Cole Porter (second from right) on Yale Fence with Whiffenpoofs, 1912
Witness Post: Vanderbilt and Porter at Yale
What’s In a Name?
In 1975, after my junior year at Yale, I was called in to speak with the Dean of Morse College. Not sure what I had done; however, the last time we had met, the Dean had been very disappointed that I refused to live off campus with some other Morse students. At the meeting Dean Eva Balogh invited me to be a freshman counselor for in coming students in the class of 1979. Stunned, I did not know that she felt that I was up to the task. If I said YES, it would mean giving up a bird’s eye view of Claus Oldenburg’s Lipstick Elevated on Caterpillar Tracks, in return for the best view of Yale’s Old Campus.
Lipstick Elevated on Caterpillar Tracks, sculpture by Claus Oldenburg, Yale ’50
Vanderbilt Hall on Yale’s Old Campus
Vanderbilt Hall, at the time, had been the housing for all of the women on campus. And it remained so until the middle of the decade. If you wanted a date with a female at Yale, you had to understand parietal rules and find your way to the guard station at the glassed-in entryway to Vanderbilt and get permission to visit your date.
My first visit to the famous Vanderbilt Suite, as it was known, was in early spring of 1975, with my future roommate, David Nierenberg. We knew each other by sight, but were in different classes (David-’75, Henry-’76) and we had different circles of friends. In the fall of 1975, David would be joining the Yale Law School class of 1978. On that spring afternoon we walked up the spiral staircase to the second floor and soon spotted a blue sign on the door: its white lettering announced that Cole Porter, Yale Class of 1913, had lived in that room during his senior year.
Dean Balogh had given us the key to the Suite and we walked in to view the space. Put simply, the suite was magnificent. Having spent a few years in “psycho singles” at Yale (Bingham Hall and Morse College), this room was palatial with it’s large living room, mahogany paneled walls, rose marble fireplace, gold leaf plaster upper walls, parquet floor, 12 foot ceilings with decorative mouldings, and two separate bedrooms. The rose marble fireplace was lovely, however it was purely ornamental, as the University did not want students to set the building ablaze. There was a love-seat built below the four windows that overlooked the rest of Old Campus and plenty of drawers and closets for each of us to store our belongings. We were amazed at our good fortune.
Walking back to Morse for lunch that day, David mentioned the rumor that the Vanderbilt Suite was always reserved for heir’s of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s whose grandson had attended the college. We were fortunate to be admitted to live in the suite, due to the rejection of a Vanderbilt great, great, great grandchild, or so the story goes. Their loss was our gain.
We thoroughly enjoyed that year at Yale, hosting many parties in the Suite for our Morse freshmen, who shared both the Vanderbilt entryway and the adjacent entryway of McClellan Hall. David had a terrific sound system and a host of records, which made for some great line dances, parties and evening storytelling. David was also a wise counselor for the freshman. We all learned a lot listening to the guidance he offered to his half of the male freshmen and the bevy of female frosh in McClellan.
As I reflect on that time together, the two names attached to our room are curious artifacts woven in the history of the Porter and Vanderbilt families and Yale. What a coincidence to be living in a suite with connections to these two important characters in the life of commerce and theatre in U.S. history. This Witness Post is an effort to unravel the two families, so different, yet so American, and to discover what they have to say to us today. It is also a thank you to our Dean Eva Balogh.
Cornelius Vanderbilt II, 1843-1899, portrait by John Singer Sargent
There is a Cornelius in nearly every generation of Vanderbilts, so for generational ease, nicknames are appropriate. Corneil, as he was known, was the son of William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885) and Maria Louisa Kissam, and grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877). Corneil was born on Staten Island, New York, and he spent the majority of his working life on the New York Central Railroad. He and his wife, Alice Claypoole Gwynne, had seven children together. The Vanderbilt family was already famous as an American family which gained prominence during “The Gilded Age.”
The family success story began with the shipping and railroad empires of Cornelius Vanderbilt. From there, the family expanded into various other areas of business, industry and philanthropy. With their newfound wealth, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s descendants went on to expand beyond Staten Island to build grand mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; luxurious “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island; and palatial homes like Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina and Berkshire Cottages in Lenox and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They were rich after Croesus and before the Rockefellers and Beineckes.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC
At one time the Vanderbilts were extraordinarily wealthy. The patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt, until his death in 1877, was recognized as the richest man in America. The Vanderbilts’ family wealth and social prominence lasted until the mid-20th century, when the family’s 10 great Fifth Avenue mansions were torn down, and most of the estates were either sold at auction or turned into museums.
