He Wouldn’t Cross the Line
1951-09-03 (Volume 31, Number 10)
Richard L. Williams [transcribed by Steven F. Riley]
Herb, Betty and Fern Elizabeth Jefferies take the sun on a sandy stretch of beach in front of a hotel at Cannes
Herb Jeffries cheerfully pays the price of choosing his race
The social sensation of the season on the French Riviera was the extravaganza wedding, with a parade and music by blaring jazz bands, of Negro Clarinetist Sidney Bechet and his white bride. The singing sensation of the Riviera was another, younger and paler American, built like a basketball player, who was appearing before nightclub audiences in slate-blue slacks and an open-throat black velvet shirt to croon ballads in a black velvet baritone. He was in such demand along the crowded Côte d’Azur that he had to divide his time between three establishments, hustling from the expensive Carroll’s Beach Bar near Eden Roc to two populous spots in Juan-les-Pins.
The American’s name is Herb Jeffries. The story behind his career, if he had told it, would have dumbfounded the people who flocked to hear him sing, or who met him sunning on the beach with his slim and pretty wife, daughter of a Chicago economist, and their effervescent 3-year-old daughter.
Jeffries is a personable, broad-shouldered fellow, a good deal more robust-looking than most practitioners of the crooning profession. He stands 6 feet 1½ inches tall, weighs 199 pounds, has dark curly hair and a mustache, smoky blue eyes and a vaguely Latin or Cesar Romero look about him. He could pass for, and is often mistaken for, a Spaniard, an Italian, a Mexican, a Portuguese, an Argentine and occasionally a Jew. He has scrupulously elected to “pass” for nothing but what he is—a light-skinned Negro.
The story of Jeffries—his experiences on both sides of the color line—is a revelation of race prejudice in all its forms from the curious to the cruel. In his chosen field the quality of his voice has proved more important than the shade of his skin. An $85-a-week singer six years ago, he now makes over $50,000 a year, largely from record royalties and nightclub dates. His highly stylized vocal records, like Flamingo and Basin Street Blues, often sell 300,000 to 750,000 copies. His is the kind of voice that once led Ella Fitzgerald, a more famous singer, to lean across to her husband while listening to Jeffries and sigh a one-word tribute: “Wow.” Yet while the Jeffries voice is becoming famous the Jeffries face is still virtually unknown. The reason is not pleasant: he has found that it is all but impossible for a Negro artist, or even a three-eighths Negro, to meet the general public as a movie star or (with such rare exceptions as the TV Amos ‘n Andy) on sponsored television or radio network shows.
Jeffries’ refusal to “pass” and his somewhat ambiguous facial appearance have let him in for so many kinds of prejudice and mistaken identity that he is practically a one-man minority group. A few months ago, in the club car of the Santa Fe Chief rolling eastward to Chicago, he struck up a conversation with a Jewish clothing merchant. They chatted in Yiddish, which Jeffries has spoken fluently since his childhood in Detroit, and the talk was largely about anti-Semitism. Finally the businessman turned to Jeffries and said sympathetically, “Being that you are a Jewish performer, you must run into it all the time.” Replied Jeffries, deadpan and still in Yiddish, “Look—us Jews get it, the Italians get it, the Negroes get it, the Irish get it—things are tough all over!”
He is in a position to know. People are forever jumping to conclusions about his race, but he rarely bothers to disabuse them, let alone get indignant about it. One afternoon in a Los Angeles store, riding in a crowded elevator with a friend, he stood aside to let a woman leave. As he lifted his bundles clear, one package caught the back of her hat and tilted the brim rakishly over her eye. She turned on him and blazed, “You Dagoes—you’re all alike, shoving people around just like Mussolini!” Then she flounced out, and Jeffries’ apology was cut off by the closing car door. “I just turned to my friend and laughed,” says Jeffries. “What good would it do to get mad about things like that?”
Herb Jeffries knows exactly how it feels to be discriminated against as a Jew. Several years ago, house-hunting with his white bride, the former Betty Allensworth, a Pasadena Rose Bowl princess of 1941, he sat in a real estate office, ready to close a deal for a house in a Los Angeles suburb. Jeffries noticed that something seemed to be bothering the salesman. Looking embarrassed, the man blurted, “You know, the people in that neighborhood—well, frankly they’re all Gentiles and they might not make people who were—different—feel at home, if you see what I’m driving at. . . .”
