"SAY IT ISN'T SO"
Nat's affair with Gunilla Hutton continued thoughout 1964, even though he was positive that his wife was aware of what he was doing. He pretended that she didn't know, and Maria acted as if it wasn't even happening. They were both in denial, but at times situations would occur that would make it impossible for them to ignore the reality. Once Maria walked in to a Sights and Sounds rehearsal and saw her husband leaning over the girl, who was sitting in a chair. Nat was whispering something in her ear very intently when he spotted Maria coming towards him. He straightened up in a hurry and approached his wife and said, "It's not what you think, Skeez, I swear." Maria said nothing, but she glanced at Gunilla, then saw the look in her husband's eyes and just knew it was one of guilt. She clenched her teeth, hauled off, and slapped his face with the entire cast of the show looking on in shock. She then turned and walked away from him in disgust. Nat had been left standing there, embarrassed in front of everyone, but mostly he was ashamed because such a personal side to his life was now playing itself out in public. And he knew Maria really didn't deserve this; he was hoping that she could find it in her heart to forgive him, since he found it impossible to forgive himself. But he was clearly torn between his wife, who had been faithful and supportive of him all these years, and the woman-child who had quickly captured his heart with her beauty, wit, passion and gentle demeanor.
As Maria left, she had tears in her eyes. Thinking about her husband with that Swedish girl ~ and she had heard certain things about Swedish women and imagined that they were true ~ was more than she could stand. She had so many unanswered questions. Why was Nat doing this? Why did he want to hurt her this way? What about their children? And why, if he was so unhappy with her, didn't he ask for a divorce? Did he even want one at all? And if he did ask for a divorce, she probably would give it to him, but so far he hadn't even hinted at wanting one. Maybe there was still hope. She still loved Nat, and she knew that deep down, Nat still loved her. After the life they had built together, why would he just want to throw it all away? Maria clinged to the hope that he wouldn't want to.
|There were also changes in the weather which Nat had no control over. By 1960, Capitol Records' owners Johnny Mercer, Buddy DeSylva and Glen Wallichs had decided to sell the company to an English conglomerate, EMI (Electric and Musical Industries), which was responsible for signing the Beatles. The homey atmosphere that was once part of Capitol was replaced by a corporate coldness, with little respect for the label's history and for those who made it what it was ~ i.e., Nat King Cole. For example, one day in 1964, Nat telephoned Capitol to speak to a record executive and heard this greeting: "Welcome to Capitol Records, home of the Beatles!" Nat was livid. THE BEATLES? He slammed the receiver down in anger. Capitol Records was the House That NAT Built! After all he had done to help build this company, it's come to this?
Nathaniel still made quality songs aimed at the R&B market in the 1960s ("My Love", "Midnight Flyer", a Grammy winner in 1959; "My First And Only Lover", "Take A Fool's Advice", "Who's Next In Line?"). Even through his supposedly "dry" pop spell in the late '50s and early '60s, his R&B tunes always did fairly well on those charts. (For example, "Nothin' In The World" and "Nothing Goes Up" were R&B hit singles, whereas on the pop charts, they were ignored.) But by 1963 it seemed like he was more interested in recording country-tinged pop tunes, which his white audience enjoyed due to the success of "Ramblin' Rose" and its follow-up, "Dear Lonely Hearts" in 1962. But many of his black fans and hip white teens who simply tolerated this new sound at first, soon felt abandoned. They began to look elsewhere to, as Nat said in 1946, "get their kicks." Whether this musical direction was Nat's decision or Capitol's request, it is not known, but with the exception of a couple of singles and
|LPs, he pretty much remained in that genre for two years. (He wouldn't return to his trademark jazzy-pop style until the very end of 1964 on his final LP.) He was as far removed from his jazz and blues roots as he had ever been. That didn't particularly bother him, though. He thought of himself as a musical chameleon ~ always changing, always growing, always trying something new. He didn't want to be pigeon-holed as only a jazz artist, which a lot of people didn't understand, but simply as an artist. Jazz was still his one true love, even though by now he was, and forever after would be known as, a pop music icon. In all fairness to Nat, perhaps he stayed in the country/western mode so long was because he was preoccupied with the Sights and Sounds revue, and musically, he really wasn't sure what his next move should be.
He knew he couldn't compete with the young rock and roll and soul stars, but he could at least depend on his market audience to buy his work. But his work was not the same as it was before. And it seemed as if Capitol/EMI had another agenda. All they seemed to want to do is put all their efforts behind those four white boys from England, and Nat suffered for it. There are some, like singer Tony Bennett, who believed that the disrespectful treatment Nat got from Capitol after the sale to EMI only increased Nat's anxieties and frustrations and could have very well contributed to his declining health later on in the year.
