At 37, Caroline Clarke was a successful journalist and happily married mother of two who thought she knew everything she needed to know about her life. Then, in a stunning moment, she discovered her grandfather was the unforgettable Nat King Cole.
Almost as shocking was the realization that as a teenager, she’d unsuspectingly spent a night under the luxurious roof of her biological grandmother’s penthouse apartment at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Boston, as a guest of the daughter of the late, beloved singer. The girl, in truth her aunt, was one of her best friends in college.
Clarke suddenly remembered the odd questions that Cole’s imperious widow, Maria, had asked her unwitting 17-year-old self that night. When was her birthday? What was the name of the Manhattan hospital where she was born? Had she been adopted immediately as an infant?
Cole had her reasons, as Clarke, now host of the syndicated TV show “Black Enterprise Business Report,” would learn in pursuing the hard-to-believe but entirely true story she tells in “Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles and a Whole Lot of Mail.”
Clarke uncovered that on Christmas Day 1964 she had been born into Hollywood royalty, but her identity was a shameful secret that could only be kept by placing the baby in the arms of strangers. Later, she came to understand that her grandmother, a fierce guardian of the family’s reputation, wouldn’t risk her husband’s career being tarnished by the scandal of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Clarke didn’t credit a word of the tale when she first heard it. Black
families didn’t give up their babies in that era, she lectured the
social worker at the Upper East Side agency that had handled the
adoption — particularly when they had the means to support them.
Cookie Cole was forced to give up her daughter because the family didn't want the shame of an out-of-wedlock child.
The woman at the prestigious Spence-Chapin Adoption Services had been supplying personal details about Clarke’s biological mother — though not her name. Clarke’s mother had regaled the staff with tales of life with her show-business parents, who traveled the world.
“Do you have any way of verifying this story?” Clarke demanded to know. “It sounds pretty far-fetched, don’t you think? You’re painting a picture of very serious wealth here. These are black people. In 1964. Maids, mansions, chauffeurs, prep schools, and debutante balls . . . what are the chances that this is all true?”
In fact, at the time the Coles lived in a 20-room mansion in Los Angeles’ swanky Hancock Park, where they regularly threw lavish, celebrity-studded parties in a guesthouse fitted out with a grand piano. The children were sent upstairs to play with elaborate dollhouses or entertain themselves at the soda fountain.
By then, Nat King Cole had established himself as one of the most recognizable voices in American music with hits like his signature “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa” and “The Christmas Song.” He was the first black man to host, and own, a television show: “The Nat King Cole Show” on NBC. Cole was a huge star and, when it came to race, barreled through some major barriers.
But Clarke would also learn of the call her biological mother, Cole’s oldest daughter, Carole, would make to that Hancock Park mansion from a pay phone at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital the day after her baby was born. She begged to be allowed to keep her child.
Maids, mansions, chauffeurs, prep schools, and debutante balls . . . what are the chances that this is all true?
Carole — nicknamed Cookie — was refused, but she still wouldn’t sign the papers surrendering her infant daughter for adoption even though it meant she had to return to the painfully named Washington Square Home for Friendless Girls where she had been shipped cross-country to live out her pregnancy in secrecy.
It was there that Carole, listening to the radio while making her bed, heard the news report that her 45-year-old father was dying. Nat King Cole was in the final stages of lung cancer. Carole signed the papers and rushed home, where Nat would die on Feb. 15, 1965.
“I lost my baby in December. I lost my father in February. I lost my soul,” she would write in her journal.
The baby, whom she had named Gretchen, went home to Wilson Ave. in the Bronx with a loving couple — Robert and Vera Clarke, who called her Caroline. Her mother taught high school and her father was a chemistry professor at the City University of New York.
She was an only child, but it was a happy childhood marked by huge festive dinners with a large extended family. Summers were spent at her uncle’s home in Sag Harbor, L.I., where she met her husband-to-be, John Graves, at the age of 7.
