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Cole Albert Porter (June 9, 1891 – October 15, 1964) was an American composer and songwriter. Born to a wealthy family in Indiana, he defied the wishes of his domineering grandfather and took up music as a profession. Classically trained, he was drawn towards musical theatre. After a slow start, he began to achieve success in the 1920s, and by the 1930s he was one of the major songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Unlike many successful Broadway composers, Porter wrote the lyrics as well as the music for his songs.
After a serious horseback riding accident in 1937, Porter was left disabled and in constant pain, but he continued to work. His shows of the early 1940s did not contain the lasting hits of his best work of the 1920s and 30s, but in 1948 he made a triumphant comeback with his most successful musical, Kiss Me, Kate. It won the first Tony Award for Best Musical.
Porter's other musicals include Fifty Million Frenchmen, DuBarry Was a Lady, Anything Goes, Can-Can and Silk Stockings. His numerous hit songs include "Night and Day", "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Well, Did You Evah!", "I've Got You Under My Skin", "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "You're the Top". He also composed scores for films from the 1930s to the 1950s, including Born to Dance (1936), which featured the song "You'd Be So Easy to Love", Rosalie (1937), which featured "In the Still of the Night"; High Society (1956), which included "True Love"; and Les Girls (1957).
Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, the only child of a wealthy family. His father, Samuel Fenwick Porter, was a druggist by trade. His mother, Kate, was the indulged daughter of James Omar "J. O." Cole, "the richest man in Indiana", a coal and timber speculator who dominated the family. J. O. Cole built the couple a home on his Peru-area property, known as Westleigh Farms. After high school, Porter returned to the property only for occasional visits. Porter's strong-willed mother doted on him and began his musical training at an early age. He learned the violin at age six, the piano at eight and wrote his first operetta (with help from his mother) at ten. She falsified his recorded birth year, changing it from 1891 to 1893 to make him appear more precocious. His father, who was a shy and unassertive man, played a lesser role in Porter's upbringing, although as an amateur poet he may have influenced his son's gifts for rhyme and meter. Porter's father also had musical talent as a vocalist and pianist, but the father-son relationship was not close.
J. O. Cole wanted his grandson to become a lawyer, and with that career in mind, he sent him to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts in 1905. Porter brought an upright piano with him to school and found that music, and his ability to entertain, made it easy for him to make friends. Porter did well in school and rarely came home to visit. He became class valedictorian and was rewarded by his grandfather with a tour of France, Switzerland and Germany. Entering Yale University in 1909, Porter majored in English, minored in music, and also studied French. He was a member of Scroll and Key, Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and contributed to the humor magazine The Yale Record. He was an original member of the Whiffenpoofs a capella singing group and participated in several other music clubs; in his senior year, he was elected president of the Yale Glee Club and was its principal soloist.
Porter wrote 300 songs while at Yale, including student songs such as the football fight songs "Bulldog" and "Bingo Eli Yale" (aka "Bingo, That's The Lingo!") that are still played at Yale today. During college, Porter became acquainted with New York City's vibrant nightlife, taking the train to New York City to enjoy dinner, theater, and a night on the town with his classmates, before returning to New Haven, Connecticut, early in the morning. He also wrote musical comedy scores for his fraternity, the Yale Dramat (the Yale dramatic society), and as a student at Harvard—Cora (1911); And the Villain Still Pursue Her (1912); The Pot of Gold (1912); The Kaleidoscope (1913); and Paranoia (1914)—which helped prepare him for a career as a Broadway and Hollywood composer and lyricist. After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913. He soon felt that he was not destined to be a lawyer, and, at the suggestion of the dean of the law school, Porter switched to Harvard's music faculty, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon. Kate Porter did not object to this move, but it was kept secret from J. O. Cole.
