For the gift that doesn't stop -- a thanks

I met him only once, at the Beverly Hills home of a prominent movie couple. It was one of those celebrity-studded evenings which in the 1950s provided a backdrop for studio business operations in the film capital. At issue was whether our host, a singer-comedian, should in his next picture venture into straight drama. As one of the scenarists assigned to the script, I was considered momentarily worthy of red-carpet treatment.

From that point of view, the corralling of Cole Porter for the occasion was a shrewd move on the part of my hosts. Like most of the Hollywood writing community, I was not overwhelmed by mere movie stars; we had seen too many, bereft of bright lights and bright dialogue, flounder like children. A gifted composer-lyricist at the peak of his eminence was something else. As an occasional dabbler in Porter's field, I knew and regarded with something like reverence just about every dotted eighth and double-jointed rhyme he had ever put to paper.

The composer was a small, wiry man in his sixties. He was dressed, not surprisingly for a Yale-and-Harvard alumnus born to millions, with meticulous black-tie formality. Porter had a boyish-old face that must once have been quite handsome; now the smooth even features looked worn. He had an air of great self-containment, with large brown eyes that took in everything but flashed no outgoing signals. He moved slowly; I had an impression of private discomfort rigorously suppressed.

Throughout dinner he wore a tight little smile and said almost nothing, not even joining in the frequent outbursts of laughter that swept the table. That was quite a trick, because the ebullient George Burns (one performer who never needed a writer) was holding forth in splendid form, dousing a wild variety of subjects with irreverent humor. Porter's aspect remained distant; even, I thought, a trifle forbidding. I wanted to address some observation to him - something appreciative and appropriately witty - but only banalities came to mind.

Salad trailed into dessert, dessert into the end of dinner, and my half-formed phrases never found expression. Afterward our hostess steered the talk to her husband's film and kindred studio matters. Suddenly people were shuffling toward the door, the evening was over, and I realized with a dim sense of regret that I had not said two words to a man whose work had given me countless hours of pleasure. A few years later, after two final film scores and a steady retreat from public view, Porter passed on.

Last summer, rambling at the piano, I found my fingers drifting into ''Night and Day'': not the insistent refrain which from lackluster repetition has been reduced almost to a cliche, but the haunting rhythms and poignant dissonances of the verse. Something was not coming together properly in the bass part, so I reached into the piano bench for the sheet music. Soon I was in the middle of a Porter album, a glorious cornucopia of lively melodies and sparkling lyrics, of evergreen harmonies and inventive syncopation. Porter's moods ranged from bubbly joie de vivre through aching nostalgia to the audacious improvisations on Shakespeare in the score of Kiss Me, Kate. When at long last I emerged from the musical feast, I knew what my two words to Cole Porter should have been: ''Thank you.''

Why then had I neglected the opportunity to convey my gratitude? How little it would have cost me to register a small tribute at the door; and how welcome, I suspect, it would have been. The sensibilities that lie behind artistic creation also engender a terrible vulnerability. For the man or woman whose work is of necessity carried out alone, a word of understanding can dissolve a mountain of self-doubt. I knew, from the modest trickle of reader-mail responding to my books, how very gratifying it was to receive that kind of personal affirmation; to discover that an arrow fired into the blue had reached another human being, a chord sounded in solitude had reverberated on another plane. Yet, how readily was that word proffered?

From Porter, my thoughts turned to others who had enriched my world by sharing their own. What a wonderful company of teachers and friends I had been privileged to draw upon! The debt went far, far back: to Sen Chou, the fan painter whose exquisite calligraphy illumined the Ming Dynasty; to Vivaldi and Mozart and Chopin. It embraced great ladies of literature like George Sand and Emily Dickinson, and men whose visions have thundered down the ages.

Yet these were only the legendary ones, the tip of the iceberg. What of the anonymous voyagers who spurted briefly across my aesthetic horizons, leaving indelible trails? The little-known novelist whose portrait of Harlem tenement life altered forever my perception of my black brothers? The workingmen in a Cordoba cafe who in ten heel-clicking, breathtaking minutes of flamenco encapsulated the stormy history of Spain? The unsung architects whose miniature palaces line the fairy tale canals of Thailand?

Painfully often, those who nurtured me had fought their way through personal torments to leave behind the distillations of their genius: van Gogh and Rimbaud , Beethoven and Toulouse-Lautrec, Sylvia Plath and Edith Piaf. Did they ever hear in their hearts the gratitude of generations to come? How many of us who were greatly touched by Steinbeck and Faulkner took the trouble to communicate our enthusiasm while they were among us?

A belated personal salute, then, to John Donne who never pales and Haydn who never palls; to all the Shaws - George Bernard, Artie and Irwin - who have warmed my days; to Franz Hals and Hal Holbrook, Thurber and Thoreau. And let us not hold back our praises for those manning the fortress today. A tip of the hat to William Styron and Marisol; to Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison and their still-unheralded comrades fashioning the gifts of tomorrow.

And, for the reminder as well as the legacy: Thank you, Cole Porter.

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