On Musicals

Who Gets to Sing “Love for Sale”?

March 20, 2017 by Stephen Bourne

Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” isn’t just a song: it’s a tempest in 64 bars, and the scandal that erupted following its 1930 debut in The New Yorkers offers a fascinating glimpse at Depression-era beliefs about race, censorship, and morality. The singer Elisabeth Welch didn’t just have a front-row seat to the controversy—she was onstage (and wearing a killer marabou stole to boot). Near the end of her life, Welch shared her memories with biographer Stephen Bourne.

For many years the lyrics of “Love for Sale” could not be broadcast on American radio. “I like it best because it’s kind of a step-child,” Cole Porter once said of the song, adding, “I can’t understand it. You can write a novel about a harlot, paint a picture of a harlot, but you can’t write a song about a harlot.” For Elisabeth Welch, “it was beautiful poetry because it was like one of the street cries of London.”

Elisabeth was either the first or the second person to sing “Love for Sale.” She had been slipped a copy of the sheet music in the winter of 1930 and added it to her cabaret act at the Royal Box, a high-end speakeasy bankrolled by the gangster Dutch Schultz. “In those days, you were not allowed to perform a song from a show until the show opened,” Elisabeth said. “I learned it, and the night The New Yorkers opened, I sang ‘Love for Sale’ at the Royal Box.”

The song was a smash with the speakeasy set, but on Broadway—performed by Kathryn Crawford—it caused a public furor. In his review, Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune declared the song “filthy.” The New York Evening World sniffed that it was “in the worst possible taste.”

“It was ridiculous,” recalled Elisabeth. “‘Love for Sale’ was the song of a prostitute and they gave it to a little pink and white blonde girl. She looked like a pretty schoolgirl, which was entirely wrong for this kind of song. She was totally unsuitable for such a number….The critics attacked ‘Love for Sale’ so much that Cole Porter left for Paris in a rage three days after the show opened. So they realized they had to replace her.”

It was decided that white audiences—and critics—would be less offended if a black singer was cast as the streetwalker. One night, about two or three in the morning, Elisabeth was leaving the Royal Box to go home when someone asked her to take her coat off; three gentlemen had arrived and asked to hear her sing “Love for Sale.”

Elisabeth went out and sang it for the three men, who turned out to be The New Yorkers’ director Monty Woolley, producer E. Ray Goetz, and Irving Berlin. “They heard me sing the song in an empty nightclub and then there was a little tête-à-tête,” said Elisabeth. “Two or three days later my manager called me up and said they wanted me to go into The New Yorkers.” Porter, without seeing or hearing her, gave his consent.

The setting for “Love for Sale” was originally Madison Avenue, but when Elisabeth joined the cast in January 1931 this had to be altered. “They changed Madison Avenue to Lenox Avenue in Harlem, and Reuben’s Restaurant to the Cotton Club, and I walked on,” Elisabeth said. “I wasn’t tough then but I said I wasn’t going to go out looking like some floozy. I wanted to portray her as a classy lady—not a tramp—and I knew how I wanted to dress. I’d just come from Paris, what the heck! So I got myself a black satin dress, patent leather black shoes with three-inch red heels, a great big full marabou stole, a big red handbag and a little red hat on the top of my head with black egrets coming out, and I felt mighty good!”

In 1931 racism prevented black women appearing on the Broadway stage unless they played maids or streetwalkers, but Elisabeth didn’t mind appearing as a prostitute on this occasion. “I always had a sympathy for prostitutes,” she explained. “I knew some in Paris. They make me cry.” Elisabeth mainly saw The New Yorkers as an opportunity to sing a great Cole Porter song.

Her African-American contemporaries Florence Mills (Greenwich Village Follies, 1923) and Ethel Waters (As Thousands Cheer, 1933) are often cited as the first to integrate with white casts on Broadway. However, Elisabeth’s appearance in The New Yorkers is overlooked because she lacked the fame in America of Mills and Waters and because she was a replacement, not in the original cast.

She met Porter a few years later while performing at Chez Florence in Paris. “He asked me to come to his apartment to hear me sing,” said Elisabeth. “I accepted the invitation, knowing I was going to meet a great man. He was a meek, quiet little man with wonderful, doe-like eyes. If he had been much smaller you could have hugged him like a little dog or cat. In company he was very shy and withdrawn, not at all gregarious. His wit really came out in his songs. There was no aggression about him, only gentleness, but you could feel strength behind it. He was absolutely charming.” Porter asked to hear her sing “Love for Sale” as he played the piano. It was “terrible,” said Elisabeth, “because he wasn’t what you’d call an accompanist.”

Stephen Bourne is a leading expert on black British history. His many books include several biographies of black stars, including Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen, and Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music.

Top photo: Elisabeth Welch in 1933. (courtesy Stephen Bourne)