In 1915, Porter's first song on Broadway, "Esmeralda", appeared in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by failure: his first Broadway production, in 1916, See America First, a "patriotic comic opera" modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, with a book by T. Lawrason Riggs, was a flop, closing after two weeks. Porter spent the next year in New York City before going overseas during World War I.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Porter moved to Paris to work with the Duryea Relief organization. Some writers have been skeptical about Porter's claim to have served in the French Foreign Legion, although the Legion itself lists Porter as one of its soldiers and displays his portrait at its museum in Aubagne. By some accounts, he served in North Africa and was transferred to the French Officers School at Fontainebleau, teaching gunnery to American soldiers. An obituary notice in The New York Times said that, while in the Legion, "he had a specially constructed portable piano made for him so that he could carry it on his back and entertain the troops in their bivouacs." Another account, given by Porter, is that he joined the recruiting department of the American Aviation Headquarters, but, according to his biographer Stephen Citron, there is no record of his joining this or any other branch of the forces.
Porter maintained a luxury apartment in Paris, where he entertained lavishly. His parties were extravagant and scandalous, with "much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs". In 1918, he met Linda Lee Thomas, a rich, Louisville, Kentucky-born divorcée eight years his senior. She was beautiful and well-connected socially; the couple shared mutual interests, including a love of travel, and she became Porter's confidant and companion. The couple married the following year. She was in no doubt about Porter's homosexuality, but it was mutually advantageous for them to marry. For Linda it offered continued social status and a partner who was the antithesis of her abusive first husband. For Porter, it brought a respectable heterosexual front in an era when homosexuality was not publicly acknowledged. They were, moreover, genuinely devoted to each other and remained married from December 19, 1919, until her death in 1954. Linda remained protective of her social position, and believing that classical music might be a more prestigious outlet than Broadway for her husband's talents, she tried to use her connections to find him suitable teachers, including Igor Stravinsky, but was unsuccessful. Finally, Porter enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied orchestration and counterpoint with Vincent d'Indy. Meanwhile, Porter's first big hit was the song "Old-Fashioned Garden" from the revue Hitchy-Koo in 1919. In 1920, he contributed the music of several songs to the musical A Night Out.
Marriage did not diminish Porter's taste for extravagant luxury. The Porter home on the rue Monsieur near Les Invalides was a palatial house with platinum wallpaper and chairs upholstered in zebra skin. In 1923, Porter came into an inheritance from his grandfather, and the Porters began living in rented palaces in Venice. He once hired the entire Ballets Russes to entertain his house guests, and for a party at Ca' Rezzonico, which he rented for $4,000 a month ($55,000 in current value), he hired 50 gondoliers to act as footmen and had a troupe of tight-rope walkers perform in a blaze of lights. In the midst of this extravagant lifestyle, Porter continued to write songs with encouragement from his wife.
Porter received few commissions for songs in the years immediately after his marriage. He had the occasional number interpolated into other writers' revues in England and the U.S. For a C. B. Cochran show in 1921, he had two successes with the comedy numbers "The Blue Boy Blues" and "Olga, Come Back to the Volga". In 1923, in collaboration with Gerald Murphy, he composed a short ballet, originally titled Landed and then Within the Quota, satirically depicting the adventures of an immigrant to America who becomes a film star. The work, written for the Swedish Ballet company, lasts about 16 minutes. It was orchestrated by Charles Koechlin and shared the same opening night as Milhaud's La création du monde. Porter's work was one of the earliest symphonic jazz-based compositions, predating George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue by four months, and well received by both French and American reviewers after its premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in October 1923. After a successful New York performance the following month, the Swedish Ballet company toured the work in the U.S., performing it 69 times. A year later the company disbanded, and the score was lost until it was reconstructed from Porter's and Koechlin's manuscripts between 1966 and 1990, with help from Milhaud among others. Porter had less success with his work on Greenwich Village Follies (1924). He wrote most of the original score, but his songs were gradually dropped during the Broadway run, and by the time of the post-Broadway tour in 1925, all his numbers had been deleted. Frustrated by the public response to most of his work, Porter nearly gave up songwriting as a career, although he continued to compose songs for friends and perform at private parties.
