Nolan's 39th-minute strike, so typical of the goals he once scored for the Magpies, was enough to edge a tight encounter in which the visitors enjoyed the better of the first half but had to survive a stern examination after the break.
Newcastle were once again far from their best, but did create more than enough chances to get something out of the game and would have done but for some poor finishing and the resilience of goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, who produced fine saves from Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa.
Opposite number Tim Krul prevented Andy Carroll from opening his West Ham account with a 72nd-minute save with the visitors threatening on the counter-attack.
But ultimately it was Sam Allardyce, who was sacked by Newcastle after just eight months at the helm, who was smiling as his successor Alan Pardew was left to bemoan another disjointed display and defeat at the hands of his former employers in front of a largely disappointed crowd of 51,855.
There were too many familiar faces for comfort as the two sides took to the pitch, with Nolan and Carroll key members of the Newcastle side which fought its way back from relegation back into the top flight.
But it was perhaps the Magpies who had the greater cause for concern as they went into the game without suspended duo Fabricio Coloccini and Cheick Tiote, two of the men they rely most on in a scrap.
And that is exactly what it turned out to be as the Hammers launched a series of direct balls towards Carroll and then looked to pick up the pieces.
There was little to choose between the sides and even less to recommend the game for much of the opening period, with both teams struggling to find a telling final ball.
Matt Jarvis fired high and wide at one end and Papiss Cisse was similarly wasteful at the other during the opening skirmishes, and although Frenchman Ben Arfa lit up St James' Park with a series of enterprising runs which left claret and blue shirts trailing in his wake, neither goalkeeper was called upon to make a save until 25 minutes had elapsed.
Even then, Jaaskelainen had little difficulty in collecting Yohan Cabaye's dipping long-range effort and the game looked to be heading into the break in stalemate until an explosive final few minutes.
The visitors forced their way ahead with six minutes of the half left to play when full-back Davide Santon could only head Mark Noble's left-wing cross out to full-back Joey O'Brien, who looked to have dragged his right-foot shot harmlessly across the face of goal.
However, as he had done so many times at the Gallowgate End while wearing a black and white shirt, Nolan turned up in exactly the right place to divert it past Krul.
The 30-year-old really should have doubled the lead within two minutes when he was played in by midfielder Mohamed Diame, but guided his left-foot shot wide of the post.
Newcastle finally responded to mount a sustained assault on the West Ham goal as time ran down and Shane Ferguson was desperately unfortunate to see his goalbound shot hit George McCartney on the back and drop safe.
Ben Arfa saw an injury-time effort deflected into the side-netting and Jaaskelainen got down well to parry Cabaye's well-struck effort as the Hammers survived until the whistle.
The Finn came to his side's rescue once again within two minutes of the restart when he somehow managed to claw Ba's header away after O'Brien's attempted clearance had dropped nicely for him.
Jaaskelainen fielded another long-range effort from Cabaye four minutes later, but was grateful to see Ba's effort from similar range fly past his far post seconds later.
The home side might have fallen further behind had substitute Gary O'Neil made more of the free header with which he was presented from Nolan's 59th-minute cross.
Ben Arfa left McCartney for dead five minutes later, only to drift his cross over Ba's head as he dived in, and the Senegal international and Cabaye both forced saves from Jaaskelainen in quick succession.
Half-time substitute Shola Ameobi headed just wide from Cabaye's 69th-minute corner and Jaaskelainen pulled off a fine stop to keep out Ben Arfa's drive two minutes later.
Krul blocked bravely to deny Carroll a first goal for his latest club as the Londoners staged a breakaway with Nolan providing a tailor-made final ball.