Clarke, in fact, married into a prestigious family that owned Black Enterprise, a media company that encourages African-American entrepreneurship. She had two children, Veronica, 7, and Carter, 4, and her life felt complete when recurring joint pain prompted her to track down her genetic background in 2002.
Oddly, as a young woman she had simply never been interested in learning about her biological parents, and wasn’t now. She only wanted the facts that pertained to her health and so had every reason to expect the interview at Spence-Chapin would be routine. Instead, she came away in shock, puzzling through the details that had landed on her.
The shock intensified on the drive home when she was hit by another realization.
“My mouth goes dry and tears flood my eyes as I hear a frantic voice rising: ‘Oh, my God.’
“I pull the car screeching to the curb as I realize that the voice is mine. My head is shaking. ‘No!’ I’m now yelling. ‘No-no-no!’ I cup my hands over my mouth to stifle my cries as I struggle to fit the pieces together and, simultaneously, push them away.
“I can’t be right. This can’t be true . . . this can’t be happening.”
A thunderbolt recognition followed.
“I know this family!”
She not only knew them, but she knew them well.
During her undergraduate years at Smith College she had become close friends with a woman at Amherst College, introduced by their boyfriends. Timolin Cole had always tried to play down the advantages she and her twin sister, Casey, enjoyed as a result of their privileged backgrounds. Nevertheless, she drove a new BMW and had a “golden Hollywood vibe” that stood out.
Though Timmie, as she was known, was rigorously discreet about her famous family, in the course of their 20-year friendship Clarke had become aware that she had a much older sister Carole — who acted on TV in “Sanford and Son” and movies like “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” She had also once given up a baby.
Carole herself had been adopted after her mother, Maria’s sister, had died young. Maria hadn’t wanted to take the child in, but Nat had insisted. Later, Nat had visited Carole at the Washington Square Park home and promised she’d never have to give up another baby. Maria never made an appearance.
Carole had grown up close to her younger sister Natalie, who went on to become a major star. Timmie and Casey, much younger, had grown up at a remove that was more than a matter of relative ages. Maria, a difficult woman who demanded absolute control, liked to keep her children apart and at odds.
Timmie would later admit that she suspected the truth about Clarke and had confided in her own mother, who had kept what she knew from Carole. It was to her friend that Clarke first reached out, getting Carole’s number under a ruse. Then she made the call.
“My name is Caroline Clarke. I was born on Christmas Day in 1964 in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and I was adopted by a wonderful family,” she started off.
“If none of this means anything to you, or if you don’t want me to continue, I’ll . . .”
Carole interrupted in a tremulous voice.
“This means everything to me,” Carole exhaled, before describing the pain that had never eased after unwillingly giving up her daughter.
Mother and daughter had seven years together before Carole died of cancer in 2009. At the end, Clarke’s aunt Natalie called, urging her to come fast, saying, “She’s waiting for you, honey. Get here.” Clarke writes that she actually felt her mother’s passing while on the plane. She glanced at her watch in that moment, and the timing was later confirmed.
There were ups and downs in their relationship, and disclosures. Cookie told her that her biological father was a white Jewish man she met in college and never told about the pregnancy. While her adopted parents knew this fact, they lied and told her that her biological father was black. While Clarke was at first furious, she accepted that her parents wanted to spare her the stigma of being raised biracial in a more punishing era.
The enveloping love Cookie and Caroline felt for each other saw them through. Perhaps the most moving, magical moment of all came early when Carole, who ran King Cole Productions throughout her life, welcomed her daughter and her still young family into her home in Tarzana, Calif.
There was a party attended not only by Carole’s two grown sons but the extended Cole family and friends. As the day-long affair faded to a close, she and her children were presented with a cake decorated with their picture.
At that moment, her uncle, Nat’s baby brother, the jazz musician, Freddie Cole, stepped to her side and began to sing in a voice eerily like his brother’s, “Welcome home, welcome home, we’ve been waiting for you...”