At the age of 36, Porter reintroduced himself to Broadway in 1928 with the musical Paris, his first hit. It was commissioned by E. Ray Goetz at the instigation of Goetz's wife and the show's star, Irène Bordoni. She had wanted Rodgers and Hart to write the songs, but they were unavailable, and Porter's agent persuaded Goetz to hire Porter instead. In August 1928, Porter's work on the show was interrupted by the death of his father. He hurried back to Indiana to comfort his mother before returning to work. The songs for the show included "Let's Misbehave" and one of his best-known list songs, "Let's Do It", which was introduced by Bordoni and Arthur Margetson. The show opened on Broadway on October 8, 1928. The Porters did not attend the first night because Porter was in Paris supervising another show for which he had been commissioned, La Revue, at a nightclub. This was also a success, and, in Citron's phrase, Porter was finally "accepted into the upper echelon of Broadway songwriters". Cochran now wanted more from Porter than isolated extra songs; he planned a West End extravaganza similar to Ziegfeld's shows, with a Porter score and a large international cast led by Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale and Tilly Losch. The revue, Wake Up and Dream, ran for 263 performances in London, after which Cochran transferred it to New York in 1929. On Broadway, business was badly affected by the 1929 Wall Street crash, and the production ran for only 136 performances. From Porter's point of view, it was nonetheless a success, as his song "What is This Thing Called Love?" became immensely popular.
Porter's new fame brought him offers from Hollywood, but as his score for Paramount's The Battle of Paris was undistinguished, and its star, Gertrude Lawrence, was miscast, the film was not a success. Citron expresses the view that Porter was not interested in cinema and "noticeably wrote down for the movies." Still on a Gallic theme, Porter's last Broadway show of the 1920s was Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), for which he wrote 28 numbers, including "You Do Something to Me", "You've Got That Thing" and "The Tale of the Oyster". The show received mixed notices. One critic wrote, "the lyrics alone are enough to drive anyone but P. G. Wodehouse into retirement", but others dismissed the songs as "pleasant" and "not an outstanding hit song in the show". As it was a lavish and expensive production, nothing less than full houses would suffice, and after only three weeks the producers announced that they would close it. Irving Berlin, who was an admirer and champion of Porter, took out a paid press advertisement calling the show "The best musical comedy I've heard in years.... One of the best collections of song numbers I have ever listened to". This saved the show, which ran for 254 performances, considered a successful run at the time.
Ray Goetz, producer of Paris and Fifty Million Frenchmen, whose success had kept him solvent when other producers were bankrupted by the post-crash slump in Broadway business, invited Porter to write a musical show about the other city that he knew and loved: New York. Goetz offered the team with whom Porter had last worked, Herbert Fields writing the book and Porter's old friend Monty Woolley directing. The New Yorkers (1930) acquired instant notoriety for including a song about a streetwalker, "Love for Sale". Originally performed by Kathryn Crawford in a street setting, critical disapproval led Goetz to reassign the number to Elizabeth Welch in a nightclub scene. The lyric was considered too explicit for radio at the time, though it was recorded and aired as an instrumental and rapidly became a standard. Porter often referred to it as his favorite of his songs. The New Yorkers also included the hit "I Happen to Like New York".
Next came Fred Astaire's last stage show, Gay Divorce (1932). It featured a hit that became Porter's best-known song, "Night and Day". Despite mixed press (some critics were reluctant to accept Astaire without his previous partner, his sister Adele), the show ran for a profitable 248 performances, and the film rights were sold to RKO Pictures. Porter followed this with a West End show for Gertrude Lawrence, Nymph Errant (1933), presented by Cochran at the Adelphi Theatre, where it ran for 154 performances. Among the hit songs Porter composed for the show were "Experiment" and "The Physician" for Lawrence, and "Solomon" for Elizabeth Welch.
