Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, to a wealthy Episcopalian family; his maternal grandfather, James Omar "J.O." Cole, was a coal and timber speculator who dominated his daughter's family. His mother started Porter in musical training at an early age; he learned the violin at age six, the piano at eight, and he wrote his first operetta (with help from his mother) at 10. Porter's mother, Kate, recognized and supported her son's talents. She changed his legal birth year from 1891 to 1893 to make him appear more precocious. Porter's grandfather J.O. Cole wanted the boy to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind, sent him to Worcester Academy in 1905 (where he became class valedictorian) and then Yale University beginning in 1909.
Porter was a member of Scroll and Key and Delta Kappa Epsilon, and sang both in the Yale Glee Club, of which he was elected president his senior year, and in the original line-up of the Whiffenpoofs. While at Yale, he wrote a number of student songs, including the football fight songs "Bulldog Bulldog" and "Bingo Eli Yale" (aka "Bingo, That's The Lingo!") that are still played at Yale to this day. Cole Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale.
Porter spent a year at Harvard Law School in 1913 (where he was roommates with Dean Acheson), and then transferred into Arts and Sciences. An unverified story tells of a law school dean who, in frustration over Porter's lack of performance in the classroom, suggested tongue-in-cheek that he "not waste his time" studying law, but instead focus on his music. Taking this suggestion to heart, Porter transferred to the School of Music.
In 1915, his first song on Broadway, "Esmeralda", appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure; his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First (book by Lawrason Riggs), was a flop, closing after two weeks. Hitchy-Koo of 1919 with star Raymond Hitchcock closed after 56 performances.
Porter soon started to feel the crunch of rejection, as other revues for which he wrote were also flops. After the string of failures, Porter banished himself to Paris, selling songs and living off an allowance partly from his grandfather and partly from his mother.
Porter was working as a songwriter when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. He traveled all over Europe, socializing with some of the best-known intellectuals and artists in Europe, and becoming a charter member of the Lost Generation.
He did not register for the draft, yet loved to tell the press that he had joined the French Foreign Legion. In reality, he went to work for the Duryea Relief Fund and maintained a closet full of various tailormade military uniforms that he wore when the mood suited him. The French Foreign Legion, however, claims Porter as an enlistee and displays his portrait in its museum in Aubagne.
In 1918, Porter met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Louisville, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior, whom he married the following year.
Although Porter was often photographed in the arms of beautiful women and was married for 34 years to Linda Lee Thomas, who conceived and miscarried, some believe that he was more homosexual than bisexual. The couple separated briefly in the early 1930s when, it is believed, Porter's sexual orientation became more and more open during their time living in Hollywood. After Porter was badly injured in a horseriding accident, Linda was reunited with her husband. He had an affair in 1925 with Boris Kochno, a poet and Ballets Russes librettist. He also reportedly had a long relationship with his constant companion, Howard Sturges, a Boston socialite, as well as with architect Ed Tauch (for whom Porter wrote "Easy to Love"), choreographer Nelson Barclift (who inspired "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To"), director John Wilson (who later married international society beauty Princess Nathalie Paley), and longtime friend Ray Kelly, whose children still receive half of the childless Porter's copyright royalties.
Unlike contemporaries such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Porter had not succeeded on Broadway in his early years. However, born to as well as married to wealth, he did not lack for money, and sat out most of the 1920s, living in luxury in Europe. Porter was not idle, though, and continued to write. Many of these songs would later be hits.
Richard Rodgers, in his autobiography, Musical Stages, relates an anecdote about meeting Porter in Venice during this period. Porter played Rodgers several of his compositions and Rodgers was highly impressed, wondering why Porter was not represented on Broadway, not knowing he had already written several shows that had flopped.
In the late 1920s, Porter returned to Broadway, and made up for lost time.
Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway with the musical Paris (1928), which featured one of his greatest "list" songs, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)". Following this Gallic theme, his next show was Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), which included several popular numbers including "You Do Something to Me" and "You've Got That Thing". Finishing out the decade, opening on December 30, 1929, was Wake Up and Dream, with a score that included "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
He started the 1930s with the revue The New Yorkers (1930), which included a song about a streetwalker, "Love for Sale". The lyric was considered too explicit for radio at the time*, but has gone on to become a standard. Next came Fred Astaire's last stage show, Gay Divorce (1932). It featured a hit that would become perhaps Porter's best-known song, "Night and Day". (* Other than the Waring's Pennsylvanians 1930 version of the song, which featured The Three Girls Friends singing the chorus, all other 1930 recordings were instrumental!)
In 1934, Porter wrote what is thought by most to be his greatest score of this period, Anything Goes (1934). Its songs include "I Get a Kick out of You", "All Through the Night", perhaps his ultimate "list" song "You're the Top", and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", as well as the title number. For years after, critics would compare most Porter shows — unfavorably — to this one. Anything Goes was also the first Porter show featuring Ethel Merman, who would go on to star in five of his musicals. He loved her loud, brassy voice, and wrote many numbers that featured her strengths.
Jubilee (1935), written with Moss Hart while on a cruise around the world, was not a major hit, but featured two songs that have since become part of the Great American Songbook — "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things". Red Hot And Blue (1936), featuring Merman, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, introduced "It's De-Lovely", "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)", and "Ridin' High".
Porter also wrote for Hollywood, including the scores for Born to Dance (1936), featuring "You'd Be So Easy to Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin", and Rosalie (1937), featuring "In the Still of the Night". In addition, he had composed the cowboy song "Don't Fence Me In" for an unproduced movie in the 1930s, but it didn't become a hit until Roy Rogers and Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters, as well as other artists, introduced it to the public in the 1940s.
Porter continued to live the high life during this period, throwing lavish parties and hobnobbing with the likes of Elsa Maxwell, Monty Woolley, Beatrice Lillie, Igor Stravinsky and Fanny Brice. In fact, some of his lyrics mention his friends. Now at the height of his success, Porter was able to enjoy the opening night of his musicals; he would make a grand entrance and sit up front, apparently relishing the show as much as any audience member.
Then, in 1937, a riding accident crushed his legs and left him in chronic pain, largely crippled. (According to a biography by William McBrien and oral history by Brendan Gill, Porter himself has it that he composed the lyrics to part of "At Long Last Love" while lying in pain waiting to be rescued from the accident.) Doctors told Porter's wife and mother that his right leg would have to be amputated and possibly the left one as well. Porter underwent more than 30 surgeries on his legs and was in constant pain for the rest of his life. During this period, the many operations led him to severe depression. He was one of the first people who experienced electric shock therapy.
His life was made into Night and Day, a very sanitized 1946 Michael Curtiz film starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith. His life was also chronicled, equally unrealistically, in De-Lovely, a 2004 Irwin Winkler film starring Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda.
Judy Garland performed a medley of Porter's songs at the 37th Academy Awards, the first Oscars ceremony held following Porter's death.
In 1980, Porter's music was used for the score of Happy New Year, based on the Philip Barry play Holiday. He is referenced in the song The Call of the Wild (Merengue) by David Byrne on his 1989 album Rei Momo. He is also mentioned in the song Tonite It Shows by Mercury Rev on their 1998 album Deserter's Songs.
The 2007 album "The London Book of the Dead" by the British band 'The Real Tuesday Weld' contains a song "Kix", a kind of reverse take on the Porter composition "I Get a Kick Out of You".