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Cole Porter in Culver

Cole PorterOne of the most famous visitors to Culver was legendary Hoosier composer Cole Porter, who spent summers here as a boy and is said to have returned from time to time in adulthood and played piano in some of the cottages on the lake...

Some information about his Culver connection, and a recollection from a boyhood friend below.

Mark Roeder, in his "A History of Culver and Lake Maxinkuckee," reports that Porter was a visitor to the Bramfeld Cottage, also known as the Yellow House, at 1322 East Shore Dr. (June Allyson and Dick Powell also visited the cottage, and were frequent visitors to Culver when their son attended the Academy). Elsewhere, Roeder writes, "Cole Porter spent many of his summers on the lake as a boy. According to Mrs. Bigley, Cole and a friend would often sneak on the Peerless (steamboat), when they had gone a certain distance out on the lake the friend would dive off and Cole would head for the piano. He played the piano until discovered and would then dive into the lake and swim to shore before the Captain could catch him.

This column and the following columns originally appeared in August and September of 1974, in Bob Kyle's column in the Culver Citizen, "It Must be the Lake Water." His explanation follows.

Cole Porter at Lake Max

Through circumstances rare in historical research there has come to my attention a rare and almost lost manuscript by Thomas A. Hendricks of his boyhood friendship with Cole Porter, our greatest Hoosier of American composers. "Captain" Frank Amond, of our sturdy excursion craft Maxinkuckee history is indebted, and to Mrs. Robert E. Hollowell, Jr., East Shore Drive, Cynthia, daughter and only child of the late Tom Hendricks for letting me use parts of this 93 page manuscript, a proposed forward of more.

Left: A young Cole Porter on Lake Maxinkuckee. Click to enlarge.

Chapter XI - In the Good Old Summertime

  To get away from the deep heat and dust of the town (Peru) in midsummer almost everyone had an aunt or uncle to visit on a farm. Cole didn't have to worry about that for he had farms enough of his very own. But the most fortunate went away to the "Lakes." To the Shirks and Edwards, the Coles and the Helms and our family, the "Lakes" meant Lake Maxinkuckee where Culver Military Academy is located.

 It was then and is today a beautiful spot. Come motor car, motor boat, or airplane, Lake Maxinkuckee has always held for those who go there that magic paradise for generations of happy Hoosiers since 1836, when the first white man built a home there, and before that the untold regimes of Potiwatamie and Miami Indian chiefs as musical as its pleasant waters - Neeswaugee, Aubbeenaubbee, Menominee.

     Cole and I spent many happy summer days at Maxinkuckee. Hundreds the turtles we netted, thousands the shiners we seined. All day we spent on or near its waters. The big time for us, of course, outside of meals, came each afternoon while we were in bathing, when the big lake steamer Peerless docked. Down to meet it came all the summer colony, including the Landis family of Logansport -- Fred, Congressman, newspaper editor, and playwright, and his brother, Kenesaw Mountain whose hair was just as much like a puffy snowdrift in those days as it is now (Ed. Note: K. M. Landis became U.S. District Judge at Chicago and later Baseball Commissioner after the "Black" White Sox World Series Scandal in 1919).  

According to Great Lakes or ocean standards, the Peerless wasn't a big steamer, but in the eyes of an eight-year-old youngster it was a

wonderful creation. It took masterful maneuvering and seamanship to bring the boat to a successful landing. Much bell-ringing and whistle-tooting between Captain Crook, the pilot, and the engineer, and backing of water and reversing of the engine were necessary procedures to complete a landing. This was particularly true when whitecaps spotted the lake and Captain Crook would shake his head and say, "Boys, it's a rough ocean today. You'd better not come aboard."

    But usually he'd let us come aboard anyway, and climb upon the "roof" of the boat at the bow near the flagpole as the Peerless backed away from the pier we would dive off and swim to shore. 

That was the routine followed by all of us but Cole. Like us, he climbed aboard the Peerless in his dripping bathing suit, but while we scampered up to the top deck to get the most advantageous positions for our dives, Cole slipped to the stern of the boat in his wet bathing trunks, sat down on the varnished piano stool and began hammering away on the piano. For a few precious minutes, Cole had everything to himself, for Captain Crook and the engineer, Jonas, were very busy getting the steamer underway, so Cole banged away without any interruption, for the engine blanked out the noise, or piano noise. However, when the engineer got the signal to change from reverse to forward, full steam ahead, there was a moment when the propellers were motionless. Then it was that Cole's pounding came clearly and unmistakably to the ears of all.

"Cole and I spent many happy summer days at Maxinkuckee. Hundreds the turtles we netted, thousands the shiners we seined. All day we spent on or near its waters."

