For millions, his silky smooth voice was unforgettable... and so was his biggest hit. Unforgettable, recorded in 1955, sold more than 20 million records, and at his peak Nat King Cole outsold all his pop rivals except Bing Crosby. By the mid 1960s, the son of a poor Alabama preacher, was a multi-millionaire but one who never forgot his poverty-stricken childhood, and who prided himself in being a devoted husband and father.
At least that was the public face of Nat King Cole. But there was another which, nearly four decades later, has only just been revealed. In 1964, Nat King Cole only 45 and apparently in the prime of life, was in fact in the grip of terminal cancer. And his 16-year marriage to Maria, mother of his three children hailed as one of the happiest in showbusiness was falling apart amid rows and recriminations. For Nat Cole was infatuated with someone else a girl 25 years his junior, who until the day he died was his unforgettable love. Nat King Cole never intended to be a pop star. His great love was jazz and by the age of 12 he was a virtuoso pianist jamming with visiting jazzmen and forming his own trio in his teens with Oscar Moore, guitar and Wesley Prince, bass, which brought him instant fame and fortune.
He became lifelong friends with such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn. Maria was a jazz singer when he married her after divorcing his first wife, dancer Nadine Robinson who was ten years his senior. "Nat could be cruel," Nadine remembered. "He just told me one day that he loved someone else and wanted a divorce. It was the first I knew that he had been unfaithful."
Maria, sophisticated and worldly, knew that if the marriage was to survive she would have to stay close to Nat at all times, even if it meant living out of a suitcase. Women were fascinated by Nat King Cole and he was fascinated by them. For years the marriage was happy but eventually Maria tired of being constantly on tour with her husband and increasingly stayed at home with her growing family in their Los Angeles mansion. She became aware that Nat was having affairs but convinced herself that they were nothing serious. "I could always tell when he had been unfaithful," she said. "He never said anything but he would go out and buy me jewellery!" Her instinct was right most of the time Nat was lonely when on tour and just wanted female company. Then in 1964, just after Nat King Cole's 44th birthday, something happened which changed everything for ever: he met Swedish chorus-girl Gunilla Hutton.
Gunilla, not yet 20, had arrived in America to seek her fortune in show-business and modelling. She got a place in the chorus of Nat King Cole's touring musical show Sights And Sounds and immediately he saw her, Nat was smitten. Later he told a friend: "She is so different from anyone else I've ever met. She's witty and intelligent but she's also very straightforward and direct. She always says exactly what she means."
He also admitted to close associates that the albums of love songs he recorded in 1964 and which went to the top of the US charts, were all inspired by Gunilla. "I think about her all the time he said. "We love each other and want to be together. By now, Maria realised that something was seriously wrong with their marriage. Nat was now rarely at home and seemed to be finding as many excuses as possible to be away from his family. Maria hired a private detective who discovered that Nat King Cole was spending most of his time away from stage or studio in Gunilla's flat. There was a furious confrontation which ended with Maria scratching her husband's face.
But talk of divorce was curtailed when Nat King Cole, complaining of constant backache, was found to have terminal cancer of the spine. In January 1965 he was admitted to hospital in Los Angeles and Maria told staff that her husband was to have no phone-calls or visits from "that woman". But with only weeks to live, Nat King Cole couldn't do without his new love. Pitifully weak, he managed to leave his bed and totter to the hospital's front hall where he phoned Gunilla from a public call box. "I love you," he said in a whisper. "I will try to call you again." But he didn't. He died two weeks later with his family around him. And when they played Unforgettable at his funeral, only his closest friends knew to whom Nat King Cole was singing for the last time. (Susan French/Tony James Features)