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Town remembers birthday of native son, Cole Porter

Although Cole Porter didn't spend much time beyond early childhood in his hometown of Peru, Ind., its residents spent the weekend quietly celebrating the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Banners announced the Cole Porter birthday bash, but as Bernice Ensley, who lives in the house where Porter was born on June 9, 1891, put it:

"He was hardly ever here. He wasn't home much ever since he left home for school. He was just a child then. When he came back no one ever knew he was here."

His birthplace in this north-central Indiana town of 14,000 people is now divided into apartments and marked by a plaque. The house is where Porter learned to play the piano and where he practiced his much dreaded violin.

Ensley, 83, remembers reading all about Porter in the local paper, when songs such as Night and Day, Begin the Beguine and I've Got You Under My Skin became hits.

Today, Arnold's Candy Store is perhaps Porter's strongest tie _ besides his family _ to Peru.

Louis Arnold opened a candy store in 1918 not far from the Porter family drugstore. It's there that Porter developed a taste for So-Good Fudge.

Throughout his life, the songwriter had the fudge shipped to him as he traveled. Porter sent the candy as gifts to friends all over the world. It was the dessert of choice at lavish Porter dinners.

When Arnold sold the business to Bob Haskett in 1960, he passed along the secret recipe and the Cole Porter fudge account.

Every month until Porter's death in 1964, Haskett shipped three pounds, one to each of the composer's residences.

Organizers of Sunday's New York gala at Carnegie Hall ordered another 100 pounds of fudge, Haskett said.

"He liked the fudge because he knew the fudge," Haskett said. "It was a big deal because it was from Peru, Indiana _ home."

Porter often came home to visit his mother, Kate, but after her death in 1952 the trips were less frequent.

James Omar Cole, a cousin and heir to the Cole Porter estate, lives in the family estate now. He calls his cousin "Mr. Porter" and with the same distant reverence describes the strongest memory of Porter.

"In 1952 I came back to Peru from working in Washington, D.C., to manage things after Kate Porter's death," Cole said. "It was at the request of Cole Porter. That's the time I remember best, the conversations about his mother."

The Miami County Museum houses the city's tangible memories of Porter.

A meticulous notebook chronicles the dinner parties Porter gave at his New York apartment, including wine choices, the china used and favorite foods of guests such as John Barrymore and Ethel Merman.

Then there's Porter's only Grammy Award, polished and under glass. The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded it posthumously in 1989 for a lifetime of music.

Museum Director Mary James' favorite item holds subtle nostalgia, like the Porter tunes themselves. It's a piece of unfinished music, undated and unsigned except for flapper-girl doodles.

"This shows his lightheartedness, his spirit and his sophistication, I think," James said. "And anyway, it's the music we remember most."