In 1934, producer Vinton Freedley came up with a new approach to producing musicals. Instead of commissioning book, music and lyrics and then casting the show, Freedley sought to create an ideal musical with stars and writers all engaged from the outset. The stars he wanted were Ethel Merman, William Gaxton and comedian Victor Moore. He planned a story around a shipwreck and a desert island, and for the book he turned to P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. For the songs, he decided on Porter. By telling each of these that he had already signed the others, Freedley gathered his ideal team together. A drastic last-minute rewrite was necessitated by a major shipping accident, which dominated the news and made Bolton and Wodehouse's book seem tasteless. Nevertheless, the show, Anything Goes, was an immediate hit. Porter wrote what is thought by many to be his greatest score of this period. The New Yorker magazine said, "Mr. Porter is in class by himself", and Porter himself subsequently called it one of his two perfect shows, along with the later Kiss Me, Kate. Its songs include "I Get a Kick out of You", "All Through the Night", "You're the Top" (one of his best-known list songs), and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", as well as the title number. The show ran for 420 performances in New York (a particularly long run in the 1930s) and 261 in London. Porter, despite his lessons in orchestration from d'Indy, did not orchestrate his musicals. Anything Goes was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett and Hans Spialek. Now at the height of his success, Porter was able to enjoy the opening night of his musicals; he would make a grand entrance and sit in front, apparently relishing the show as much as any audience member. Russel Crouse commented, "Cole's opening-night behaviour is as indecent as that of a bridegroom who has a good time at his own wedding."
Anything Goes was the first of five Porter shows featuring Merman. He loved her loud, brassy voice and wrote many numbers that featured her strengths. Jubilee (1935), written with Moss Hart while on a cruise around the world, was not a major hit, running for only 169 performances, but it featured two songs that have since become standards, "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things". Red Hot And Blue (1936), featuring Merman, Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope, ran for 183 performances and introduced "It's De-Lovely", "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)", and "Ridin' High". The relative failure of these shows convinced Porter that his songs did not appeal to a broad enough audience. In an interview he said, "Sophisticated allusions are good for about six weeks ... more fun, but only for myself and about eighteen other people, all of whom are first-nighters anyway. Polished, urbane and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury."
Porter also wrote for Hollywood in the mid-1930s. His scores include those for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films Born to Dance (1936), with James Stewart, featuring "You'd Be So Easy to Love" and "I've Got You Under My Skin", and Rosalie (1937), featuring "In the Still of the Night". He wrote the score of the short film Paree, Paree, in 1935, using some of the songs from Fifty Million Frenchmen. Porter also composed the cowboy song "Don't Fence Me In" for Adios, Argentina, an unproduced movie, in 1934, but it did not become a hit until Roy Rogers sang it in the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, and other artists also popularized it in the 1940s. The Porters moved to Hollywood in December 1935, but Porter's wife did not like the movie environment, and Porter's homosexual peccadillos, formerly very discreet, became less so; she retreated to their Paris house. When his film assignment on Rosalie was finished in 1937, Porter hastened to Paris to make his peace with Linda, but she remained cool. After a walking tour of Europe with his friends, Porter returned to New York in October 1937 without her. They were soon reunited by an accident suffered by Porter.
On October 24, 1937, Porter was riding with Countess Edith di Zoppola and Duke Fulco di Verdura at Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York, when his horse rolled on him and crushed his legs, leaving him substantially crippled and in constant pain for the rest of his life. Though doctors told Porter's wife and mother that his right leg would have to be amputated, and possibly the left one as well, he refused to have the procedure. Linda rushed from Paris to be with him, and supported him in his refusal of amputation. He remained in the hospital for seven months and was then allowed to go home to his apartment at the Waldorf Towers. He resumed work as soon as he could, finding it took his mind off his perpetual pain.