Vanderbilt and Yale?
Vanderbilt Hall is modeled after one of the buildings of Oxford University, England, in accordance with the wishes of Willie Vanderbilt, formerly of Yale, Class of 1893. As the story goes, in 1892, when his father and mother were on a visit with Willie in Oxford, Willie pointed to a prominent building and said, “If I were to build a dormitory it would be just like that.” Within a year of this proclamation, Willie was dead. He died of typhoid fever, which he contracted from a public drinking fountain in New York. In light of his fatal illness, the family felt that Willie’s architectural preference seemed prophetic. Cornelius Vanderbilt II decided to build a dormitory at Yale, in the image of the Oxford dorm, and to name it as a memorial to his son.
Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library, Yale University, “The Yale Banner,” 1913 – 1914
The Building Details
The dormitory is Gothic, with a touch of the Renaissance. It consists of a main building, its dimensions 181 by 40 feet, and two wings, each 76 by 40 feet. It is four stories high, with a basement, and has two entrances from the courtyard and one from the campus side. The campus-facing side has an archway and central tower. The tower was designed to be 40 by 50 feet and five stories high. The specifications for construction of the tower stated that the arch was made of iron and marble forming a large arch entrance 12 by 14 feet, with marble seats in recesses on each side.
According to architectural plans, most of the suites of rooms consist of a study, 16 by 14 feet, and two sleeping rooms, each 8 by 16 feet. Most of the study rooms face the court and have three windows. Many of the rooms facing the quadrangle have dainty oriel windows. Private vestibules were constructed in each apartment where practicable. Each room’s study area has an open fireplace and every suite two spacious closets. On each floor will be a bathroom. The building was designed to be fire-proof, and in this respect it was the second of its kind at Yale, the Chittenden Library being the other. The dormitory was designed to be heated by steam, conducted in pipes from the new boiler system in the rear of the old gymnasium; hence the mythology of the Yale “steam tunnels” was born.
The designer of the building is Charles C. Haight of New York, who also designed several of the Columbia College buildings, several of those of St. Stephen’s College, and the Adelphi, Brooklyn. The dormitory construction was hurried along and was finished and ready for occupancy by September, 1894. Its name, Vanderbilt Hall, is inscribed above the arch entrance. 
Vanderbilt Hall, Yale University Old Campus
Ironically, in spite of it’s grandeur, the architect stated emphatically that the dormitory was designed for the “middle class, and not the richer class, as might perhaps be inferred from its aggregate cost,” of $1 million (approx. $35 million in today’s dollars). Willie Vanderbilt, in whose memory the dormitory was erected, had a brother, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, who was in his junior class at Yale, while the new dormitory was being constructed. To this day the impressive building has a lavish interior, built to compete with the fancy private apartments and dormitories that lined the opposite side of Chapel Street at the time.
Perhaps the rumor of Vanderbilts’ claiming dibs on the Suite goes back to Cornelius III, nicknamed Neily , Yale Class of 1895, who may (or may not) have taken advantage of the opportunity to live in his father’s new dorm room, imagined and named in honor of his deceased older brother.
Cole Porter & Yale
Cole Porter (1891-1964) as a College Man 
Born in Peru, Indiana, on June 9, 1891, Cole Porter was the son of Kate Cole and Samuel Fenwick Porter. The future composer of Kiss Me, Kate got his first exposure to music from his mother. Mrs. Porter introduced young Cole to the piano and the violin. By the time he left for Worcester Academy, his appetite for lyric writing had been whetted by his pharmacist father’s avid interest in classical languages and 19th-century romantic poetry.
After a summer of touring Europe, Porter arrived at Yale in the fall of 1909. He was soon to meet his classmates W. Averell Harriman and Sidney Lovett , among others. Porter majored in English, minored in music, studied French, and received credit for singing in the University choir.
Porter was also heavily involved in extracurricular activities including music and cheerleading. During the football season he achieved an additional measure of campus fame for writing the fight songs, “Bull Dog” and “Bingo Eli Yale.” Porter added to his popularity by singing in the Glee Club, and writing suave, audacious musical comedy scores for the play (Cora and The Pot of Gold). Plays were often performed as part of the initiation ceremonies at his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and for the smokers put on by the Yale Dramatic Association.
