Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

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Natalie Cole speaks to the WSJ about "The Extraordinary Nat King Cole"

5/28/2014
Nat King Cole - 'Natalie Cole speaks to the WSJ about "The Extraordinary Nat King Cole" ' image

Singer Natalie Cole, 64, has won nine Grammys. Two previously unreleased duets recorded with her father and sister Carole in 1954 are included in a new two-CD set, "The Extraordinary Nat King Cole" (Capitol), due out June 3. She spoke with reporter Marc Myers.

The house where I grew up in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles was like a dream—even though my family faced threats after my father bought it in August 1948. At the time, many homeowners in white areas of Los Angeles refused to sell to blacks and other minorities, and Hancock Park was predominantly white and wealthy. But as a young girl, I was oblivious to all that. I felt like royalty living in our home.

I was born in 1950, so my first memories of our English Tudor brick house were filtered through my mid-'50s childhood world. I don't think my dad had a clue that the neighborhood was going to have such a hostile reaction to us living there. Both of my parents were celebrities and exceptional artists. After all, my dad was Nat King Cole, one of the country's most popular pianists and singers, and my mom, Maria Hawkins Cole, had been a singer in Duke Ellington's band. She wanted a nice house after they married in '48 and my dad had the money to buy it for his new bride. His money was as good as anyone else's, and he figured that would settle it.

But it didn't. When my mother, father and older sister Carole moved in—I was born in 1950—they became the first black family in the area. Apparently my father's real-estate agent had a light-skinned black woman put a binder on the house and then sign it over to my dad. The neighborhood was furious when they realized what had happened. Despite cash offers, threats, a lawsuit and racist signs on our lawn, we stayed put. Little by little, many of the neighbors calmed down once they realized we were a great family. My mom was a natural interior decorator and she turned the house into a symbol of elegance and beauty, and my father's fame kept growing in the '50s. It was impossible not to love him.

We lived in an interesting neighborhood. On one street were the Van de Kamps, who made their fortune in baked goods. On the others were the Gettys and Shells of oil fame, and the Vons and Ralphs, who pioneered supermarket chains. My best friend was a daughter in the Ralph family, and we sold Girl Scout cookies together. I got along with all the girls in the neighborhood. As kids, we had no clue about the racial stuff that seemed to preoccupy adults. We just enjoyed our life as kids.

When I was old enough to walk home alone from school, I loved seeing our house from a distance. It sat on the corner of South Muirfield Road and West 4th Street and had this proud, majestic look. But I rarely went through the front door. The back was more dramatic. On the side of the house was an iron gate that I buzzed and Charity, our housekeeper, would let me in. Then I walked through our arboretum and across the backyard, passing our pool. My parents had built a small house on the property they called the Playhouse, where they entertained. I remember meeting Peggy Lee, Danny Thomas, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and so many others at parties.

Once I reached the house, I'd go up a few steps and pass though the porch to the kitchen, where I'd sit in the nook and have the snack that Charity had prepared. If you went beyond the nook, you'd wind up at the two steps leading down to our sunken living room, which was emerald green. Next to the living room was the library—my favorite room. That's where my dad kept all of his music, his piano and colorful Seeburg jukebox filled with records.

When I entered our library after school, my mom would be sitting there having her vodka and grapefruit juice. She'd always have the music on—usually singers like Dinah Washington or Nancy Wilson. There was a wall-length bookshelf, and I'd take a book down and curl up on our curved reddish-brown sofa and read. When it was my turn to choose songs on the jukebox, I'd pick rock and roll stuff, like Jackie Wilson or Chubby Checker. The house gave me great comfort and made me feel safe. I think the way I take care of my home today comes from my mom. She had a way of putting things together perfectly and I learned by watching. She did teach me how to set a table, though.

I loved when my dad was home. He liked to sit in the living room and watch boxing and baseball on TV. Or he'd be tinkering around or listening to records by his musician buddies—George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and the Jackie Gleason Orchestra. He also loved to drive. In the early '60s, my mom bought him a steel-gray Jaguar XKE with a black top. He liked driving fast, and I was the only one who would ride with him. Everyone else was afraid. He'd often take me to get ice cream.

Christmas was a big holiday in our house. My dad was always home for the holiday and would have the fireplace going and music playing. We had a huge tree on the front lawn that must have been 40 feet tall. We'd decorate it and the lawn with lights and a Santa Claus that waved, and reindeer that rocked back and forth to simulate running. We were just like our neighbors.

But not everyone liked that. One evening in the 1950s some people showed up and put firecrackers in our rose bushes. Another time a bunch of people put a burning cross on our lawn. My mom and I were the only ones home. My mom was such a little socialite. She rolled up a newspaper, went outside and told them to clear off. There she was in her nightgown with a thick roll of newsprint yelling at the guys. I was flabbergasted. Someone even poisoned our dog, a boxer. My dad was devastated, but we stayed put.

I lived at the house until I graduated from high school and went away to college in Massachusetts. By then, my dad had already died of lung cancer, in 1965, which crushed me. Dad had been everything to me. I returned after college and stayed at the house until the early '70s, when my mom sold it so she could move back east. My sister and I were so upset. It was all we had left of our childhood and our dad.

From time to time, I drive past the house today, but I've never stopped to surprise the owners with, "Hi, sorry to bother you. I used to live here." Seeing it is so bittersweet. From what I can tell, it's still a beautiful home. Only black families have lived there since we left, and all have taken wonderful care of it. I would love to buy it someday. I'm curious to know what it's even worth at this point.

 

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