Love, Linda, Love Stevie Holland Even More
by: Myra Chanin
It’s rather curious that Stevie Holland, a gifted, generous, gorgeous, acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter and lyricist, who since 1999 has been happily married to Gary William Friedman, the gifted, generous, handsome and obviously heterosexual theater, symphonic, film and television composer who won an Obie for The Me Nobody Knows, should be fascinated enough with the life of Linda Lee Porter, a debutante/socialite reared to supervise the household staff, and spend other people’s money at her favorite deportment store, Van Cleef and Arpels, to do a one-woman show about her. Linda later became the wife/beard of Cole Porter, a witty, sophisticated homosexual award-winning musical theater superman. After several years of writing, work-shopping and performing earlier versions of Love, Linda, a one woman show with a Cole Porter’ score, it’s currently being performed at the York Theater Company. Gary William Friedman co-wrote the book, supplied the arrangements and composed the original occasional music. What about the songs? They include a few obscure Porter songs and many of his greatest hits. Ain’t nobody crazy enough to try to out-Porter Cole in a musical about his life.
Linda Lee — the Lee in her name means she’s one of the Virginia Lees, was a noted beauty who, at the age of 17, became the abused wife of Edward Russell Thomas, the sportsman son of a Union General and the owner of the New York Telegraph whose claim to record book fame was having been the first American to kill anyone in an automobile accident. For 12 years Linda lived a life of luxury and refought her own civil war in Manhattan, Newport and Palm Beach. When she finally divorced him in 1912, she traded keeping mum about the marriage for a significant settlement and moved to Europe. In 1918 when she was 36, she was introduced to the ten years younger and a million dollars poorer Cole Porter at the quiet wartime Paris Ritz Hotel wedding of a Harriman heiress to a Harvard Grad, at which the matron of honor was Mrs. Vincent Astor – a far cry from a singles event at the 92nd Street Y I attended when I was husband hunting. Linda and Cole were married a year later and lived more or less happily ever after, intimate in every way but sexually. Linda’s divorce settlement helped subsidize Cole’s extravagance.
Love, Linda is an interesting view of a conventional Southern Belle who becomes an unconventional woman and, thanks to her marriage to a genius, travels in interesting cultural circles. It also shows the downside for that kind of fame, especially when you’re not the prime provider of it. Not that Linda ever expected Cole to be conventionally faithful. Her first marriage had made her pretty disinterested in sex, but she did expect him to be discreet, and when he eventually hit it big in Hollywood and reneged on their arrangement she pulled away. They remained friends forever, and lived in adjacent apartments on the 45th floor of the Waldorf until she died at the age of 70, after having enjoyed a life of having friends she never dreamed existed when she was a debutante in Louisville, KY.
The first half of Love, Linda depends more on Cole’s music than on the book, because Linda doesn’t become interesting until the darker later years of her life. The second half of Love, Linda is very powerful and moving. The songs that open the show, So In Love and What is This Thing Called Love seem especially appropriate to this saga. Stevie plays Linda beautifully at any and all stages of her life and she really does justice to Cole’s music. If Linda could have sung as brilliantly as Stevie does, she could have made a glorious life on her own.
The York Theater is my favorite off-Broadway venue. Why? Because they sell the greatest before, during and after, coffee as well as cookies from the PMS bakery. And the wittiest warm up comic in town. Jim Morgan, also their Producing Artistic Director, and sometimes scenic designer, when he’s not nibbling on PMS cookies, warms up the audience with pithy, unforgettable remarks. Before the performance of Love, Linda I attended, Jim exhorted us to contribute whatever we could to his fund for Broadway’s neediest — the producers of Spiderman, although he admits that it’s unlikely that York Theater Company audiences could amass the 70 million dollars those producers need to break even. Jim designed the sets for Love, Linda.