Porter in the Vanderbilt Suite
For his first three years at Yale, Porter roomed alone. But as a senior, he and Humphrey Parsons moved into 31 Vanderbilt, the sumptuous suite over the Vanderbilt Hall Archway. Porter and Parsons had become friends as members of the Glee Club, and as seniors shared its leadership, Parsons as Manager and Porter as President. Porter also got top-billing as the star of the Glee Club’s month-long annual Christmas tour, which took the singers across America by luxury train.
The documentary evidence of Cole Porter’s days at Yale is relatively thin, during those carefree, pre–World War I days. By no means were all of those days spent singing. One archive of material has eleven of Porter’s class notebooks, comprising more than 700 pages. Most of the entries are in pencil, and many are written on both sides of a sheet. One notebook includes review materials for Sophomore English (B5) and mentions such authors as Spenser, Milton, Bacon, Pope, Addison, Steele, and Swift. Two relate to a course entitled, “English Poets of the Nineteenth Century” (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, et al.), which Porter studied during his junior year (1911–1912). From his senior year there are notebooks on physiology, “French Literature of the Seventeenth Century,” “Tennyson and Browning,” and Shakespeare.
Porter, far left, with his Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the Yale Fence
Among the things that set these notebooks apart from the normal run of undergraduate scribblings of the day are page after page of Porter’s remarkably skilled cartoon drawings of elegant women dressed in the sleek fashions of the day, as well as flamboyant variations on his signature. A few of the notebooks also include a variety of music exercises and lyric sheets, some of which provide hints of later compositions. There is also a typescript of Almet F. Jenks Jr.’s libretto for The Pot of Gold, Porter’s most important and best-preserved Yale musical, and his own copies of three of his earliest published songs, “Bingo Eli Yale,” which he wrote for the 1910 football song competition; “Bridget,” also from 1910; and “Flah-Dee-Dah” (1911), the first “lost” Porter song to come to light since the discovery a decade ago of many of his manuscripts in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Digging deeper, Porter’s college notebooks and papers are a fragment, outline, and incomplete cast list for an unfinished, somewhat fantastical musical fable about a circus troupe complete with clown, bareback rider, snake charmer, fat lady, skeleton, and manager. There are also early versions of lyrics for “Scandal,” from The Pot of Gold, “Maid of Santiago,” and “In the Land Where My Heart Is Born,” from The Kaleidoscope. William Lyon Phelps, the legendary English professor and Porter’s mentor in The Pundits, congratulated the Yale Dramat after seeing The Kaleidoscope for “having one man who is a real genius and who writes both words and music of such exceptional high order.”
Porter’s own reactions to Phelps and his famous course on Tennyson and Browning are amply documented in one of the notebooks. For example, Porter noted that Tennyson’s “The Princess” had an “excellent libretto for comic opera,” and he responded raptly to Phelps’s sonorous utterances on “In Memoriam,” “Maud,” and many of the shorter poems as well. However, when Phelps turned to Tennyson’s late plays—Harold, The Cup, and The Falcon—Porter’s thoughts were elsewhere, and he diverted himself by filling his notebook pages with words and music for songs entitled, “Exercise” and “We Are So Aesthetic.”
Yet of all the notebooks surely it is the pair for the Shakespeare course, B7 (described as “a rapid reading of all the authentic Bard plays”), that provides the greatest insight into the way songwriting invaded Porter’s academic life, and eventually emerged onto the stage.
For all his precocity and his early triumphs as an undergraduate, Porter was dogged after graduation by a series of disappointments that delayed, if only briefly, what seemed to be an inevitable rise to the top of his profession. After leaving Yale, he studied briefly at the Harvard Law School, switching at the law school dean’s suggestion to the Harvard School of Music. That training, however, was not enough to make a success of Porter’s first Broadway show, See America First (1916), which closed two weeks after its New York opening.
In June 1917, soon after the United States entered World War I, Porter sailed for Europe to work with the Duryea Relief Organization. Within a few months he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and for a time was attached to the American Embassy in Paris, where he met and married the elegant divorcée Linda Lee Thomas.
There have been many stories over the years about the marriage of Linda Lee Thomas, the socialite from Cincinnati, and Cole Porter. Most tales were calling it a sham and trying to smear Porter as a homosexual hiding in marriage. But many of their closest friends felt that they always had a happy and supportive marriage and deep affection for each other. They were married in 1919 and stayed together until her death in 1954.
