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The Jan. 31, 1949, cover of TIME

When Cole Porter was born 125 years ago—on June 9, 1891—it was with a silver spoon in his mouth. But that didn’t mean the famed American composer and lyricist didn’t work hard for his success, too.

That balance, between the drive to work and the lack of a need to work, was largely the subject the 1949 cover story that TIME devoted to Porter as his latest show Kiss Me, Kate made a splash on Broadway. As the magazine put it, the two sides of Porter’s life were “show business and the high-living, high-gloss international society that lionized him long before his songs caught the public’s ear.”

That second side—that he was “born to wealth and bred to spend it”—proposed a problem for some publicists who worked with him. One person assigned by Warner Bros. to create a film biography of Porter told TIME that the idea flopped because there was no conflict in Porter’s story, at least nothing that they could turn into a feel-good narrative. His childhood as a coal and lumber heir, his years at the best schools, his “placid, childless, fashionable” marriage—with the exception of a tough recovery from an equestrian accident, all was well.

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The drama had to be found, then, in the songs he created. There, his desire to always have the best was no less intense.

TIME explained just how, in detailing his working process:

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: The Professional Amateur

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