In July 1948, singer Nat “King” Cole and his new wife, Maria, were just beginning their lives together. The legendary crooner of standards including “The Christmas Song,” “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable” had spent the last decade of his young life on the road, and he was eager to settle down and start a family. When they were not traveling, he and Maria, a singer and socialite of impeccable lineage, made-do by staying at LA’s Watkins Hotel. So, Maria hired a real estate agent named Joe Bradfield, and the couple started looking for a grand home fit for a king.
They began their search in Beverly Hills, but according to Cole’s biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, tourists and autographs seekers turned them off. They had already seen a dozen homes when they found themselves at an elegant brick Tudor mansion at 401 South Muirfield Road, in the stately neighborhood of Hancock Park.
According to Epstein, Maria recalled that her husband “walked through the great, wide oak door with its pointed arch, saw the sweeping staircase, and declared, ‘This is it!’ before they had seen the bedrooms or the kitchen.”
The Coles decided to purchase the $85,000 home, which was being sold by Colonel Harry Gantz, on the spot. But this joyful decision would cause the couple and their growing family years of strife. For no matter how rich, famous, talented, and beautiful the Coles were, they were also black, and Hancock Park was a whites-only part of LA.
Hancock Park was an interesting choice for anyone in the entertainment industry, black or white.
The elegantly understated neighborhood of tasteful mansions and rolling green lawns was filled with old Los Angeles money, families who had made their fortune in oil, banking, and real estate.
“Here, most people have had money for a long time and don’t feel the need to impress people with a big show,” a Hancock Park matron once explained to the Los Angeles Times.
This most correct of neighborhoods, the home of governors and CEOs, had a dark side.
At an unnamed mansion in the neighborhood, residents formed the Hancock Park Property Owners Association. Attorney Andrew J. Copp Jr. was elected as its chair, and according to Epstein, tasked to “seek a solution to the problem.”
According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the leading residents in the fight against the Coles was Rhoda Rindge Adamson, owner of Malibu’s famed Adamson House and the daughter of the legendary May Rindge, who fought for decades to keep people out of Malibu.
When it was established in the 1920s, Hancock Park was put under a 50-year restrictive covenant, which stated non-whites could not live in the neighborhood, unless they were servants.
This ugly racist policy had never been tested and exposed before—but the Coles would change that.
Bradfield, the Cole’s African-American real estate agent, was fully aware of this covenant. He hired a light-skinned black woman named Camille Lafotte to act as the couple’s purchasing agent. Lafotte paid Gantz’s agent, Ann Winters, a down payment of $6,000 in cash. She then transferred the deed to the Coles.
When the “genteel” residents of Hancock Park discovered what was afoot, many were aghast.
The association set to work. Publicly members were tight-lipped about what they were planning. “I’m not making any statements of any kind,” Copp told the Sentinel. But privately, he was busy.
He first went to Ciro’s, where Nat was in-residence, and spoke with his manager. Copp, according to Epstein, was blunt: “Tell Mr. Cole if he will rescind the sale of his house, we will give him his money back with a little profit.”
Nat’s manager went to confer with the singer and came back with his tongue-in-cheek reply: “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll leave the country.”
Copp was not amused. “How would you like it, if you had to come out of your home and see a Negro walking down the street wearing a big wide hat, a zoot suit, a long chain, and yellow shoes?” he said.
When the bribe did not work, the harassment and legal threats began. Both Gantz and Winters were threatened. According Epstein, one angry Hancock Park resident hissed at Winters: “Don’t you check out the people you sell to?”
“I sure do,” she replied. “Soon as they walk in the door I ask them, ‘Have you got the down payment?’”
But the threats were no laughing matter. According to the Sentinel, one anonymous caller told Winters that she would be driven out of the real estate business, and another threatened she would “meet with a serious automobile accident within a few days.”
Epstein writes that the Coles offered Winters bodyguards and lawyers, but she ended up accepting police protection from the Beverly Hills Police instead.
With news of the harassment hitting the local papers, Nat and Maria held a press conference at the Watkins Hotel, where Nat eloquently pleaded his case.
“This is not an act of defiance,” he stated. “My bride and I like this house. I can afford it. And we would like to make it our home. I have always been a good citizen. I would like to meet all my new neighbors face to face and explain things to them.”
Nat elaborated further to the Sentinel: “It is regrettable that this unfortunate situation has come about. I am an American citizen and I feel that I am entitled to the same rights as any other citizen. My wife and I like our home very much and we intend to stay there the same as any other American citizen would.”
Soon after the press conference, Nat and Maria met with members of the Hancock Park Property Owners Association. As Maria explained decades later to Epstein: “There it was patiently explained to my husband that the good people of Hancock Park simply did not want any undesirables moving in.”
Nat, always charming and unflappable, retorted, “Neither do I, and if I see any undesirables coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”
Nat’s graceful and simple pleas fell on deaf ears. Copp filed an affidavit stating that the Coles were forbidden to move into their home, because they were not Christian Caucasians. But the law was actually on the Coles’ side.
Restrictive covenants had already been struck down that year by the Supreme Court with the decision rendered in Shelley v. Kraemer, successfully argued by LA’s own Loren Miller.