     This seemed to infuriate Captain Crook because he knew that Cole was sitting on the varnished piano stool in his wet bathing suit and was ruining the nice slick coating of that prized piece of marine furniture. Deserting the steering wheel in the bow of the boat he'd rush aft and chase Cole off his sticky perch. No matter how fast and breathless the doughy captain charged, Cole always outsprinted him, cleared the boat rail in one grand circus-inspired parabolic leap, and belly-busted smash into the water.

Tony Hendricks and Cole Porter  

Left: Author Tommy Hendricks (bottom left) and Cole Porter (bottom far right) posing on Lake Maxinkuckee.

Correspondence between Thomas A. Henricks and Cole Porter indicate that the 95-page Forward, evidently for an enlarged manuscript which was probably never written, was finished in  the fall of 1944. Tom left sports writing and radio broadcasting and was secretary of the Indiana State Medical Association for many years, and Cole was living in the Aldorf-Astoria Towers in New York City. Both letters seemed quite formal considering their close association as youths.

Chapter XII - Moonlight, a Piano, and Des

     Although Cole had desecrated the sacred piano stool of the "Peerless" by sitting on it in his wet bathing trunks, only a few years later he found himself chosen to occupy the throne by unanimous plebiscite. No longer did Captain Crook menace him, for he had become Cole's most ardent admirer, in fact his chief claque.

     "When that kid plays the pi-ana everyone rides on the steamer just like it don't cost them ten cents an hour. But they don't look at the scenery no longer - they just listen to him play and sing. At least, they call it singin,' but to me it ain't no more than just talkin' to music. But some of the songs are awfully funny, and sometimes awfully pretty.

     Thus did the master of the "Peerless" voice his deep appreciation of Cole's virtuosity.

     In remarkably few summers, we found ourselves not just kids any longer, but really grown up. Cole was sixteen; I was fifteen. Cole had been sent east to prep school and my family had moved to Indianapolis. We continued to go to the lake each summer and usually Cole was there, either visiting me, or some of his Peru friends. Suddenly and most surprisingly we found that turtle-hunting wasn't the greatest thing in life. Fishing was just as fun as ever, but somehow girls became sort of essential for a good time -

even for a good sail - that is, of course, excepting a heavy wind when we were out to give my boat, the "Araby," the works.

     Soon, too, we found that the Academy dances were sort of fun - and I guess it was because the girls were there, too. The sense of rivalry for the attention of the girls grew keener each summer. I could hold my own with Cole pretty well during the daytime; I could swim faster than Cole and I played winning tennis. Cole didn't care for tennis at all. I was one of the best "kid" sailors, having been taught how to jibe a catboat almost as soon as I knew how to swim the crawl. So during the daytime I could compete with Cole. But when night came it was different - at moonlight sailing I performed okay, but sooner or later Cole would get in the vicinity of a piano and it was all over for the rest of us. Gone were my "gals;" gone were all gals - Cole had them all under their skin.

     "Oh, Cole, sing us 'The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life' just once more," was their ardent plea.

     Cole ran through the whole field of popular songs, staring with the song hits of the current season and working back to Gilbert and Sullivan and sometimes to the old English ballad drinking songs.

     As the roads were sandy and the motor cars of those days uncertain and tempermental, we went to the dances in boats, most often the faithful old "Peerless." Going to the dances Cole played the piano just to pass the time, but it was on the trip back that he REALLY played. Everything was still except the piano and the pounding of the engine, and Cole's one-toned voice. Captain Crook was right -- Cole's voice was terrible -- merely a toneless talking affair; but the entire energy of his slight frame, his keen eyes, his changing facial expression and his sly, humorous asides made hi act. After the first song, the crowd and the rest of the evening was his.

Steamboat Postcard

     These open-air recitals took stamina, but if anyone had told me they took more energy than a five-set tennis match, or a mile swim, I would have said he was crazy. How all that power was generated in his one-hundred twenty pound frame is a wonder.

     As he played he had to get his rhythm paced so it could compete with the pounding and throbbing of the engine. Thus he played steadily from the time we left the Academy pier until we circled the lake and landed at our home dock, often at two o'clock in the morning.  By that time, not only did the youngsters crowd around the piano as they do now when some favorite does a special solo hit at a jam session, but the older folks had boarded the boat at the various landings just to hear Cole play. There's always plenty of good musicians at any summer resort - many of them at Maxinkuckee alone who played the piano better than Cole, but Cole was a natural

"Unconsciously, Cole learned to accommodate his piano playing to the steady, lunging rhythm of the "Peerless" as it drove full speed ahead, reversed, or slow-timed..."

 showman, and he should have been for he had seen the best there was in showmanship from his earliest days in Peru. And although showmanship may take on a different form for the New York stage from that of the circus ring, basically and fundamentally it's all one and the same - and Cole had never forgotten, never underestimated, and never neglected that fine art.

