The story of Nat King Cole and his racist neighbours

A new documentary reveals what followed when the singer moved to Hancock Park near Hollywood
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The Independent Culture

Nat King Cole, the first black American TV star and a friend of President John Kennedy, conquered hearts and minds across the world with a string of hits in the Forties and Fifties.

But behind the singer's ever-present smile lay sadness at a racist campaign of terror that he and his family suffered at the hands of his wealthy white neighbours on Hollywood's doorstep.

The full extent of the hostility endured by the musician in the exclusive Los Angeles neighbourhood of Hancock Park has now been revealed in a new documentary.

The jazz pianist and singer had already achieved star status with his King Cole Trio when he decided to move in 1948 to the well-to-do suburb, which boasts Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West among its former residents.

But Cole and his family were breaking new ground as the first black people to live there. Their arrival sparked a storm of protest, beginning with a legal battle by the Hancock Park Property Owners Association to try to prevent him from buying the house. When that did not work, the association tried to buy the house from the star. And months of abuse followed, in which his dog was poisoned and racial insults burnt into his lawn.

A previously unpublished covenant for the property reveals the depth of hatred prevalent in the US at the time. The legal document makes it clear that the home was for whites only and not for "any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race". The only exception for "persons not of the Caucasian race" was if they were there in "the capacity of servants".

Natalie Cole, daughter to Nat King Cole, says discrimination is still evident in the US; it is just more subtle

Fortunately for the Cole family, in the same year that they moved to Hancock Park, a US Supreme Court ruling banned racially restrictive property covenants.

The document was discovered during the making of a new documentary about the star, which will be broadcast on BBC Four this week. It features the singer's family and friends talking about the racism endured by the star.

"It was not an easy time for him or his family; nobody wanted him," recalls his friend Harry Belafonte.

Cole's neighbours "didn't want black people in the neighbourhood and they did everything to make him uncomfortable," says the music publisher Ivan Mogull.

Maria Cole, his widow, in one of her last interviews before she died in 2012, recalls how the residents of Hancock Park made it clear "they really just didn't want any undesirable people in there. I don't know how they had the guts to say it."

Newspapers recount the protests against Nat King Cole and his wife Maria

And one of his daughters, Carole, who died in 2009, says how their lawn was defaced. "They burned in the word, 'n*****'." Another daughter, Timolin, speaks of their dog. "Somebody threw poisoned meat over the wall and it [killed] him."

Natalie Cole, another daughter who herself became a singer, told The IoS yesterday that watching the documentary about her father was tough. "For us, it was very emotional." She added that the racism has not disappeared. "It is still there, it's very quiet, it's very subtle and it's in so many different fields. Even with the election of Barack Obama, I've never seen such outright blatant disrespect. It's still there. We have a way to go."

'The Extraordinary by Nat King Cole' is released by Universal Music on 26 May. 'Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark' is broadcast on BBC Four at 9pm on Friday