“I do,” said Jeffries. “And I’m certainly glad you told us. We do have Jewish friends who might come out from time to time. Matter of fact we even have Negro friends who might be visiting us. Well, no hard feelings. Let’s just call the deal off.” And without enlightening the salesman he and Betty thanked him and left.
What with his assured and friendly manner, his confident baritone voice and his prosperous-looking dress, Jeffries is never called “nigger” to his face, never turned away by headwaiters, never snooted when he walks up to a desk clerk. He has had subtler experiences than these.
One night in 1949 when he was singing at the Red Feather, a club in Los Angeles, a patron called him over to a table. He introduced himself as a foreign-born movie producer, spoke warmly of Jeffries’ talents and urged Herb to take a test for a starring role in a new picture opposite Gene Tierney or Hedy Lamarr.
“I thought he was a phony,” Jeffries says. ‘Then I found out he wasn’t, and he found out—when I told him—why I couldn’t play a romantic part like that. “But tell me,” he asked, ‘why do you want to be a Negro? You could be anything!”
“That’s right,” I told him. “I have been. I’m a chameleon. But I decided some time ago that the Negro people need all the good, intelligent, unbelligerent representatives they can get in this world, and I’m trying to be one. If I thought the Jewish people needed it more, I’d be a Jew.’ That’s what I told him, and that’s how I feel.”
The key to his feeling is the word “unbelligerent.” No militant, chip-on-shoulder radical about race relations, he may shift the rhythm of Ol’ Man River to suit his style but, unlike Paul Robeson, never shifts the lyrics to fit his politics. His argumentation never goes beyond making others examine their beliefs and their reasons for holding them. One night in a New York club where he was singing he sat down at a table with some guests. In the subdued light his features, which sometimes have a Negroid look, seemed to belong to a Latin from Manhattan or to a man from anywhere.
“Isn’t it funny,” one of the guests said to him, “I’ve heard your records and until tonight I’d always assumed you were colored, but you’re not . . . are you?”
“What do you mean, colored?” Jeffries asked him.
“Why, I mean anybody with Negro blood, I guess.”
“How much Negro blood does it take?” Jeffries asked gently.
“Well, I’d always heard that if you had any Negro blood you were Negro and that was that,” the guest said uncomfortably.
“Like two drops of it, for instance?” Jeffries persisted. “Then it can’t be such inferior blood, can it? If you had a black paint that was so powerful that two drops of it would color a bucket of white, that’d be the most potent paint in the world, wouldn’t it? So if Negro blood is as strong as all that it must be pretty good—maybe I’d better find out where I can get some more of it.”
“I’d never thought of it that way,” the guest reflected.
“I always think of it that way,” Herb Jeffries smiled.
Wife to a chameleon
His wife has learned to feel the same way and to consider herself an adopted representative of the Negro people. Although she entered upon her mixed marriage at 27 and with her eyes open, Betty Jeffries has had to make some drastic adjustments in playing the role of wife to a chameleon. A sense of humor has helped her. One day in Los Angeles, walking her daughter Fern to the grocery store, she stopped to say hello to a neighbor.
“You know, we’ve lived here for years,” said the gray-haired woman, “but so many new people have moved in, we almost feel like strangers. Wouldn’t you and your husband and daughter come by for supper some night next week? I’d like to get acquainted.”
Betty Jeffries said they’d love to. The neighbor went on: “Mrs. Jeffries, tell me—those colored people who’ve moved in next door to you . . . doesn’t it bother you?”
“I don’t know whether they’ll bother me or not,” said Betty evenly. “We don’t know them yet.”
“What I’m trying to say is, I just don’t like Negroes,” the neighbor persisted, “and I’m too old to change now. I’ve lost boarders, you know, who simply refuse to live in the same neighborhood with colored people.” So Betty told her how she felt about it: that Negroes, like everybody else, deserved to be judged as individuals; that some were bad and some were good, but that she didn’t think it would do much good for her to get up on a soapbox and say so.