     Unconsciously, Cole learned to accommodate his piano playing to the steady, lunging rhythm of the "Peerless" as it drove full speed ahead, reversed, or slow-timed according to the proficient directions of Captain Crook.

     Plenty has been written about the unusual timing of Cole Porter's tunes. But there isn't anything unusual or mysterious about them at all to we who heard Cole play on the old "Peerless" piano. Critics may say Cole's music was influenced by the New York traffic roar, or by the ballet of the opera in Paris. But don't forget that night after night, summer after summer, Cole hammered out his rhythm by the tempo which that master Captain Crook set for the "Peerless" engine. That is where Cole got the heavy accented phrasing and that powerful punch in his music which is hard to associate with a person of such slight physique.

     Ralph DePalma (the 500-mile race driver) once said of Cole Porter, "if he could drive an automobile with the same heavy foot that he plays the piano, what a race driver he'd be!"

     As long as I can remember, that Cole Porter fellow always had a high achievement aptitude rating with the gals.

     But from the day we sat eating our petit dejauncer under Ben Wallace's iron deer until his last year at Yale, Des Bears was the only girl for whom he really cared.

     No matter how beautiful and charming women applauded him, no matter how many hero-worshipped and made over him, it was always Des, that Cole looked when he said, "Come, Come, I Love You Only," or whatever happened to have been the sentimental song of the day. As Des grew from a fun-loving, round-faced kid into a young lady, she not only had looks, she had intelligence. Although Cole was always an individualist and a non-conformist, even at one time appearing in downtown Peru with an Indian body-servant who followed him wherever, he went, bowed and addressed him as "Sahib," Des usually was able to keep him within the bounds of decorous behavior as marked out by Miami County custom.

Tommy Hendricks' Family

Above: Tommy Hendricks' family at their cottage on the lake.

To those who came in late the following is the third episode of the boyhood days of Cole Porter, the prolific composer of tuneful melodies, born at Peru, Indiana, as related by his friend since kindergarten days, Thomas A. Hendricks, grandson of Vice-President of the United States in the second Grover Cleveland administration. Tom was a sports reporter and later radio broadcaster with his brother Blythe in Indianapolis, state representative and senator, then secretary of the Indiana Medical Association in Chicago. Lake Water (column author Bob Kyle) was closely associated with him since 1921. One more episode will end these chapters taken from the Foreward of a book about Cole that was never published, but is of interesting local history.


    I suppose few are more rigid in their ideas of formal conduct than kids of high school age. Cole was home from the East with his first pair of long trousers. Des and Cole and I and some other girl were walking along Broadway, Peru, Indiana, not Broadway, N.Y. Cole suddenly stooped and right out in the open adjusted his bright, multicolored garter. It was a horrible breach of the conventionalities and I can remember how terrible the act seemed to me. At least one old dame immediately put out a tri-county broadcast about how the younger generation was going straight to hell.

     Des knew Cole was a non-conformist, but she had more control over him than anyone - even his own parents - and in some things more influence. Although we were still in our earliest teens, I can remember her reading a book to Cole and me about the use of trite, worn, weary words called bromides; I forget its title, but the volume listed cliches, monotonous mutterings and kidded pomposities of speech. Des had us play games with certain words, and it was all great fun rating our families and friends according to the high bromide content of their conversation.

"Des, I believe, taught Cole what so many never learned, and never will learn - that is, how to be sincere, simple, direct, and yet to be fresh and new and stirring."

    Secretly and off the record among the three of us these linguistic bromides soon became known as "stinkers." Soon the "stinker" record was established, never in our experience to be broken, by Mrs. ------- who was queen dowager of the lake. Mrs. ------- was the only one, by her

own executive order, who set the rules and regulations of conduct and determined what was right and what was wrong for the rest of the cottagers. She made her decisions stick, too. She conducted her weekly rounds of inspection, and there was only one thing worse than to have her call, and that was not to have her call. That meant ex-communication.

Rumor ran that she "asked people off the lake" and to be asked off the lake by Mrs. ------- meant that you picked up and left. For years, too, she enforced four o'clock Sunday afternoon services, and often had a guest cleric to conduct them. Attendance was a must and gee, how we hated it. These services lasted for years, despite rumblings of rebellion by most of the male week-enders, until one Sunday afternoon father took the guest cleric sailing, becalmed him, got him thoroughly sunburned, and didn't return to shore until long after sundown. When the boat finally reached the pier the good man was as red and parboiled as the very devil against whom he was preaching.


