Maria Cole, the widow of singing legend Nat “King” Cole, the mother of Natalie Cole and in her own right a former Big Band singer, died Tuesday in Boca Raton, Fla., after a brief battle with cancer, her family announced. She was 89.
“Our mom was in a class all by herself. She epitomized class, elegance, and truly defined what it is to be a real lady,” said Natalie Cole and her siblings, Timolin and Casey Cole, in a statement.
“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,” the Coles” statement also said.
Maria and Nat Cole, the smoky smooth voice behind such standards as “Unforgettable,” “Nature Boy,” “Smile,” “Too Young,” “Mona Lisa” and “Ramblin” Rose” – and, in 1956, the first African American ever to host his own network TV show, NBC”s The Nat King Cole Show – were married from 1948 until his death from lung cancer in 1965, shortly after he finished filming the comedy Western Cat Ballou, with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda.
Maria Hawkins Cole was born in Boston and moved to North Carolina to live with an aunt after her mother died in childbirth, the family said.
Having studied voice and piano, she moved to New York to pursue a music career with the Benny Carter band. A first marriage, in 1943 to Tuskegee Airman Spurgeon Ellington, ended with his death during World War II.
Maria sang with the Count Basie Band before moving on to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, as its vocalist until 1946, when she became a soloist. She met Nat “King” Cole at New York”s Club Zanzibar.
“The couple traveled throughout Europe in the 1950s, and Maria recorded several songs with her husband for Capitol Records and sang at top venues in California and on the East Coast,” said the family statement. After her husband”s death, Maria did charity work as well as briefly co-hosted a local daytime TV talk show in Los Angeles.
Natalie was born in 1950, and twins Timolin and Casey in 1961. Another child, Carol, known as “Cookie,” was adopted in 1949. She died of cancer in 2009, during the operation to donate a kidney to sister Natalie.
Besides her three children, Maria Cole is survived by a sister, two sons-in-law and six grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Nat King Cole Generation Hope Inc.
Nat “King” Cole and Maria Cole, with daughters Natalie (left) and Carol “Cookie,” 1954
Frank Driggs Collection / Getty