“By the way,” she said casually as she took Fern’s hand and started on, “I think you ought to know that my husband and my baby and I are all colored.”
The woman’s jaw dropped. After a dazed moment she swallowed hard, rallied and said, “All right. You’ve taught me a lesson—I do see what you mean.”
The Jeffries did go to dinner and are now good friends of the elderly couple, but the story illustrates one of the many things that are different about a mixed marriage. For Herb and Betty Jeffries a new acquaintance can never be casually acquired; each one is a potential problem, and it is possible to make friends only with those who either lack prejudice or are willing to shed it.
This is a fact of life that Herb Jeffries’ mother had to learn the hard way, which is the inevitable way. She was a widow who had taken her two small daughters to live with her family in Port Huron, Mich., when a singing troupe came to town one day. According to local custom, the singers were put up in local homes, and one Howard Jeffrey was billeted with the family of the young widow. Despite the color gap between them—she was Irish and he was a mixture of Negro, Indian, French and English—they fell in love. It was one thing, however, for the family to extend its hospitality to a traveler and quite another for him to court their daughter. When she married him some time later, the family stopped speaking to her for 10 years.
Her new home was in a polyglot section of Detroit, with a Negro family next door on one side and a Jewish family on the other. There, across Fourth Avenue from a synagogue. Herb Jeffries was born Sept. 24, 1914. However much their mother and sisters may have suffered for having gone beyond the pale, Herb and his younger brothers Don and Howard were hardly aware of it in childhood. They attended the synagogue because their friends did, and by the time they started in at Lincoln School, then 95% Jewish, they could sing the old Jewish religious chants as well as their playmates.
When Herb was 11 his father died, and his mother gave her daughters their choice of living at home or going to live with her own family. One daughter, Fern, elected to stay. Her older sister jumped at the chance to put Fourth Avenue behind her. On her 16tn birthday she rejoined the white side of the family, and while time has softened her attitude somewhat, she has dreaded the thought that her children’s friends and her own in Detroit might learn about her Negro stepfather. She has referred to her mother’s second marriage as “that awful mistake,” and once grimly said that if the family secret ever came out, “I might be found in the Detroit River.”
“Up to the time she left home,” Jeffries says, “we boys just didn’t think about color. If both our parents had been Negro we’d probably have grown up accepting the fact that we were too. As it was, we knew some of our relatives were light and some were dark and that we were lighter than our father, and wc never even wondered why. But when we asked Mother how come Sis had left home, she sat us down and told us that while she and Sis and Fern were all white, we were sort of in-between children, part white and part Negro. As the oldest, she said, I’d be the first to have to face it—that in some ways I was in for a rough time.” He was, but he did not have to face it at once. After high school, an office boy’s job at a local radio station and a singing engagement at a place in his neighborhood, Herb struck out for New York at 17.
“I didn’t even know there was such a place as Harlem,” he says. “I used to sing in Greenwich Village joints for a dollar or so a night, and did my sleeping on the subways. I wasn’t getting anywhere at all, except in my sleep. Then one night I heard Rudy Smith, a colored Dwight Fiske type of pianist, over in the old Nut House, and talked him into letting me sing Say It Isn’t So with him. Rudy was great—he took a liking to me, got me a place to sleep up in Harlem, began coaching me and teaching me about jazz.”
One day Smith took Jeffries to a Club Ubangi “breakfast dance,” introduced him to the Negro crowd and accompanied Herb while he sang Trees. “It was corny, but it broke up the joint,” Jeffries says. “For some reason those people went crazy for my stuff. I thought, boy, this is for me—here are the people who appreciate me!”
It was then, Jeffries believes, that he made up his mind to be a Negro. Years later, in Hollywood, the late cowboy star Buck Jones tried to change Herb’s mind and his race. He outlined a brazen plan under which Jeffries would drop his identity, go to South America for a year to learn Spanish, then return with loud fanfare under a new name as Jones’s discovery. Jones would foot all the bills, in return for first rights to his protege’s services as a caballero starring in horse operas.
“I was almost tempted,” Jeffries muses, “because by then I’d learned how things are stacked against you as a Negro. But besides the fact that we’d probably have been found out, I suddenly asked myself just what the hell I had to run away from, or be ashamed of. So I turned Buck down.”