     When "Old Lady -------" called, usually we juniors beat it but this particular day when we were in the midst of our "stinker" survey we stuck around to see how she would rate. We had a hunch that her output was still well above the norm, but we were in for a big surprise at that. In less than thirty minutes she ran 123 tabulated bromides, which figured an output of better than four "stinkers" per minute. She produced all the old, time-honored and hackneyed phrases and then repeated them again and again. Thus she won the title of "Grand High Exalted Stinker."

     In late years Cole explained how difficult it was and is to write a popular song and not a "trite" song. His newest song hit, "I Love You," deals with a theme as old as the first light year, but somehow Cole gave it new balance and new meaning. Des, I believe, taught Cole what so many never learned, and never will learn - that is, how to be sincere, simple, direct, and yet to be fresh and new and stirring.

Tommy Hendricks

Above: Tommy Hendricks in his WWI uniform.

PEEPS INTO PEOPLE CHAPTER XIII: What's All the Shootin' About?

This is the concluding chapter of Tom Hendrick's recollections with Cole Porter at Lake Maxinkuckee. Preceding episodes had to do with their kindergarten days at Peru where they were born. Succeeding chapters relate to college life, Tom at Princeton and Cole at Worcester Academy and Yale.

*  *  *

     Thus at Maxinkuckee several generations of us have sailed and fished and slid our canoes silently into moonpaths on summer nights. It is there that many of us went for final leave before going overseas in World War I, and it's from there that some took their final moonlight sail in 1917 before sailing for France -- never to return. On the "Araby" Jody Wilson and I sailed that final night before leaving Indiana. Jody is now among the ever-mounting number of Culver men who have given their lives for their country. Their pictures line the walls of the Gold Star Room in the majestic War Memorial Hall overlooking the lake.

     The moon was gorgeous, the breeze fresh and steady, the girls, most of whom had been our buddies since childhood, were unusually gay and charming, and the laughing care-free and musical. Of course no one mentioned that this was the last sail of the summer that night twenty-seven years ago. All too soon the moon was dropping down the dark sky, which meant that the wind would soon drop, too.

"I believe that some of the melody which lives in his songs is a direct reflection from a Maxinkuckee moonpath of long ago."

     "Can I take the tiller, Tommy?" Jody asked. "I'd like to land the ol' "Araby" -- it's the last I'll ever make!"

     "Oh, you're kiddin,' feller. You'll be back to make plenty more after we march under der Linden," laughed Blythe, who was older and wiser.

     But we all knew, and Jody knew, that he'd taken his last sail on Maxinkuckee.

     Cole wasn't with us that August night in 1917, for he had joined the French Foreign Legion and at that moment was somewhere at the front in France. Some of us were not to go there until months later. And once again, after all of these years, while we were kidding ourselves that we were doing something really important, we're eating our hearts out because we're not somewhere over there. But no one can stop us from hoping that before it's all over we can take our place along with those swell youngsters of ours who have had their farewell moonlight sail on Maxinkuckee, until they return after the shootin' is over.

When a fellow leaves his country and knows there's a chance he won't come back, some one spot usually sticks in his mind and is America to him. Usually it's his home town like Waukegan, or Kokomo, or even Brooklyn. Perhaps it's the Harvard Yard in Spring, or the Moorish Romanesque chapel at Stanford campus; maybe it's some Gothic cloister on some faraway campus, where the echo of your own voice calls you back to your undergraduate days. When I was overseas, for me the spot which above all others meant America was Lake Maxinkuckee.

     As lakes go, Maxinkuckee is just another agreeable body of water, clear and refreshed by springs. But I've seen its small agile surface churned into a hell-roaring rage that was as powerful and dangerous as Whirlpool Rapids. I've stolen from the cottage and paddled out upon it into the depth of the night. Sometimes out there by myself I thought I had caught a glimmer of why men travel to the ends of the world, often, for more than an idea, or an ideal; why Tennyson worked for twenty years to make two lines of poetry say just what he wanted them to say, and even why men and boys, and women, go to war and face death and for the most part take it all in their stride.

     As for Cole, although he hasn't visited Maxinkuckee for years, and although he has seen most of the famous in the world, and has been to all the "right" spots, I believe that some of the melody which lives in his songs is a direct reflection from a Maxinkuckee moonpath of long ago. And I know where the rhythm and pace which stamps them as genuine Cole Porter products come from, for I can still hear him hammering out his piano monologues above the rumble and roar of the old Peerless engine.

Relevant Links

Mark A Roeder on the steamboat, "The Peerless," mentioned repeatedly in the articles above

Cole Wide Web - a thorough website about the life and music of Cole Porter

Cole Porter on PBS' American Masters

Indiana Historical Society's website on Cole Porter

In 2004, a major film on Porter's life, "De-Lovely," was released to rave reviews. More about the film here.