A private funeral service for Maria Cole, the widow of singer Nat King Cole and mother of singer Natalie Cole, was held this week at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif. Cole died in a nursing home in Boca Raton, Fla., after a short battle with cancer at the age of 89 on July 10.
Marie Frances Hawkins was born in Boston in 1922 to Mingo and Caro Hawkins, but after her mother died when Marie was 2, she and her sister Charlotte were sent to live with an aunt, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ph.D., in Greensboro, N.C. Brown was the founder of the well-regarded preparatory school, Palmer Memorial Institute, in that city.
Cole later moved to Boston to attend clerical school, but eventually moved to New York to pursue a music career. As a jazz singer she was notable as having worked with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
According to her family, Ellington heard recordings of Maria singing and hired her as a vocalist with his orchestra. She sang for him until 1946 when she began soloing at the city’s Club Zanzibar as an opening act for the Mills Brothers. There she met Nat “King” Cole and they were married in 1948 at Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and remained together until his death 17 year later in 1965. Cole traveled and performed with her husband throughout the ’50s. After Nat died from cancer, Maria Cole created the Cole Cancer Foundation.
She produced James Baldwin’s play “Amen Corner” on Broadway in 1965. In 1971, she published a book about her husband, “Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography,” which was co-authored by Louie Robinson. In 1987, she and singer Johnny Mathis starred in a PBS tribute to Nat King Cole. Maria and Natalie Cole accepted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for their husband and father in 1990.
“Our mom was in a class all by herself,” her daughters said in a joint statement. “She epitomized, class, elegance, and truly defined what it is to be a real lady. We are so blessed and privileged to have inherited the legacy that she leaves behind along with our father. She died how she lived–with great strength, courage and dignity, surrounded by her loving family.”
Cole, who lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is survived by her three daughters, Natalie Cole, Timolin Cole-Augustus, and Casey Cole-Hooker, and six grandchildren.