A Woman’s Search for Family History Leads to Singer Nat King Cole

Caroline Clarke tells the story behind her adoption in her new book, Postcards From Cookie.

Nat King Cole and Caroline Clarke
Nat King Cole and Caroline Clarke Wikimedia Commons/Chandra Lanier

To know someone (in this case for nearly 20 years) can sometimes mean to not really know the person at all. I knew that Caroline Clarke was a foot soldier in the Black Enterprise clan. Married to Earl Graves’ middle son, Johnny, Caroline fit cozily into this black dynasty—not as a lady who lunches, though.

As a highly trained journalist, Caroline began working for the titan of black business not long after graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Over the years she has had many editorial roles, now as executive editor and host of the brand’s Black Enterprise Business Report television show and shepherd of the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit. But as a fierce advocate and defender of her family, Caroline never let on to any but the closest of her friends about her most intimate family secret.

For starters, Caroline is adopted, and she discovered 12 years ago that her birth mother was Nat King Cole’s daughter. She tells the story of their relationship in her new book, Postcards From Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles and a Whole Lot of Mail. The story began to unfold when Caroline was a young mother. She had joint pain and wanted to find out its source.

As a very secure, supremely loved child, she explains that being adopted “was really only top of mind when I was sitting in a doctor’s office and the doctor was saying, ‘Give me your medical history.’ It’s frustrating and it’s annoying to really not have that answer. On a fundamental level, particularly when we know so much of our health is genetically predetermined, to really just have a big black hole around that is not just difficult on some level, it’s detrimental.”

So Caroline, who has known that she was adopted since age 8, asked her mother, Vera, for her blessing to go to Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, the prestigious agency where her parents had gotten her, to see if she could learn anything about the health history of her birth parents.

Caroline admits, “There are a lot of people who will say that a child who goes looking for medical information is subliminally looking for more.” Knowing this, she adds, “I can’t tell you what I was subliminally doing. I really had a medical issue and I had young children, and I was growing concerned not just about what was happening with me but what I could potentially be passing on to my children.”

Whatever her motivation, Caroline says she didn’t expect much from the visit, because back when she was adopted, in 1965, adoptions were usually secret transactions laced with shame, and the records typically were held under lock and key.

Though Caroline was not able to learn the source of the joint pain that brought her to Spence-Chapin, what she did learn was the stuff of fairytales.

As she sat across from the representative of the agency, she listened to the woman matter-of-factly recite from a seven-page single-spaced document that suggested she was the child of a well-known black family of unparalleled privilege for that time in American history. Naturally, the 37-year-old professional didn’t believe a word of it at first. But the sleuth in her quickly figured out that if the tale she had just heard was true, then she knew who her family was.