Porter's first show after his accident was not a success. You Never Know (1938), starring Clifton Webb, Lupe Vélez and Libby Holman, ran for only 78 performances. The score included the songs, "From Alpha to Omega" and "At Long Last Love". He returned to success with Leave It to Me! (1938); the show introduced Mary Martin, singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", and other numbers included "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" and "From Now On". Porter's last show of the 1930s was DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), a particularly risqué show, starring Merman and Bert Lahr. After a pre-Broadway tour, during which it ran into trouble with the Boston censors, it ran for 408 performances, beginning at the 46th Street Theatre. The score included "But in the Morning, No" (which was banned from the airwaves), "Do I Love You?", "Well, Did You Evah!", "Katie Went to Haiti" and another of Porter's up-tempo list songs, "Friendship". At the end of 1939, Porter contributed six songs to the film Broadway Melody of 1940 for Fred Astaire, George Murphy and Eleanor Powell.
Meanwhile, as political unrest increased in Europe, Porter's wife closed their Paris house in 1939, and the following year, purchased a country home in the Berkshire mountains, near Williamstown, Massachusetts, which she decorated with elegant furnishings from their Paris home. Porter spent time in Hollywood, New York, and their home in Williamstown.
Panama Hattie (1940) was Porter's longest-running hit so far, running in New York for 501 performances, despite the absence of any enduring Porter songs. It starred Merman, with Arthur Treacher and Betty Hutton. Let's Face It! (1941), starring Danny Kaye, had an even better run, with 547 performances in New York. This, too, lacked any numbers that became standards, and Porter always counted it among his lesser efforts. Something for the Boys (1943), starring Merman, ran for 422 performances, and Mexican Hayride (1944), starring Bobby Clark, with June Havoc, ran for 481 performances. These shows, too, are short of Porter standards. The critics did not pull their punches; they complained about the lack of hit tunes and the generally low standard of Porter's scores. After two flops, Seven Lively Arts (1944) (which featured the standard "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye") and Around the World (1946), many thought that Porter's best period was over.
Between Broadway musicals, Porter continued to write for Hollywood. His film scores of this period were You'll Never Get Rich (1941) with Astaire and Rita Hayworth, Something to Shout About (1943) with Don Ameche, Janet Blair and William Gaxton, and Mississippi Belle (1943–44), which was abandoned before filming began. He also cooperated in the making of the film Night and Day (1946), a largely fictional biography of Porter, with Cary Grant implausibly cast in the lead. The critics scoffed, but the film was a huge success, chiefly because of the wealth of vintage Porter numbers in it. The success of the biopic contrasted severely with the failure of Vincente Minnelli's film The Pirate (1948), with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in which five new Porter songs received little attention.
From this low spot, Porter made a conspicuous comeback, in 1948, with Kiss Me, Kate. It was by far his most successful show, running for 1,077 performances in New York and 400 in London. The production won the Tony Award for best musical (the first Tony awarded in that category), and Porter won for best composer and lyricist. The score includes "Another Op'nin', Another Show", "Wunderbar", "So In Love", "We Open in Venice", "Tom, Dick or Harry", "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua", "Too Darn Hot", "Always True to You (in My Fashion)", and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare".
Porter began the 1950s with Out Of This World (1950), which had some good numbers but too much camp and vulgarity, and was not greatly successful. His next show, Can-Can (1952), featuring "C'est Magnifique" and "It's All Right with Me", was another hit, running for 892 performances. Porter's last original Broadway production, Silk Stockings (1955), featuring "All of You", was also successful, with a run of 477 performances. Porter wrote two more film scores and music for a television special before ending his Hollywood career. The film High Society (1956), starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, included Porter's last major hit song, "True Love". The film was later adapted as a stage musical of the same name. Porter also wrote numbers for the film Les Girls (1957), which starred Gene Kelly. His final score was for a CBS television color special, Aladdin (1958).
Porter's mother died in 1952, and his wife died from emphysema in 1954. By 1958, Porter's injuries caused a series of ulcers on his right leg. After 34 operations, it had to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb. His friend Noël Coward visited him in the hospital and wrote in his diary, "The lines of ceaseless pain have been wiped from his face.... I am convinced that his whole life will cheer up and that his work will profit accordingly." In fact, Porter never wrote another song after the amputation and spent the remaining six years of his life in relative seclusion, seeing only intimate friends. He continued to live in the Waldorf Towers in New York in his memorabilia-filled apartment. On weekends he often visited an estate in the Berkshires, and he stayed in California during the summers.