From New York young Jeffries beat his way to Chicago, where he landed singing jobs with Erskine Tate’s and Earl Hines’s Negro bands by trying out during intermissions. At 25 he wandered on to Los Angeles, where he sang in “after hours” joints for whatever change he could pick up off the floor, worked as a busboy and made his movie debut. Later he trekked back east with the Four Tones, a Negro quartet, making personal appearances with some cheap sepia Westerns in which he had played the lead—pictures with titles like Harlem Rides the Range.
Visiting in Detroit after the tour, Jeffries dropped in at the Graystone Ballroom, where Duke Ellington, an old acquaintance of the family, was appearing with his band.
“So you’re the ‘Bronze Buckaroo’ now,” Ellington greeted him. “How you doing?”
“Oh, great,” Herb lied. “Just finished my personal appearance tour. I’ll probably be going back to Hollywood to make some more pictures.”
“Yeah?” grinned Ellington. “Anything wrong with you that $80 a week with me wouldn’t cure?”
“Just give me that contract!” said Jeffries.
He jumped for joy
The Ellington recording of Flamingo, with an unusual vocal by Herb that lapsed from words into a wordless primitive cry, established Jeffries as a promising singer—and identified him with many jazz fans as a Negro. Before leaving the band to go on his own, Jeffries starred in Ellington’s famed revue, Jump for Joy, which ran for 18 weeks at Los Angeles’ Mayan Theater.
“Everybody said I was crazy to leave Ellington—including him,” says Jeffries. “But I reminded him that he’d had to do the same thing once, and that as long as I stayed just a dance-band singer I’d get the usual 10 or 20 bucks for a recording, and never any royalties. So he wished me luck and said the job would always be there just in case.”
Shortly after they parted, Jeffries came close to sinking into oblivion. Driving through Arizona with one of his brothers, he was trapped in their car when it left the road near Gila Bend and overturned. For nearly a year, recovering from a dislocated pelvis, he was mired in discouragement. Even when he regained the use of his legs, he felt it was hardly worth the trouble to resume his career. Songsmith Leon René, coauthor of Sleepy Time Down South, tried to haul him out of his despair. René was forming a recording company to exploit his own songs and needed a vocalist. Jeffries wasn’t too interested at first. But about the same time, Maurice Duke, an artists’ manager and producer of Monogram musicals, stepped in to help speed Jeffries’ rehabilitation.
“Jeffries didn’t even want to step out of his house,” Duke says. “He didn’t want to get out in front of people again. ‘In white places,’ he’d say, ‘I’m a nigger. In Negro places I’m a Negro who wants to be a white man. There isn’t any in-between place where I’m just a human being.’” The limping Duke would tell him, “Look at me— I’ve been a polio most of my life, but that hasn’t stopped me from being a success in my own way—and I don’t have a great talent, a voice, like you have.”
With both Leon René and Duke working on him, Jeffries first stirred himself enough to design a label for Rene’s new Exclusive Records. Then he recorded a few songs. Shortly, when the records began to sell, he became both the company’s major asset and its sales promotion director. His vocals pushed its “Magenta Moods” album to a more than 400,000-copy sale, and his recordings of When I Write My Song (a steal from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah), Body and Soul and Jeffries’ own I Left a Good Deal in Mobile were hits.
On the strength of Jeffries’ new vogue on records, Maurice Duke eased him into nightclub engagements, and he began doing shows for the Armed Forces Radio Service. Duke shrewdly built him up as a popular artist but not a “race” artist. He was singing at the Circle Club, a jazz spot on Hollywood Boulevard, when he and Betty Allensworth met. Betty had graduated from Pasadena Junior College, where she had been chosen a Rose Bowl princess, and had a degree in English literature from Northwestern University in Evanston, near where her father lived. Some time later, when Betty returned from a visit to Chicago and began working at Bullock’s Wilshire, she and Herb began going together.
Betty Allensworth knew all along that Herb was part Negro; having been brought up in a family that had no strong feelings about racism, she saw nothing wrong in being friendly with him. But because she knew that the relatives with whom she lived in Beverly Hills would see nothing right in it, she never asked Herb out to the house. On Jan. 3, 1947, without telling her family, they flew to Tijuana, Mexico and were married.
