Cautionary Tale Left Untold: A Balladeer’s Bitter Success

Nat King Cole , by Daniel Mark Epstein. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 438 pages, $27.

Of the great singing stars of the 1940’s and 50’s, only one–Nat King Cole–died young, at age 45. But his story is not the all-too-common one: sordid beginnings, hard-won triumph, then drink- or drug-induced tragedy. Cole’s beginnings were far from sordid–his father was a minister, the family solid and close; his triumph (he was acclaimed as a phenomenon by his early teens) was hard won only in the sense that he worked hard to achieve it; and although he liked to drink, and enjoyed more women than he was married to, his only real addiction was to tobacco, which killed him as surely as heroin killed Billie Holiday. Why, then, does his story sound the note of a cautionary tale?

You will not find the answers in Daniel Mark Epstein’s very peculiar biography, Nat King Cole . The only caution the author preaches is about smoking–his book is punctuated with great moments in the history of the tobacco industry (“That year [1946] a tormented chemist at Lorillard wrote a letter to the manufacturing committee …”). Although Mr. Epstein has a real sympathy for his subject, punctiliously tracks his career and can write tellingly about his music, he doesn’t begin to grasp the complexities and ironies of the life.

Cole began as a jazz piano prodigy in Chicago, and by the time he was 20, in 1939, his trio was famous; with his deceptively light and witty touch at the piano, he was up there with Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson. But unlike his great contemporaries, he edged away from jazz to establish himself as a hugely popular romantic ballad singer, as likely to be backed by a consort of violins as by a swinging trio. No male black entertainer until Cole had managed to be accepted this way by a white audience–Billy Eckstine was too blatantly sexual, Louis Armstrong too raucously comical. In contrast, Cole was a sincere and modest “Negro” whom white boys and girls could relax making out to. You can call “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” and “Nature Boy” glorious or silly (or both), but you can’t possibly find them threatening.

Cole’s second wife, Maria, had been raised by her aunt, a nationally renowned educator (Nat never finished high school), and Nat was stunned by her beauty and stylishness, her class ; quickly, he divorced his first wife, who was 10 years his senior. Together, Maria and Nat were a formidable team, and his fame and fortune–and aspirations–swiftly grew. Yet as he moved into the world of white-dominated entertainment, he was confronted by three formidable barriers. One was redneck racism in the South, and he suffered a series of humiliating incidents that told deeply on him. One was upper-class racism in California, where a rich, white community viciously tried (and failed) to prevent the Coles from buying a house. Finally, there was the collapse of his television series–the first to feature a black artist. Advertisers balked, and the program was scuttled. Mr. Epstein is informative and understanding on these matters, and on Cole’s political and racial positions in general.

And he sees that Cole became “a master of the art of concealment. The face he had prepared to face the audience of millions he now commanded was a mask that concealed anger, fear, every kind of resentment, vexation, and bitterness … His power lay in this strenuous refinement of self …” What he fails to see is that such concealment involves a profound denial of self as well as a refinement of self. We can only guess the price Cole paid for it. (One isn’t surprised that Maria Cole says he rarely talked about his feelings.) Jackie Robinson showed his anger; Sidney Poitier, too. Sammy Davis Jr. clowned. Perhaps Arthur Ashe, with his dignity and grace, came closest to the Cole model, and if Ashe’s story seems inspirational rather than cautionary, it may be because he controlled his feelings rather than denied them.

There have been several previous books on Cole, most notably Leslie Gourse’s hack Unforgettable in 1991. This new book is many unfortunate things, but hack isn’t one of them: Mr. Epstein is too subjective and idiosyncratic to master the superficial smarts of the true hack. He gets fancy rather than glib: “Then he launches into a second chorus, flying up and down the keyboard like a skylark trapped in a greenhouse, bumping into the bright boundaries of his youthful capability.” Nor does he really command the cultural world he’s dabbling in. Typically, he quotes without comment Cole’s daughter Carol misremembering a humiliating phone call her father made to the record company he had practically kept solvent: “The receptionist answered brightly, ‘Capitol Records, Home of Elvis!'” But how can a writer on popular music not be aware of Elvis’ umbilical relationship with RCA Victor? And that Nat’s Capitol Records had become “Home of the Beatles”?

Clearly, the entire book has been worked up too quickly and from very thin material. Mr. Epstein cites scores of newspaper and magazine articles, from which he has constructed a map of Cole’s professional career. (“Quitting the Trocadero, the Trio went on the road again–to Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Baltimore, back to the Regal Theater in Chicago for the last week in September, then on to Detroit and St. Louis.”) But the heart of a biography must come from more personal sources. According to the book’s notes, Mr. Epstein interviewed only 39 people (many of them tangential to the story), 32 of them only once and 28 of them between February and April of 1998. I assume that he encountered problems with the family, because although he cites four interviews with Maria Cole, he saw Cole’s famous daughter Natalie only once, spoke only once, by telephone, to one of Nat’s younger brothers, Isaac, and to the other, the well-regarded singer-pianist Freddy Cole, not at all. Nor is the gradual distancing of Nat from his family acknowledged–it was not only jazz that he and Maria had edged away from in his ascent into the mainstream. No wonder Nat “fainted dead away” at his mother’s funeral. While Maria tells us: “I did not go to the funeral, for some reason …”

Perhaps the haste with which this book was written explains the prose. At times it is weirdly staccato: “Timmie [Rogers] was the first black comedian to face the audience in a tuxedo. Nat loved him. Timmie told his friend he was doing all right. They were both clients of G.A.C.” (that is, the talent agency General Artists Corporation). When I came upon a couple of semicolons deep in the book, I fell upon them like a starving man. Sometimes the prose turns lofty (“Yes, the women had begun to scream for Nat King Cole as they screamed for Orpheus of Thrace and Frank Sinatra of Hoboken”) or folksy (“Whatever the hormone shots had done for his sperm count and his vocal cords, they sure had affected his body hair”). Mr. Epstein specializes in hyperbole (“Cole and [conductor Pete] Rugolo together had forged a masterpiece, an art song fit to be compared with the best of Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler” ) and in cliché (people “pen” songs; things look “for all the world” like other things). He enjoys addressing the reader directly: “And what did Maria do? She did what any proud, furious wife with five children and some cash does when her husband is thinking of leaving her for another woman … she hired a private investigator …” And he has a curious affinity for the word “truly”: “Truly this is one of Cole’s greatest improvisations …”; “Truly, its atmosphere of Weltschmertz …” Truly, where was Mr. Epstein’s editor?

Sometimes Mr. Epstein deploys imagined thoughts and feeling–the Dutch syndrome?–as in this maudlin culminating passage: “The last time [Nat] could remember being happy was in a sun-drenched room of the Fairmont Hotel with a beautiful girl, and outside their window shone the golden stairs of San Francisco that led to the sea. She had thoughts only of life, more and more life for both of them, and his fantasy of the future lay with her.” This invented reverie of Cole’s last days refers to the very young Swedish girl he had fallen in love with and hoped to marry. Another act of distancing? Another act of denial? Certainly, another bit of ghastly writing.

Who is Daniel Mark Epstein? He has produced six volumes of poetry and three plays, translated Plautus and Euripides (well) and written a biography of the evangelist Aimée Semple McPherson. He is enthusiastic and well intentioned. But he was not the person to write a convincing biography of Cole, that charming, talented, complicated and tragic man who was loved by millions and yet could remark to a reporter, “I can’t stand the sight of myself.”