FIDM Museum Donor Spotlight: Maria Cole (Mrs. Nat King Cole)

Maria Cole Album, 1960, ebay

The FIDM Museum collection wouldn’t exist without the support of many donors. I’d like to shine a spotlight on one fashionable donor who gave a personal selection of Hollywood film costumes to the museum about fifteen years ago. Maria (Hawkins) Cole (1922-2012)1 —perhaps more recognizably known as Mrs. Nat King Cole—wrote a letter to the curatorial team in 2005, offering the ensembles. She noted, “I have reached the age where I am de-accessioning (smiles) but would so like to donate these pieces to a place where they would be appreciated and utilized.”2

Cole Wedding Party, LIFE, April 19, 1948. Maria Cole is wearing scalloped crown at center.

A bit of background: Maria was educated at the Palmer Memorial Institute, a well-known African American prep school. After completing courses at a clerical college, she decided a career in music was much more appealing. Maria took music classes as a youngster and had a natural singing ability. Soon, she found herself performing jazz gigs with Benny Carter’s band, Count Basie, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. 3 She caught the eye of fellow musician Nat King Cole (1919-65); they married on Easter Sunday 1948 at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in front of 2,000 people.4 One newspaper reported, “The bride wore a sky blue gown [it was a second marriage for both bride and groom] having a bodice studded with tiny beads. On her head she wore a blue crown with a short veil flowing in the back.”5 The wedding ensemble and trousseau7

Maria and Nat King Cole on cover of Hue Magazine, January 1955

Nat King Cole was a popular jazz pianist and crooner who had major success during the mid-twentieth century. Top hits included: [Get Your Kicks on] “Route 66” (1946), “The Christmas Song,” (1946), and “Unforgettable” (1952). Nat also became the first African American to host a weekly national television show (1956). Maria accompanied her husband around the world during his concert engagements, and they sometimes appeared on radio and television shows together. Sadly, they and their children also experienced racism. For example, shortly after marriage, Maria and Nat purchased a home in the tony Hancock Park community in Los Angeles; they discovered their new neighbors intended to enforce a discriminatory housing covenant baring non-white people from living there, unless they were paid domestic servants. After much publicity, the Coles were ultimately successful in moving into their home.

James Galanos fitting Maria Cole, Ebony, January 1966

1950s-60s Gowns worn by Maria Cole, courtesy craigoandalice Instagram account

Maria Cole was active in the Los Angeles social scene, founding the Hill Toppers Charity Guild,8 and participating in fundraising events for numerous local charities, including society fashion shows benefiting the NAACP.9 She dressed for the global stage, and was frequently photographed attending entertainment events and award shows, necessitating thoughtful wardrobe selection. She was “known for tastefulness in dress [and] had an eye for clothes.”10 Maria was a couture client at Dior during the 1950s11 and also wore high-end ready-to-wear by American designers such as Galanos, Traina-Norell and Travilla. Later in life, she favored labels such as Halston, Valentino, De La Renta, and Chanel.

Maria Cole, Ebony, January 1966

After her husband’s early death at the age of 45 in 1965, Maria re-entered the entertainment field as a vocalist. She later moved from Los Angeles to the east coast, retiring in Florida. As can be seen in an estate auction of her household decorative arts, Maria had an affinity for beautiful historic objects. Her personal interests in fashion and history merged with an intention to remember special friendships made during her glamorous married years in LA – this became the impetuous for collecting six iconic film costumes that are now part of the FIDM Museum.

Debbie Reynolds (wearing black belt) and group presenting Maria and Nat Cole (at left) with a Shriner’s plaque for community service in 1957, published in: “Social News,” California Eagle (Los Angeles), January 24, 1957.

Costume worn by Doris Day as “Kitty Wonder” in Jumbo (1962), designed by Morton Haack. Gift of Mrs. Maria Cole, 2005.845.2

Each of the costumes in Maria Cole’s 2005 gift to the museum was worn by a headlining starlet during the mid-twentieth century. Maria successfully bid on these ensembles during the famed 1970 MGM auction—a blowout sale that liquidated five decades worth of the studio’s costumes, sets, scripts, drawings, and props. It was her intention to personally preserve these gowns to represent her actress friends. Debbie Reynolds (who famously acquired memorabilia during the same auction) moved in some of the same social circles as Maria during their younger years in Hollywood. Perhaps the ladies bid against each other for the above costume, a gown worn by Doris Day in the film Jumbo (1962), set in the early twentieth century.

