A KOOL menthol cigarette smoker, he would often smoke several cigarettes in a row before recording his songs. He believed they helped keep his deep, crooning voice low. He smoked approximately three packs of cigarettes a day.
In September of 1964, Mr. Cole began experiencing weight loss and severe back pain, harbingers of the lung cancer that had not yet been diagnosed.
Following a performance at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada during this period, he collapsed from pain and had to cut the engagement short. Friends urged him to seek medical help a couple of months later while he was working in San Francisco. He had a chest x-ray done at that time and a cancerous tumor was found on his left lung. Doctors gave him months to live and urged him to stop working. He refused and kept working until he was unable to any longer.
He entered St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica on December 9th and began cobalt (radiation) therapy on the 10th. He then had surgery to remove his left lung on January 25, 1965. Sadly, his father died of heart problems on February 1. Throughout Cole's illness his publicists promoted the idea that he would soon be well and working, despite the private knowledge of his terminal condition. Billboard magazine reported that "Nat King Cole has successfully come through a serious operation and ... the future looks bright for 'the master' to resume his career again." On Valentine's Day Cole and his wife briefly left St. John's to drive by the sea. He died at the hospital early in the morning of February 15 at the age of 45.
Cole's funeral was held on February 18 at St. James Episcopal Church on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles; 400 people were present, and thousands gathered outside the church. Hundreds of members of the public had filed past the coffin the day before. Notable honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, George Burns, Danny Thomas, Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby, Alan Livingston, Frankie Laine, Steve Allen, and Pat Brown (the governor of California). The eulogy was delivered by Jack Benny, who said that "Nat Cole was a man who gave so much and still had so much to give. He gave it in song, in friendship to his fellow man, devotion to his family. He was a star, a tremendous success as an entertainer, an institution. But he was an even greater success as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend."
According to an article published after his death in the Los Angeles Times, Maria knew for several days that her husband was dying, but kept it a secret from the media so that Nat, who watched a lot of television wouldn't see a bad news report. He did not realize he was dying. Right up until the end, he thought he was recovering...