Many artists have recorded Porter songs, and dozens have released entire albums of his songs. In 1956 American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald released Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. In 1972 she released another collection, Ella Loves Cole. Among the many album collections of Porter songs are the following: Oscar Peterson Plays the Cole Porter Songbook (1959); Anita O'Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May (1959); All Through the Night: Julie London Sings the Choicest of Cole Porter (1965); Rosemary Clooney Sings the Music of Cole Porter (1982); and Anything Goes: Stephane Grappelli & Yo-Yo Ma Play (Mostly) Cole Porter (1989). In 1990 Dionne Warwick released Dionne Sings Cole Porter. In that same year, Red Hot + Blue was released as a benefit CD for AIDS research and featured 20 Cole Porter songs recorded by artists such as U2, Annie Lennox, and Shane MacGowan. Additional recording collections include Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Cole Porter (1996) and John Barrowman Swings Cole Porter (2004; Barrowman played "Jack" in the 2004 film De-Lovely. Other singers who have paid tribute to Porter include the Swedish pop music group Gyllene Tider, which recorded a song called Flickan i en Cole Porter-sång (That girl from the Cole Porter song) in 1982. He is referenced in the merengue song "The Call of the Wild" by David Byrne on his 1989 album Rei Momo. He is also mentioned in the song "Tonite It Shows" by Mercury Rev on their 1998 album Deserter's Songs.
In 1965 Judy Garland performed a medley of Porter's songs at the 37th Academy Awards shortly following Porter's death. In 1980, Porter's music was used for the score of Happy New Year, based on the Philip Barry play Holiday. The cast of the "The Carol Burnett Show" paid a tribute to Porter in a humorous sketch in their CBS television series. "You're the Top: The Cole Porter Story", a video of archival material and interviews, and "Red, Hot, and "Blue", a video of artists performing Porter's music, were released in 1990 to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Porter's birth. In contrast to the highly embellished 1946 screen biography Night and Day (1946), Porter's life was chronicled more realistically in De-Lovely, a 2004 Irwin Winkler film starring Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda. Porter also appears as a character in Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris.
Many events commemorated the centenary of Porter's birth, including the halftime show of the 1991 Orange Bowl. Joel Grey and a large cast of singers, dancers and marching bands, performed a tribute to Porter in Miami, Florida, during the 57th King Orange Jamboree parade, whose theme was "Anything Goes". The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performed a program of Cole Porter music at the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, which also featured clips of Porter's Hollywood films. "A Gala Birthday Concert" was held at New York City's Carnegie Hall, with more than 40 entertainers and friends paying tribute to Porter's long career in theater and film. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring Porter's birth. The Indiana University Opera performed Porter's musical, "Jubilee", in Bloomington, Indiana.
In May 2007, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated to Cole Porter. In December 2010, his portrait was added to the Hoosier Heritage Gallery in the office of the Governor of Indiana. Numerous symphony orchestras have paid tribute to Porter in the years since his death including Seattle Symphony Orchestra, with Marvin Hamlisch as conductor and the Boston Pops, both in 2011. In 2012, Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Feinstein, and The Dallas Symphony Orchestra honored Porter with a concert that included his familiar classics. The Cole Porter Festival is held every year in June in his hometown of Peru, Indiana, to foster music and art appreciation. Porter's Steinway piano is currently in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.[dead link]
Shows listed are stage musicals unless otherwise noted. Where the show was later made into a film, the year refers to the stage version. A complete list of Porter's works is in the Library of Congress (see also the Cole Porter Collection).
A far more comprehensive list of Cole Porter songs, along with their date of composition and original show, is available online at the "Cole Porter Songlist Page".