"Cole was practically a rube when she met him." So says Stevie Holland, who portrays Linda Lee Thomas Porter in "Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter," a one-woman show launching its national tour with a one-night stand Wednesday, Sept. 1, at East Hampton's John Drew Theater.
Twelve years Porter's senior, Linda introduced him to Irving Berlin and to the world, really, as they lived together in Paris for nearly a decade. In those days, one traveled to Europe by ship. So it's not hard to imagine his inspirations for "Paris," the 1928 showcase for one of his enduring hits, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," and "Anything Goes" in 1934.
Besides serving as his beard through 35 years of marriage - he was gay in a time that demanded sexual conformity - until her death by emphysema in 1954, she was, in many ways, his mentor, too.
She remained at his side through his Broadway triumphs, but also through a parade of male lovers. Recovering from a horse accident that eventually cost him his leg, Porter produced one more Broadway masterpiece, "Kiss Me, Kate" in 1948. But after Linda's death in 1954, he was done, though he lived another 10 years.
HER STORY Born in Kentucky in 1883, Linda was more than a Southern belle. She was aristocracy, descended from the Lee family of Virginia. A noted beauty, she was introduced to Edward Russell Thomas, son of a Union general and owner of the New York Morning Telegraph. They married in fashionable Newport, R.I., when she was 17. Besides his wealth and notoriety - Thomas was the first American known to kill someone in a car accident - he also reportedly abused his wife, which became grounds for their 1912 divorce. She met Porter six years later, and they married the next year in Paris.
"Cole was ideal for Linda," says Holland, a jazz vocalist who co-wrote the book for "Love, Linda" with her husband, Gary William Friedman. "She wasn't that interested in men after her first marriage, although she was impregnated by him." (She miscarried.) "Linda accepted his sexuality, but not his falling in love. Our show is a celebration of friendship that survived the pain."
ON THE ROAD After a limited 2009 engagement, the revised show returned for a three-month Off-Broadway run last year. "It's a hybrid - a play and a revue, a cabaret and a biography," says Josh Gladstone, artistic director of the John Drew.
"After the tour, we're looking at bringing it back in 2011," Friedman says. Linda's Broadway debut, perhaps?
WHAT "Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter"
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 1, at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater,
158 Main St., East Hampton
INFO $35 to $45; guildhall.org, 631-324-4050