Grace Kelly on set of The Swan (1956), Photofest.

Costume worn by Grace Kelly as “Princess Alexandra” in The Swan (1956), designed by Helen Rose. Gift of Mrs. Maria Cole, 2005.845.1, FIDM Museum Collection.

Grace Kelly is represented in the collection by her Edwardian-style white gauze dress worn in The Swan (1956). She was photographed wearing this costume in many of the film’s publicity images. Grace became a real-life princess when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco that same year. The Swan was her final film before becoming part of the royal family. Grace’s son Prince Albert later became friends with Maria’s twin daughters while they all attended Amherst College in Massachusetts.12

Maria Cole wearing costume designed by Walter Plunkett for Lana Turner as “Diane de Poitiers” in Diane (1956) published in: Wells, Judy. “In True Star Fashion,” Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), March 14, 2004.

Gown designed by Walter Plunkett for Lana Turner as “Diane de Poitiers” in Diane (1956). Gift of Mrs. Maria Cole, 2005.845.4, FIDM Museum Collection.

Other objects in her gift included a black velvet and jet gown worn by Ava Gardner in The Great Sinner (1949), a white organza ensemble worn by Jennifer Jones in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), and two impressive gowns from the 1956 film Diane. The green velvet ensemble studded with faux pearls and emeralds was made for Marisa Pavan as Catherine de’ Medici. The other, worn by Lana Turner as the film’s namesake, is a black velvet dressing gown with deep mink cuffs. Maria herself wore this dressing gown for her photograph in an extensive newspaper article about fundraising efforts for a cultural center in Florida in 2004, which included a fashion show with these vintage pieces, as well as modern attire. In the article, Maria noted she had previously worn both the Doris Day and Grace Kelly gowns to parties. 13 She ended the interview by confiding something about her special costume collection: “I love vintage clothing, I wear a lot of them. I wish I’d bought more now.”14 The FIDM Museum is grateful for those she so lovingly preserved.

  1. Slotnik, Daniel. “Maria Cole, Singer and Wife of Nat King Cole, Dies at 89,” New York Times, July 13, 2012.
  2. Letter from Maria Cole to the FIDM Museum dated Jan 12, 2005, FIDM Museum donor files.
  3. http://natkingcolegenhope.org/history/ accessed Feb 9, 2021
  4. Turner, Charlotte, “King Cole—Marie Ellington Wedding Witnessed by 2,000,” Alabama Tribune, April 2,1948.
  5. Public Opinion (Chambersburg, Penn), Aug 17, 1949.
  6. was designed by Zelda Valdes, who would provide additional wardrobe for her client in the years to come, as well as make special event clothes for the Cole children.6Valdes designed the baptismal gown, jacket and bonnet worn by the Cole’s daughter Natalia Maria in 1950, and was the child’s Godmother. Valdes is photographed with the baptismal party in: “King Cole’s ‘Princess’ Christened in Duplicate Hand Made Gown. California Eagle (Los Angeles), Aug 4, 1950.
  7. “Aim of New Hilltoppers is to Aid Charity Projects,” California Eagle (Los Angeles), July 16, 1953.
  8. “Fox Hill Scene for 1st Annual Fashion Show,” California Eagle, Sept 10, 1959.
  9. “Why I am Returning to Show Business,” Ebony, January 1966, 46.
  10. Her Automne-Hiver 1954 Dior couture “Zelie” dress is now owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Accession number 20006.488.
  11. Strickland, Sandy. Nat King Cole’s Widow, a Ponte Vedra Beach Resident, dies at 89,” July 12, 2012. Florida Times-Union, (Jacksonville).
  12. Wells, Judy. “In True Star Fashion,” Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), March 14, 2004.
  13. Wells, Judy. “In True Star Fashion,” Florida Times-Union, (Jacksonville), March 14, 2004.

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