She was standing 15 feet away when Jon Hendricks first saw the face of the beautiful brunette he had envisioned in his dreams. He’d been conversing with a group of fans at Birdland, a Manhattan jazz club, when he glanced up and spied the 21-year-old cigarette girl and aspiring ballerina who would later become his wife. “All of a sudden, the sound stopped,” Hendricks said, recalling that moment nearly 60 years ago.
As he described their first meeting, in a 2010 interview, the voice of a geriatric jazz icon sounded like that of a young boy.
My marriage had ended the year before. I’d tried to save it but failed. As an entertainment lawyer, I had represented Jon in the early 1990s. Over the years we kept in touch. I knew that Jon and Judith had gone through more than my ex-husband and I had and still survived. I wondered: What was their secret?
At first, Judith wasn’t so sure they were a match. “Birdland, everybody hits on you that comes through,” Judith said, describing their first encounter. “When I met Jon, I said: ‘This guy can never talk to me, because I know this is trouble.’ So he’d talk to me, and I’d run like hell.”
When they met in 1959, they both knew a relationship would be difficult. Hendricks was black and Christian; Judith Dickstein was white and Jewish. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared school segregation unconstitutional, but laws forbidding interracial marriage still existed in approximately half of all states. Though it was legal for them to marry in New York, that didn’t mean it was easy. Social stigma was high. A 1958 Gallup Poll revealed that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of marriage between black and white Americans.
Jon and Judith were so smitten that they didn’t let popular opinion hold sway over their hearts. Every night when Jon came to the club, he’d look for Judith. “I would go up to her, and she would run away,” Jon said, laughing. Judith was scared. She’d never dated anyone of a different race, even though she wanted to.
“When did you stop running?” I asked. The evening she suddenly realized Jon’s group had given its last performance, and she might never see Jon again. “When I realized they really were gone, I said ‘dammit.’ And he came back down the stairs with Percy Heath and asked me if I wanted to go for a cup of coffee and I said, uh, yeah!” Judith had apple pancakes; Jon ordered borscht with boiled potato.
Now that interracial marriage has been legal nationwide for 50 years, it’s much more common to see couples like Judith and Jon. As of 2015, 17 percent of U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, according to U.S. Census data. Perhaps couples can find some inspiration in how Jon and Judith got together and raised a family at a time when only about 3 percent of unions were intermarriages.
“There was no such thing as interracial mixing,” Judith said of the small farming community outside New York City where she grew up. In Manhattan, however, Judith had friends who had dated interracially. By contrast, Jon’s upbringing was more tolerant. An Ohio native, Jon that said his father, an A.M.E. pastor, told his 15 children each day: “You are brother and sister to every living thing on this Earth. But outside that door, the world does not think like that.”
Although Judith’s parents frowned on her relationship with Jon, they eventually relented. “They saw it was useless,” she said, laughing raucously. “There’s really nothing you can do with a 21-year-old unless you build a prison in the basement.”
But the world outside their homes was different. The couple recalled how diners at Lindy’s, a Manhattan restaurant where the pair became regulars, fell silent when the statuesque white woman walked in on the arms of the dapper black man. “If we walked down the street together, parents and children would pass us. They’d hide their children so they couldn’t see us,” Judith said. “I mean you didn’t get racial couples unless it was the pimp and the whore generally,” Judith said. “But we were neither of those.” They were simply a couple in love.
They married in 1961 and had one child together, Aria, in 1963. The showbiz world was more accepting of their relationship, so that helped. “In show business, the main thing was talent,” Jon said.
Considered a master of scat and vocalese — lyricizing and then singing to jazz instrumental improvisations — Jon was dubbed the “James Joyce of Jive” by Time magazine. His group, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (LH&R), was voted the number one jazz vocal group for years. Charlie Parker gave him his first break. He performed with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. He wrote Grammy award-winning hits for the Manhattan Transfer. Al Jarreau, Van Morrison and Bobby McFerrin credit his influence. After LH&R disbanded, Jon and Judith formed their own group, often joined by Aria and Michele, Jon’s daughter from a previous marriage. They earned acclaim of their own.
But fame only insulated the Hendrickses so far. Some landlords refused to rent to them, they told me, even in New York City. When they scouted neighborhoods, people would block the sidewalks. They usually paid a hefty premium for a place to live, they said.
“I lived through that,” Aria said, recounting the family’s trips abroad with their entourage of mixed-race children, including four from Jon’s first marriage to an Irish woman. Concert promoters and managers booked them into hotels all over the United States and abroad in locations where they were performing. If the family tried to check in together, however, they were often told the hotel was full. So they revised their strategy. Aria said her mother would tell everyone to wait in the car while she checked them in first.
They found Germans particularly cruel while on tour. “The high degree of hatred so palpable you could touch it,” Jon said. “We would stop in these roadside stands to eat, and the whole house would be making fun of us and our children.” Judith recalled a crowd of 80 or more jeering while they ate dinner.
Meanwhile, another young couple in love — a black woman and a white man — had been arrested in 1958 in their bedroom in Central Point, Va., and thrown in jail. The couple, Mildred and Richard Loving, had married in Washington, which had no anti-miscegenation law, then returned to their native Virginia. They were convicted, but released on the condition they leave and not return together for 25 years. They brought their case before the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967 — 50 years ago — the court struck down all interracial marriage bans as unconstitutional.
Jon had been arrested once, too, after marrying his first wife in the 1940s. He told her to write him a letter — knowing the sheriffs would read it — and say she was divorcing him. As soon as they released Jon, the two left town and eventually did divorce.
In 1965, he and Judith also traveled to Virginia with their 2-year-old, Aria. “I didn’t know this sort of thing was legal,” Judith said the hotel babysitter remarked when she came to their room.
“I didn’t know it was illegal,” Judith replied. Luckily, the woman babysat anyway.
During their marriage, the pair endured not only discrimination, bullying and financial hardship, but the stress of life on the road while raising a pack of children. Together the two also battled Jon’s cocaine addiction and Judith’s bout with breast cancer. Yet after more than five decades together, when I spoke with them seven years ago, the couple remained remarkably lighthearted.
They argued daily, they told me, but they never let anyone get between them. Plus, neither was a quitter. Aria said the odds against her parents made them stronger.
“We look at each other blankly sometimes as to why we didn’t leave, but there was no desire to leave,” Judith said, looking at Jon. Instead, her inner core always said “stay.”
When Judith died of a brain aneurysm in 2015, they had been married 54 years and together for 56. Jon, now 95, suffers from dementia and remembers Judith only intermittently. But when he does, the realization is almost too much to bear, Aria says. “My heart, she’s my heart, she’s gone isn’t she?” Aria said her father asked her only last week. “It ripped the heart out of my chest to see his face,” she said.
The approval rate for interracial marriage finally crossed the 50 percent threshold in 1997. By 2013, it had risen to 87 percent. Now, interracial marriage is more common, and doesn’t turn heads in the way it did when Jon and Judith got together. And still we know there is racism in America. Today Americans are also far less likely to marry and quicker to divorce than when the Hendrickses tied the knot.
I’m sad that my own marriage ended, but I hope that sharing Jon and Judith’s story will provide encouragement to others. The lessons of their bond extend beyond tolerance or marriage advice. At the heart of their relationship, there was dignity, commitment, courage and love — basic principles for anyone’s life, married or not.
“I think that love is the strongest force in the world. And I think we’re proof of that,” Jon said during the couple’s interview in 2010. “I think that we were, are and will forever be truly in love. Our love is as strong as dirt.”