Monday, October 21, 2013

Maria Cole and Nat King Cole (1922-2012;1919-1965)

Good morning!

Hope you guys had a good weekend! I'll tell you, there are some weird and wacky turns on which a simple internet search will take the casual pop culture historian like me. Source of today's post: I was looking at 1920's gowns on ebay last week (you caught me, redhanded) when the auction title "Mrs Nat King Cole's 1920s VINTAGE NET Sheer BLACK BEADED FLAPPER Dress" piqued my interest. How old could Mrs. Nat King Cole be, she shouldn't have been around in the twenties'! Turns out, this was part of three listings for clothes from Maria Cole's personal wardrobe (they were technically "vintage" when she wore them in the forties', how strange is that to think about?). The crooner's widow passed away July of last year, and there was recently an estate sale (!!) of her effects in Florida, which I traced back to this listing. Here are the dresses that sent me on this Google journey:
(source and source)

I realized I knew very little about Nat King Cole, outside of a few songs, and even less about his wife of seventeen years. Let us educate ourselves, here's the scoop on both:

Ooooh WHEE I want that head piece, Mrs. Cole!
This New York Times obit shed a lot of light on Maria Cole's life before her marriage to the famous singer. An interesting assortment of names color her family history-- her father, Mingo Hawkins, mother, Caro Saunders, and first husband, Spurgeon Ellington, all have first names that make her second husband's stage name, "Nat 'King' Cole", seem tame by comparison. She performed with Duke Ellington and Count Basie for club dates up and down the east coast before opening for the Mills Brothers at the Zanzibar Club in 1946. It was on this gig that she met Cole, who was taken with her stately beauty. Married at the time they met, Cole subsequently divorced his first wife in 1948, and married Maria six days later in a service held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem:

According to this 20/20 profile from the year 2000, Nat and Maria had wanted to get married at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. Two of their (white) friends tried to rent the ballroom for the couple, but were denied a reservation when it was discovered that Nat King Cole was to be the groom. Understand that in 1948, "Nature Boy" (which you might remember from Bowie's version of the song on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack...ok, fine, that's how I remember the song) was a major top 10 hit, on the charts, with a bullet. And still, the man that made that disc famous, and had plenty of loot to show for it, was denied a booking for his wedding at the Astoria due to his race. The 20/20 profile goes on to say that the same friend who was turned down on the wedding reservation hit the roof on their way out as he saw a Middle Eastern man walking a goat on a leash through the lobby of the hotel. Yes, the same hotel that was "too good" to host the marriage of two, however famous, black people. 

Cole faced similar discrimination as he bought a fine house in a Hancock Park, a prominent white subdivision outside of Los Angeles. And again in 1956 when his top rated tv show, The Nat King Cole Hour, failed to find a national sponsor, due to corporate fears that Southerners might boycott products in protest of the first African-American to host a prime-time variety program. "Madison Avenue [home to major ad agencies at the time] is afraid of the dark," Cole morosely quipped when his show was cancelled after only a year on the air.

In spite of the adversity, Cole did have a distinguished career in the field of jazz and vocal pop. Midcentury hits like "Unforgettable", "Mona Lisa", and "Too Young" were all number one on the charts at one point or another, not to mention the definitive version of that Mel Tormé penned holiday single, "The Christmas Song". If you don't hear that at least fifty times through the post-Thanksgiving, pre-actual-Christmas time frame, I don't know what rock you're living under. His smooth, nuanced performance on that record would be enough to keep his career alive well into the twenty-fifth century, if you're asking me.

He and Maria went on to have a child together, singer Natalie Cole, and adopted four more. While he maintained numerous dalliances during their marriage, and fell into a serious affair with future Petticoat Junction star Gunilla Hutton, Nat Cole reconciled with Maria after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1964. She was with him when he passed at the age of 46.

Other than some interviews on her life with Cole and a notice or two from public appearances, the most substantial amount of information I was able to find of Maria-post-Nat was in this 1966 cover story from Ebony magazine:

CAN deep freeze conquer death? I would like to know!

She discusses, in the text, returning to the stage after her husband's untimely death. In spite of their estrangements, I still can't imagine how hard it must have been to continue raising one's five kids and trying to resurrect one's career in the shadow of this huge loss. Some photos from the article...could she look more elegant and swinging at the same time? I think she looks prettier in some of these candids than she does in her professional photos:

You can read the whole article, in first person no less, from Maria Cole's lips to your ear, here. And guess what! There's still a number of Maria Cole owned items up on Ebay! That Poucette painting is way out of my price range, but what a neat print. 

So! Did you know much about Nat King Cole outside of his singles before reading this post? What are your memories of him? As said, I sure didn't know much before I saw those dresses on ebay. I think the first I knew of him as a person rather than a voice on the radio was his appearance in Cat Ballou, which I saw on AMC sometime in high school and adored. I'd like to catch some of his Nat King Cole Show performances, and living as we do in the information age, I'm sure that's something I can try and pull up later on Youtube.

That's all for today! I have to get back to work, but I will see you back here tomorrow with some of my weekend finds. Have a great Monday! See you later.


  1. I think they featured one of her gorgeous flapper dresses on the show Frock Stars on Smithsonian channel. It was beaded and had feather at the hem. Im pretty sure it was hers, and it sold for thousands at a clothes auction in NYC.
    P.S. I haven't been to Night of a Thousand Stevies but I certainly want to go! I could wear a lace caftan but I'd have to gargle with Jack Daniels to give my voice the required raspy rock n roll tone.

    1. I now have a new show to watch, thanks! OMG, all the dresses. ALL THE DRESSES. And I am right there with you re: stevies, as far as the eye can see. It's my secret (not so secret?) dream to front a TERRIBLY self-indulgent stevie solo music tribute band. She's my favorite!

  2. I just filled my brain with lots of information about this great man, because my heart was filled with music. It's been a great pleasure to know more about him and his wife.

    1. I was so fascinated with their story, I couldn't wait to put it on the blog! Thanks for your kind words.

  3. I purchased that beaded dress from Ebay! It's amazing!

  4. I purchased that beaded dress from Ebay! It's amazing!



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