that, in terms of his sexual preferences, Cole didn’t exactly play with élan for the straight-and-narrow squad. Still, it was the beginning of the Roaring ’20s, and Linda, born to a wealthy Kentucky family, had already survived one awful marriage, complete with physical abuse. Like Linda, Cole (who was from Peru, Indiana), had plenty of money of his own. Together with Linda’s fortune, however, they were a power couple unlike any before them; the term might as well have been coined for them, so thoroughly did they embody the idea. Theirs was partnership that perhaps was imperfect by our modern standards, perhaps even a little bit strange to us some 80-plus years later. Yet theirs was a life that few couldn’t envy, what with the premium the Porters placed on glamour, on the capitalization and coronation of all things louche and luxy (there’s that word again), loveable and lionizing. Linda was Cole’s intellectual equal — that, more than anything, is why their marriage, be it of convenience, love, or some combination thereof, lasted more than 35 years.

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Love, Linda is also a collaboration between a couple — Holland is the wife of composer Gary William Friedman, best known for composing the Obie-winning tuner The Me Nobody Knows, Taking My Turn and Platinum. Holland herself is a widely respected headliner and a mainstay of concert halls around the nation and the globe. Together, Holland and Friedman wrote the book for the musical, while the score is the handiwork of the irrepressible, irreplacable Cole. (Friedman, naturally, is furnishing the arrangements.)

In addition to the challenge of playing Linda Porter, one can understand why, being a composer’s wife, Holland is so fascinated by Linda and Cole. However, to change things up a bit, Holland has engaged Ben West, whose sparkling revival of How Now, Dow Jones was a noted highlight of the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival, to direct. Verdura, a “jeweler to the stars” that once counted Linda Porter among its sparkling clientele, is keeping Holland in the finest finery, while Pamela Dennis, famous for her red-carpet creations, is clothing Holland in her dress designs.

Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter performs Wednesdays at 8pm and Saturdays at 9:15pm at the Triad Theater. Tickets are $35, plus a two-drink minimum. For more info., call 212-352-3101 or visit www.lovelindathemusical.com.

And now, 5 questions Stevie Holland has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Does it require a daily act of God to keep you from strangling your husband, since you two work so closely together?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Do you like to sing?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Did you ever need to lip-sync on any of your recordings?” That one actually took a while for me to wrap my mind around.

4) If it’s a given that Linda and Cole saw their marriage as mutually — meaning socially, financially — beneficial, why didn’t it bother her that it didn’t benefit her sexually? Was she hiding something, too?
“Socially and financially” is way too limiting to describe how Cole and Linda valued the benefits of their marriage. Their union was also artistically beneficial for Cole, and emotionally enriching for both of them.

Cole was extremely attracted to beautiful women, and, yes, rich people — or as he put it, the “rich-rich, as opposed to “just the plain rich.” He was also deeply connected to his mother; Linda was legendarily beautiful, wealthier than, and considerably older than Cole. She had a lot of key ingredients, they enjoyed a fantastic companionship and he adored her.

Linda’s first marriage to an emotionally and sexually abusive boor has led to a common understanding that her sexual appetite was greatly diminished by the experience. Cole provided excitement, youthful energy and an entrée to a more bohemian artistic world than the one she had known.

Since discretion was the order for the times, their private life could remain, for the most part, private (until Hollywood). Many of Linda’s friends were lesbians and she may have been gay, but her sexuality through her years with Cole was never documented, so who knows?

Bottom line: She walked into her relationship with Cole eyes wide open, and what we celebrate in Love, Linda is the fact that their relationship was emotionally beneficial, loving and unconventional — as opposed to convenient.

5) You’ve co-written the book for Love, Linda (with Gary William Friedman) and you’re playing her. Given the long shadow cast by Cole’s genius, what are the key attributes of Linda’s personality that you want audiences to notice about her? Why do you feel they’re important to explore?
Linda was a cultured, witty and strong woman. When the young Cole fled to Paris after his first unsuccessful Broadway foray, he was lacking direction. Linda opened up doors for Cole, nurtured his great discipline, grounded him, encouraged and pushed him. After several years of Cole’s studying and honing his talent, she connected him to her dear friend Irving Berlin, who was influential in giving Cole his first big break back in New York City. I’m convinced that if there were no Linda, the Cole Porter catalog might never have had the depth and breadth that it does. So, being the major driving force behind an artist of Cole Porter’s stature is, I think, a pretty key attribute, and one worthy of exploring!

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Bonus Question:

6) What do you think Linda and Cole would each think of post-Stonewall era? And why do you think there still need to be “marriages of convenience” today?
They would no doubt be thrilled to see the furthering of rights for human beings with whom they both identified, and around whom so much of their life revolved. The more modern concept of “gay pride” would be one I’m sure they’d embrace. But if Linda, born in 1883 and with powerful notions of privacy, was flash-forwarded to the present time, she might be a little shocked by the openness of today’s gay-pride parades. I don’t know if Cole would think any differently today than back then. He was who he was, no discussion necessary. His sexuality was something he just didn’t need to talk about. In his mind it was already accepted, and nobody’s business. Bear in mind that they lived in the bubble of extreme wealth, the arts and showbiz, and I’m sure were rarely confronted with judgment or discrimination. So that makes a difference.

I think, in the big philosophical sense, all committed relationships and marriages are “marriages of convenience” in that every individual seeks a partner who will fulfill his or her needs, and enable him or her to achieve his or her goals in life.

But in the more general sense, until gay marriage is universally legalized and accepted, the temptation will still present itself to enter into marriages that are not 100% emotionally or sexually complete just to attain benefits such as health insurance, financial, or to try to maintain an image of what one might think the world perceives as “normal” — and this is truly tragic because each partner ultimately loses something.

This is a tricky and involved question, however. I don’t think there “need” to be “marriages of convenience” any more; I just think there always have been and always will be. Because, on the other end of the spectrum, “marriages of convenience” have also existed since the beginning of time for heterosexuals of certain cultures and religions, and will probably continue to exist way beyond the time gay marriage is finally legalized.

But back to Linda and Cole Porter. Happily the gains were enormously great for both of them, as was their devotion to and love for each other, which lasted 35 years.