From World War I until the late 1920’s, the Porters lived primarily in Europe, mostly in Paris and Venice, and traveled widely. However, Porter’s years as a playboy-expatriate, when many thought he was doing little but giving and going to parties, afforded him both the distance and the stimulation to develop his own distinctive style. Nevertheless, while the songs he wrote during those years were presented in such revues as Hitchy-Koo of 1919, Mayfair and Montmartre (1922), Hitchy-Koo of 1922, and Greenwich Village Follies, in 1924, the critics response to his work at the time was not enthusiastic.
Linda Lee Thomas and Cole Porter, married in Paris 1919
So discouraged was Porter about his career at this point that he was prepared to abandon songwriting altogether. Fortunately, his good friend Monty Woolley, the director of the Yale Dramat, intervened, and Porter reluctantly agreed to submit three songs for Out O’Luck, a comedy melodrama about American doughboys in France. The show’s success on the Dramat’s Christmas tours of 1925 and 1926 helped Porter recover the self-confidence that had eroded so badly since graduation.
Henry C. Potter ’26, who played the lead in Out O’Luck, recalled Porter’s mood at that time: “I remember well, one evening ‘after hours’ when those of us in the Dramat sat around with Cole, singing and doing little skits, imitations of Al Jolson and so on. I did an imitation of some currently popular, vaudeville ‘sob ballad’ singer. When I finished, Cole laughed heartily; then his face grew somber and he said, ‘But do you know? I wish to God I could write songs like that.’ Thank God he didn’t. But not too many years after that evening along came ‘Night and Day’ and all the glorious rest. And we Yale ’25 and ’26ers have always thought that perhaps we had helped him a little.”
Indeed they had. Many great shows and songs followed—topped perhaps in public esteem by Anything Goes in 1934, Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 and Can-Can in 1953, as well as such classic Porter tunes as “Begin the Beguine” and “In the Still of the Night.”
Even after the terrible riding accident that crushed both his legs, when a horse fell on him in October 1937, Porter continued to write his amusing, exhilarating, often poignant songs. He welcomed communication with his Yale friends and classmates over the years and was cheered up considerably when they would come by for some a cappella renditions of the songs he had written in college.
Porter would no doubt have been especially delighted to know that the school books, songs, and sketches that he had taken with him on his summer visits with the Parsons in Maine have found a new home alongside the papers, books, and recordings which he bequeathed to Yale College on his death in 1964. That was only four years after Yale had saluted him with an honorary degree bestowed at his apartment in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The citation read, in part:
“Cole Porter: ‘As an undergraduate, you first won acclaim for writing the words and music of two of Yale’s perennial football songs. Since then you have achieved a reputation as a towering figure in the American musical theater. Master of the deft phrase, the delectable rhyme, the distinctive melody, you are, in your own words and in your own field, the top … Your graceful, impudent, inimitable songs will be played and sung as long as footlights burn and curtains go up.’”
Cole Porter and his instrument
Fans of American musical theater spent much of 2013 celebrating the centennial of Yale’s most famous minstrel, Cole Porter, who graduated from Yale College in 1913. Artists as diverse as Thomas Hampton and U2 recorded his songs for the occasion, and such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Indiana Historical Society, and the U.S. Post Office have created their own special tributes.
Tying the Vanderbilt family and Cole Porter into one Witness Post is a challenge. The connection of the two families does not have a consistent theme. The only through-line is Suite 31 Vanderbilt Hall. That’s where David Nierenberg and I fit in. We lived at Yale in an era that was gradually opening for gay and lesbian rights. Cole Porter must have had his challenges hiding his sexual preferences while at Yale. It has always been tough. Our Dean, Eva Balogh, was living in the Morse Tower with the College’s former Dean, Brenda Jubin — two brilliant Yale professors. They have their own stories of scholarship and prejudice that may have been ingrained in higher education and society in that era. Porter was finding his way as a gay man before during and after World War I; how much more challenging might that life have been for him and Linda Lee Thomas in post-Depression New York!
Cornelius Vanderbilt was not a Yale graduate, his only connection was through his great-grandchildren. He had other colleges in his sights, one even adopted his nickname as their mascot, The Commodores. Central University (Nashville, Tennessee) received a gift of $1 Million from Vanderbilt who designated it toward the school’s endowment. The year was 1877. Vanderbilt gave his gift in the hopes that his financial support would amplify the greater work of the university to help the South heal the sectional wounds inflicted by the Civil War. Vanderbilt knew in his bones the trauma and bloodshed of war and he put his money where his mouth was. The Commodore died shortly after the gift was received. The school trustees renamed the University in his honor.
