American singer Nat King Cole and his wife Maria at the opening ceremony of the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in 1964.
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American singer Nat King Cole and his wife Maria at the opening ceremony of the Coconut Grove in Hollywood in 1964.

Story highlights

Maria Cole was known for her strength as husband's stardom rose, racial threats increased

"We gave them tit for tat," she said of her white Hollywood neighbors

"Our mom was in a class all by herself," her three children say

Maria Cole was a jazz singer when she married Nat "King" Cole in 1948

CNN —  

Maria Cole, the widow of singer Nat “King” Cole and mother of singer Natalie Cole, died Tuesday after a short battle with cancer, her family said. She was 89.

“Our mom was in a class all by herself,” her three children said in a statement Thursday. “She epitomized, class, elegance, and truly defined what it is to be a real lady. 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.”

Maria Cole, a jazz singer when she married Cole in 1948, was known for her strength as her husband’s stardom rose and racial threats increased.

“There were refusals at hotels, there were places we’d go he wouldn’t let me get out of the car because they would go in first to see if we could get the rooms,” Maria Cole told CNN in an interview last year. “He didn’t want me embarrassed with him.”

She dealt with hatred from her neighbors when her family bought a home in Hancock Park, then an exclusive all-white neighborhood next to Hollywood, California, soon after her 1948 marriage.

“There were no Jews or blacks there and they just almost had a stroke,” she said. “And I didn’t care if they did.”

Despite efforts to force the Cole family to move, “We stayed there and we gave them tit for tat,” she said.

Her husband, though, “was not an activist,” she explained.

“He didn’t have an antagonistic bone in his body,” she said. “He should have had a few, but my husband was not a fighter.”

“I loved him dearly, but we were exact opposites,” she said. “I admired him for his strength and his talent. He was very proud. He didn’t say a lot. He was criticized by some of his own people because of it, you know.”

Maria Cole was also at his side when Nat “King” Cole’s groundbreaking television show, launched in 1957, folded after only a year because no national advertiser would risk a Southern boycott by sponsoring the first program hosted by an African-American.

“Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” Cole said after quitting the show, making reference to the street in New York on which many advertising firms were located.

Cole’s widow reflected on that comment in last year’s interview.

“Isn’t that a wonderful line?” Maria Cole said. “Madison Avenue was afraid of the dark in so many ways. The fact that he was black, the fact that they just don’t seem to know what’s going on.”

The show drew a who’s who of Hollywood stars – entertainers who wanted to make the first national show with an African-American host a success.

“Every one of them came on there saying, ‘We’ll do it, we’ll show them,’ ” she said. “It was that feeling among all of them.”

Maria Cole was partial to the shows with the Mills Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald, who she said was “the greatest singer, as far as I’m concerned.”

The failure to get a national sponsor left her husband “very disappointed.”

“He really thought he could change things,” Maria Cole said. “He just really thought the show was going to change things.”

After a year, Cole decided to quit, she said.

“It was hard for him, very hard,” Cole’s widow said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it.’ “

In her last interview with CNN, in February 2011, the 46th anniversary of her husband’s death, Maria Cole said she wanted fans to remember her husband for his talent.

“It was a very unusual talent,” she said. “I remember reading where Sammy Davis Jr. said ‘We ain’t likely ever to see another one like him.’ “

CNN’s Rachel Wells contributed to this report.