October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

by William McBrien

From 1928 to 1958, Cole Porter’s songs provided hits for everyone from Mary Martin (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”) to Roy Rogers (“Don’t Fence Me In”). William McBrien’s biography is loaded with juicy gossip about backstage back-stabbings, Porter’s devoted but sexless marriage and his active, if closeted, gay life in Manhattan and Hollywood. McBrien also dwells on the composer’s knack for writing witty rhymes, as well as his stoicism after a horseback-riding accident in 1937 left his legs crushed. Despite excruciating, constant pain, Porter produced the scores of Kiss Me, Kate, Can-Can and Silk Stockings.

Unfortunately, this thorough and often fascinating book is marred by a scattershot approach and sloppy editing. McBrien, an English professor at Hofstra University, drops names too freely and sometimes bogs down in tangential detail. Still, he succeeds in evoking Porter’s white-tie-and-orchids set. When his wife, Linda, was asked why she seldom used the Rolls-Royce Porter gave her, she answered, “It bruises my sables.” (Knopf, $30)

Bottom Line: A champagne subject who deserves a book with more kick

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