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Picks and Pans Review: Travels with Cole Porter

updated 10/28/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/28/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jean Howard

Cole Porter, one of America's greatest songwriters and bons vivants, did not travel light. Heading off on an extended sightseeing tour of the Continent in 1955, he took along more than 30 pieces of luggage, as many guidebooks as possible, his own Cadillac with red leather interior (New York license plate CP 11), a collapsible wheelchair and copious medical supplies (a 1937 horse-riding accident had crushed Porter's legs) and several vivacious pals.

One of those pals was Jean Howard, a minor 1930s Ziegfeld show girl and Hollywood hostess turned photographer. Using some 300 photographs, letters, diary entries and her own remembrances. Howard has now put together this coffee-table volume about her friendship with Porter and the pair of three-month grand tours of Europe and the Middle East they took in 1955 and '56. It is her second book, following the zippy collection Jean Howard's Hollywood (1989). Unfortunately, it is a disappointingly pallid effort.

"I adored Cole, and I had always found him a delight....To travel with him was another matter," she writes. Her kvetches? He planned their itineraries down to the tiniest detail; he turned "ice-cold" if a companion deviated from his program; and he threw a hissy fit if someone showed up a few minutes late for dinner.

Travels features plenty of estimable pictures of Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Istanbul—and of Porter. Though he hated to be photographed, he nonetheless managed always to appear as if he had just visited his haberdasher. Where Howard comes up short is in her eye-glazing travelogue prose and sketchy portrait of Porter, which fails to convey a sense of his allure and creativity.

The reader never finds out what the two discussed over dinner during their long months together (others came and went, but Howard and Porter were the constant), who paid for what, or what it was about travel that so excited Porter. Howard is also evasive in ways that are no longer necessary. It is well known today that Porter was homosexual, but the author never says so, and the reader is left to wonder what exactly Howard means by describing one male buddy as "Cole's last intimate friend." C'mon, lady, inquiring minds want to know. (Abrams, $39.95)

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