Also during 1964, Nat began work on his next film which would go on to be a major hit, a western comedy called Cat Ballou, which starred Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda. He played one of two musical troubadours (the other was comedian Stubby Kaye) that appeared throughout the film, singing about various events that occurred. He got great publicity out of it, and planned to record the soundtrack to the film. The schedule was grueling because after filming, he would fly out to Vegas and do the Sights and Sounds show, then come back to Los Angeles for the next days' work. He was feeling a bit under the weather and was losing weight, so his valet, Baldwin (Sparky) Tavares, advised him to eat more and perhaps see a doctor. But Nat said no; he attributed his weight loss to the hectic schedule he was on. That was an acceptable excuse for a while. But soon it was very noticable because he was already very thin, and it was suggested again that he seek medical attention to make sure nothing was wrong. Nat declined again, saying that it would be bad publicity. When the filming of Cat Ballou ended, he flew back to Nevada for a while and completed his run there. One of Nat's friends remembered that after he finished a show, he'd like to go and hang out, but after his first performance in Lake Tahoe, he went straight to his suite. He complained of sharp chest pains, a nagging backache and was barely able to walk. He was sitting in his room with a couple of his assistants and members of his band when he collapsed to the floor. What was going on? Finally he was convinced to see a physician, who came to see him in his room and gave Nat an EKG. The doctor couldn't find anything wrong; Cole hadn't had a heart attack. Nat was relieved to hear that, but he didn't want Maria to find out about what had happened. The doctor just told the singer to take some time off and relax.
Nat didn't, though. He continued to work, see his mistress, and once again during a tour date in San Francisco in late November, the same thing happened, right in the middle of a show. It nearly knocked him off his feet. This time he got a chest X-ray ~ and that revealed the source of Nat's discomfort. It was diagnosed as adenocarcinoma ~ the medical term for advanced lung cancer; a large tumor had grown on his left lung. Nat had smoked for 30 years, and the prognosis was not encouraging. For years, folks were begging him to quit so he wouldn't end up as a statistic. Bandleader Jimmy Dorsey and actors Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper, all heavy smokers like Cole, had died from lung cancer. And in later years Nat's friends Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Count Basie and Sammy Davis, Jr. would all be killed by smoking-related diseases. Nat didn't want anyone to know, not even his family, nor his young lover, so he told no one at first. But eventually he did confide in a couple of close friends he had cancer, and had them swear to secrecy. He had been trying to quit smoking, and had cut way back on the amount of cigarettes he smoked, but it was hard for him to give it up completely. He had become addicted to the nicotine. He was taking some antibiotics the doctors prescribed for him, and they advised him to cancel his future appearances over the next few months and go home to his own physician.
As his health worsened, he had decided he'd be better off in a hospital, but he had one more project to complete before doing so, the LP L-O-V-E. Initially, he was supposed to record this album in August, but reportedly disliked the original musical arrangements, and demanded that they be changed. So the session was postponed. While he was in the studio recording it in early December, he was very difficult and tempermental, and was constantly complaining. This behavior was very unusual for him. He was usually very laid back during a session, a pleasure to work with, but the way he was acting on those days is what made people suspect that something was very wrong with Nat Cole. He also kept trying to suppress a nagging cough, but surprisingly, the cancer wasn't affecting his voice. That didn't happen until much later.
. After finishing the LP, he checked himself into St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on the night of December 7. On his way there, ironically, he smoked his last cigarette. Maria had no idea that Nat was sick; she had been away for a while, contemplating what she was going to do about her crumbling marriage. She was at the Cole's West End Avenue apartment in New York when she got a telephone call from her sister Charlotte, telling her that she had to come home right away because Nat was seriously ill and was going into the hospital. Maria flew back to California immediately.
When Maria arrived at the hospital the next morning, she was furious with her husband, even though she was made aware of his condition. She knew that he was still involved with that white girl. But there was no yelling, just an eerie silence as Nat lay in bed, wracked with back spasms and paralyzed with fear and remorse, and Maria glaring at him, accusingly. He knew that he was wrong for what he was doing, but he couldn't help himself. There was much at stake. Even though Nat was clearly going through a "mid-life crisis", he had fallen in love with this girl, was obsessed with her, and he wasn't thinking correctly of how this scandal might ruin him and his admirable, clean cut, very public image as a devoted black husband, father and role model. All he knew was what he felt in his heart, and the beautiful Swede had become his reason for living.
The bombshell of an illicit, interracial May-December love affair could hurt him in the business, and with his public. How would it look, if people knew Nat was dumping his family for a young white girl, a minor by law, less than half his age? It would not endear him to the public at all. Even though Humphrey Bogart, and later Nat's buddy, Frank Sinatra, both fell in love and married much younger women, it was different for them, because they were white. No one would be trying to hear anything about Nat being in love with Ms. Hutton in 1964; they wouldn't understand. Interracial romances and marriages were frowned upon. Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. (and later, Sidney Poitier) faced scorn and hate for their very public relationships with white women. They were considered traitors and sellouts to the black race, especially by their black female fans, and whites were as equally disgusted by these pairings. And not to mention the relationship with his kids. They would be devastated by this affair if they knew. Was this the way Nat Cole wanted to be remembered?
Maria, being as phenomenal as she was, was not about to let that happen. She felt it was now up to her to protect the family franchise. For better or worse, she would be there for Nat. She knew how seriously ill her husband was. For the first time, she came to the realization that her husband was dying, and so, the first thing she would do was to put aside her feelings about his affair. Even though she was hurt by everything that had occurred, and had considered leaving him had he not fallen ill, she never ceased to love him. "I always thought we were meant for each other," she said in 1988. By some chance, she hoped that somehow if he came through this, they could work things out. She would do what needed to be done to keep his image intact with the help of some of the hospital staff, which included the screening of all the visitors and phone calls Nat received. Some of the singer's friends claimed they never saw him again after he entered the hospital. It was a given that Gunilla Hutton was on the list of people who would not be permitted anywhere near the singer. Maria did what she could to keep her husband's indiscretion under wraps, and at least let it appear to the world that the two of them ~ together ~ were facing the hardest battle Nathaniel Cole would ever encounter ~ the one for his life.