This fact didn’t stop the story of the Coles from becoming a national conversation, with some unions issuing letters of support for the Coles, while realty boards sided with Hancock Park residents.
Even former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt got involved, when Maria’s influential aunt Charlotte Hawkins Brown wrote to her old friend of her niece’s plight. Roosevelt was appalled and said she would do all she could to help.
The Coles bravely moved into their new home on Muirfield Road in August 1948. They were soon greeted with a sign placed in their yard that read “N*****Heaven.” It was removed by a young child, who gave it to Cole to throw away.
A year later a shot was fired into their window. Asked by Epstein how the couple weathered this storm, Maria explained: “We were so young, youth takes care of so many things.”
Opposite of the laid-back Nat, Maria was notoriously tough as nails. Referred to as the “princess” by the Los Angeles Sentinel, she had been raised partially by Hawkins Brown, a famous North Carolina educator and author.
“While Nat’s upbringing had been that of a poor Negro boy on the South Side of Chicago, the only difference between my childhood and that of a little rich white girl was that I was black,” she explained to the Los Angeles Times.
This childhood inspired a lifelong interest in interior decorating and entertaining. “I love beautiful things,” she told the Times. “I was raised by my aunt in a lovely home. I spent hours as a little girl in her living room just peering at all her lovely things.”
While Nat was on the road, Maria, pregnant with their first child, spent months decorating their new home in a sleek California modern style.
When he got back from touring, a pregnant Maria led her husband from room to room. “Do you like it?” she asked breathlessly. Epstein describes the grand living room, which would become a famous LA showplace:
One wall of the huge room was nearly covered by a thirteen-foot-wide mirror that extended from the floor…to the ceiling. A long custom-made sofa and four armchairs covered in white quilted silk with tropical patterns sat across from the fireplace.
Six tall column lamps with white silk shades, pink trimmed, stood upon marbleized pedestals of black lacquer. Coffee tables too were made of black lacquer, with gunmetal and glass tops; on either side of each table stood regency chairs with button tufted seats in butterfly yellow satin.
In March of 1951, the Coles almost lost their home when the IRS came after Nat for more than $100,000 in back-taxes. Their Muirfield mansion was very publicly seized, photographers clearly having been tipped off before the raid. The IRS stated it would sell the house in as little as 20 days if the bill was not paid.
While the IRS claimed this was part of a national effort to collect taxes due, many, including Nat, felt that his Hancock Park neighbors had been instrumental in the quick seizure of his home.
“Selling my house isn’t going to solve the problem,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “All I need is a little time and I can straighten this all out.”
Again, Nat held a press conference. He found a powerful ally in the African-American owned Los Angeles Sentinel, who pushed the IRS to at least meet with the Coles before selling their home:
The SENTINEL could not believe men who were at the head of such vital departments of our country would refuse to give a man a chance to save his home, whether it was in Beverly Hills, or Watts; whether he is black, white or yellow. Therefore, an appointment was made with Mr. Dinsmore, the Coles, their representative and the SENTINEL.
Thanks in part to the pressure exerted by the Sentinel, a deal was struck with the IRS, and the Coles were able to save their home.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the Coles raised their growing brood, which eventually numbered five children, including the singer Natalie Cole. In 2014 (shortly before her death in 2015), Natalie recalled to The Wall Street Journal how much she loved growing up on Muirfield Road. She remembered how she would walk home from school, so she could get the best view of her family’s stately mansion.
Inside, she recounted, they were a tight-knit family:
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….
The house gave me great comfort and made me feel safe… 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.
As the years went by, the Coles’ Hancock Park neighbors became more accepting. “Little by little, many of the neighbors calmed down once they realized we were a great family,” Natalie recalled.
“Eventually the community had a change of heart,” her sister Carole agreed. In fact, “many residents who once were up in arms, were bragging about having Nat King Cole as a neighbor,” biographer Marianne Ruuth notes.
Natalie recalled being fascinated by her neighbors in Hancock Park. “We lived in an interesting neighborhood,” she told The Wall Street Journal.
“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.”
But prejudice and hatred still occasionally visited their happy family home.
“In the 1950s some people showed up and put firecrackers in our rose bushes,” Natalie remembered. “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.”
Nat would spend the rest of his short life as a resident of Hancock Park. In 1965, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Only a few days before he died at the age of 45, he took one last ride home to see his children at the house he and Maria had been so excited to purchase almost 20 years before.
After Nat’s death, Maria stayed in the home until the early 1970s, before selling it to move back to the East Coast.
In 2003, the neighborhood that had once done everything it could to get rid of Nat King Cole honored him with the naming of the Nat King Cole Post Office at 265 South Western Avenue. The ceremony was attended by his daughters Carole and Natalie.
Asked by the Los Angeles Times what her father would think of the honor, Carole responded:
“He would be flabbergasted and probably pleased. He did a great deal for civil rights but never made a big deal of it. That it now bears his name says something about the area and the country as a whole.”
Until she died, Natalie would occasionally drive by the house where she had made so many happy memories. For her, and the entire Cole family, the mansion on Muirfield was simply unforgettable.
Source: Curbed LA – All