The Vanderbilts respected colleges, and loved their families. Corneil Vanderbilt II did what he felt was the right tribute to Yale, and to honor the life of his deceased son. Vanderbilt had faced death in his own family before. He must have had profound heartache when he gave his gift to Yale. That $1 Million did not earn his family another college with the family name on it. The gift was not about naming rights or endowments, it was about profound sadness in the family for lost, potential greatness for a son.
No matter how you juxtapose the stories of Vanderbilt Hall and Cole Porter, the family names showcase titans: Cornelius Vanderbilt a titan of industry, Cole Porter a titan of music. They both ruled their realms. They both knew the tragedy of War. Yes, they both had their detractors. Both had their accolades and their hardships. Through their own tenacity, they survived beyond their mortal lives in the memories of those who knew them and loved them. Even if the love was for their music and their money.
The silver lining for Yale students today (and yesterday, like David Nierenberg and me) is that we share a common bond with these men and their names. The University has Vanderbilt Hall as a magnificent dormitory for its safe housing. Current freshmen can enjoy an enviable view of Old Campus, just as the first female students at Yale did. Cole Porter’s plaque still hangs in the hall and it calls students to look up the stories of the man who wrote the best canine College cheer of all time. He also penned some of the most memorable songs of his era (a complete list is below).
For now this Witness Post, above all, is a thank you note to Dean Eva Balogh for having the vision to put us in Suite 31 Vanderbilt Hall. Many years later, David Nierenberg and his wife, Patricia, honored me as the Godfather of their son, Jacob. Years later David invited me to serve as a business partner in his financial firm on the West Coast. Dean Balogh changed the trajectory of my life and for that I am eternally grateful.
Laurie Hooper, Henry Hooper, David Nierenberg at Henry’s wedding in 1984
Notes and References:
 Recollections of my time in the Vanderbilt Suite, Yale University, 1975-1976.
 Excerpt courtesy of the New York Times, Times Machine, “Vanderbilt Hall at Yale,” Sunday, August 20, 1893.
 Neily Vanderbilt was a Brigadier General in the American military, and an inventor, engineer, yachtsman and a Yale man, Class of 1895, and two other Yale degrees in 1898 and 1899. Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III (September 5, 1873 – March 1, 1942). He may be the long lost Vanderbilt whose ghost still pines away to live in the Yale Suite, named in honor of his older brother.
Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III (1873 – 1942)
 Rather than construct from thin air some of the wonders in the life of Cole Porter, I read a story from the Yale Alumni Magazine from 2012 that fills the bill. I take major sections of the article here to describe this marvelous, creative genius. http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/92_11/coleporter.html
 W. Averell Harriman (1891 – 1986) was an American Democratic politician, businessman, and diplomat. The son of railroad baron E. H. Harriman, he served as Secretary of Commerce under President Harry S. Truman, and later as the 48th governor of New York. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and 1956, as well as a core member of the group of foreign policy elders known as “The Wise Men.”
Augustus Sidney Lovett (1890 – 1979) was the Second University Chaplain at Yale and the Pastor of the Church of Christ in Yale from 1932 – 1958.
 There are lots of legends spread by the tour guides about Vanderbilt Hall. The first of the tour legends is that Vanderbilt’s architect, Charles C. Haight, originally intended the building to face the interior of Old Campus. However, during construction the builders poured the foundation while reading the plans upside down, resulting in it unique orientation facing the Chapel Street.
The second and more popular myth is that Vanderbilt was selected to house the first Yale class of women as an all-female dorm. But a Vanderbilt heir who entered Yale at the same time had other ideas. According to the legend, he supposedly sued Yale for the right to live in the Vanderbilt suite. Yale backed down and he moved in, calling himself the “luckiest man on campus.” The story concludes with the heir finding his future wife among his female neighbors.
A 1998 Yale Alumni magazine article actually debunked these two myths, but for many they are an ingrained part of Yale’s tour guide mythology.
 Songs by Cole Porter
Shows listed are stage musicals unless otherwise noted. Where the show was later made into a film, the year refers to the stage version.
NOTO BENE: a complete list of Porter’s works is in the Library of Congress (see also the Cole Porter Collection).