Their elopement had a legal basis as well as a romantic one, for California then had, like 29 other states, a law prohibiting racial intermarriage. It was a comparatively mild statute—far milder, in fact, than the unwritten law that such unions violate—since it left the definition of “Negro” and “white” up to the courts, and the only penalty was nonrecognition of the marriage. In some states the laws go so far as to declare that anyone with any fraction of Negro blood is a Negro, and in seven states Herb and Betty would have been subject to as much as 10 years in jail had they dared to marry within the state borders.
“I wanted to keep the marriage a secret at first,” says Betty Jeffries, “because up to a point in a singer’s career the youngsters who buy his records like to think of him as single. But finally, when I was pregnant and beginning to show it, I had to tell my relatives that we were married. They got quite hysterical about it, as I knew they would. Their last words, when I left for good, were ‘What if you have a coal-black baby?’ I told them—as calmly as I could— that such a thing was biologically unlikely. And as I walked away I said, ‘You can be sure that if the baby is coal black I’ll love it any way because it will be mine!’”
Light-haired Fern Elizabeth Jeffries was born Nov. 3, 1947, and the relatives in Beverly Hills have never seen her. When friends ask about Betty, the relatives say vaguely that they think she is living in Chicago. They deny any knowledge of Betty’s marriage, and like Herb’s half-sister in Michigan they prefer to pretend that he does not exist.
None of this surprises Betty. What has surprised her is that she has encountered a formidable amount of prejudice among some Negroes. “I’d have thought that being the victims of so much prejudice they might not feel it themselves,” she frowns. “But some of them resent the fact that Herb didn’t marry a colored girl, and resent me for keeping him from it.”
Like any young married couple the Jeffries have built up a circle of good friends, but theirs has special limitations. It includes Betty’s father, Allen Allensworth, a Chicago economist and commodities expert. Mr. Allensworth likes his son-in-law but wishes Betty had told him in so many words whom she was marrying, instead of assuming that he could figure it out for himself. The circle includes Herb’s mother, an intelligent woman who still says, although she long ago recrossed the racial line that she stepped over, that “I’m not ashamed of my marriage. I like my downtown (Negro) relatives and my white relatives too. They all have their own lives to live, and I don’t try to change their minds…”
Beyond the circle, the Jeffries know, are many people who sincerely feel that even a mixed marriage, if based on love and respect, is made in Heaven—and many others who regard it as a deadly sin and its participants as outcasts. Whenever Betty is asked why she married a Negro, and whenever her husband is asked why he married a white girl, the answer is the same: “We fell in love.”
Up to now they have felt no cause for regret; they think of themselves as being more happily married than most people. They are full of plans: Jeffries recently finished a picture called Disc Jockey, in which he appears with Tommy Dorsey, Ginny Simms, Sarah Vaughan and 24 top radio record-spinners. In France he has been on several Radio Diffusion Française shows and has been asked to do more, as well as make new recordings. He has found no discrimination in two trips abroad, but that does not tempt him to become an expatriate: when the Jeffries come home this fall they want to buy a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, with a workshop where Herb can tinker with cameras and model planes and trains. Eventually, when his voice gives out, he expects to know the movie business well enough to work as a director and producer.
Jeffries would not change places with anyone—or at least would never admit it. But there are times when he has reason to be bitter. There are also times when Betty, alone at home while he is singing at his work, looks at Fern and wonders: what will she do when she grows up and has to make her own choice? And how will she feel about us if people make her suffer just because she happened to be born?
The snubs that Herb Jeffries and his family have endured have forced him to do a lot of thinking about his place in the world. ‘The Creator,” he says earnestly, “had a plan. He wasn’t just blowing bubbles, and I don’t think he put any race on earth just to be persecuted. The Negroes that he put here have no need to ask for sympathy or to be belligerent, either. They’ve come far, they’ve produced a lot of champions, and I think that being part of them has been an honor. If the Creator should ever give me the choice of being whatever I wanted to be, I’d say let me be just what I am—because I’ve been a lot of people, you see, where most of us get to be only one.”