kennedy, cole, and the cotillion ball -- 10/4/19

Today's selection -- from Nat King Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein. In the deep prejudice of the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy attended a "cotillion" hosted by an African-American civic organization. One of the debutantes at that ball was Carol Cole, daughter of the legendary entertainer Nat King Cole:

"Carol Cole was in the bloom of young womanhood. As prominent African-Americans, the Coles would see to it that their daughter, at age seventeen, had a proper debut. In the autumn she must attend the Links Cotillion debutantes' ball to be presented to society.

"Links is an African-American civic organization. Since the early 1950s the Links Cotillion at the Beverly Hills Hilton had been the debut of choice for black girls. Carol would not only be welcome; she would be expected.

"Carol and [her mother] Maria both had ironic feelings about this business. Carol, being an enlightened child, thought that this debutante parade was silly, especially for black people, heedlessly mimicking upper-class whites.

"Maria agreed, and said so. But, and this was decisive, the Coles had a huge responsibility to the black community to play by the rules, and in 1961 the rules were that a Cole daughter made the scene of the Links Cotillion. Carol was not a revolutionary. She was a dutiful daughter. So she went along with the program, attending debutant rehearsals that autumn.

" 'I went to rehearsals for this thing, something I never really wanted to do,' Carol recalls. 'I had just been given a car, and I went off. I was sup­posed to come back right after this rehearsal, and I just could not come home. I decided to take a drive to the beach. As time went on I realized I had really blown it. l should have been home, should have called, but I couldn't. I didn't know how I was going to face the music.'

"'So I drove home, but I parked the car around the corner, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and went to sleep.'

"A while later someone tapped on the car window. 'It was a friend of the family who also happened to be a juvenile police officer. He told me to unlock the door and go with him, he would take me home.'

Nat King Cole and former United States President John F Kennedy greeting an African-American debutante during a cotillion, Beverly Hills, California, 1962

"'When I got there the lights were on and I could almost feel rays of heat coming out the door. My father is standing there, at two in the morning, and he's sort of smiling but he's furious. He gave me a hug to show he was glad I was okay, but he was angry. My mother was inside waiting, and she really gave it to me. From the time we were small we were told that if we did wrong it would reflect badly on our family, on our father's name, and on our race. We were carrying it all. Mother was saying you did not just "mess up" you did not just "blow it," you came close to jeopardizing your father's whole career. It was always that. I said I was sorry many times. I was terrified. The hardest part for me was when they asked why, why, why, and I could not tell them why. I cried. First Mother said, "You're not going to be in this Cotillion," which of course would have been fine with me. But as you know, a few days later we went.'

"Everybody in America would know about it. Nat had been invited to sing at a $100-a-plate fund-raising dinner at the Palladium for JFK and the Democrats on the same night as Carol's debut. So in the early evening of November18, 1962, Cole sang for the Pres­ident at the Palladium. After performing, ... Nat hurried from the Palladium to the Hilton, so as not to keep his wife and daughter waiting, and joined them at the dinner table. The women looked lovely. Carol so grown-up in her silk faille gown with its scooped neckline, wearing long, buttoned French kid gloves; Maria in lace, so youthful-looking she might have been mistaken for Carol's sis­ter. They had not yet got over the tension caused by Carol's beach escapade, but the family was putting on their most cheerful faces. Maria probably would have preferred not having to compete with the Presi­dent of the United States for Nat's attention on this important night.

"A stranger in a suit approached the table. 'Excuse me, Mr. Cole?'

"Maria had always thought he was too generous when people approached him, for autographs, for a word. This night he was not, and politely told the man not to disturb him.

"'No, Mr. Cole, the President wants to see you.'

"'The President of what?' Cole said with some irritation.

"'The President of the United States,' said the Secret Service man. So Cole went with the agent to a room at the Hilton where Kennedy was staying. JFK wanted to know if it would be all right if he visited the Links Cotillion. He mentioned his fear of movement in strange crowds, and Cole assured the President he had nothing to worry about at the Links Cotillion.

"From the lobby of the Hilton, President John F. Kennedy and Nat King Cole entered the ballroom where five hundred African-Americans had gathered. The President told the crowd: 'Nat was at our dinner tonight, so I thought I would reciprocate. I congratulate you girls and your families, and I am grateful that you let an itinerant President come to your party.'

"King Cole presented his daughter to the President. A reporter wrote, 'Carol's bow was most regal.' The President stayed as the twenty-eight debutantes formed an aisle; he strode down the aisle, and then shook each girl's hand.

"The event made headlines and social history. It could never have hap­pened before the 1960s and JFK's Camelot."



Daniel Mark Epstein


Nat King Cole


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 1999 by Daniel Mark Epstein


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