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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Axelrod in the Spotlight
Philanthropist Herbert R. Axelrod’s anonymity used
to serve him as both an invisible cloak and a pair of seven league
boots. By preference, he used to look over possible recipients of
his generosity and then direct his money toward his chosen targets
without being generally recognized. During the 1990s he gave away
$100 million. Occasionally, he would allow his name to be associated
with a gift. Now he’s gone public, and he’s not happy about the immediate
impact of the publicity.
What brought Axelrod out of the shadows was his agreement to sell
30 of his rare Italian string instruments, including 12 Stradivarius
violins, to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO). Dubbed the Golden
Age Collection, the hoard consists of 24 violins, two violas, and
four cellos. For the first time, 30 premium 17th and 18th-century
instruments by the most renowned Italian makers will be in the hands
of one musical organization. Stradivarius himself never heard as many
of his instruments play together. Axelrod’s long-term personal relationship
with Victor Parsonnet, chairman of the NJSO board, played an important
part in the NJSO sale.
Valued at $50 million, the collection will cost the NJSO only $18
million. The NJSO won out over other competitors in the bidding. One
offer of $55 million was made by the central bank of Austria, ostensibly
on behalf of the Vienna Philharmonic. But Bayonne-born Axelrod preferred
to keep the instruments in New Jersey. Legal provisions will prevent
a future break-up of the collection.
The deal was the culmination of a year’s worth of finely-tuned negotiations
involving Axelrod, the NJSO, and a set of financial entities. The
sale involves loans of $9 million from Cherry Hill’s Commerce Bank,
$5 million from the Prudential Foundation, and $4 million from Axelrod
himself. Foundation support includes Florham Park’s Jaqua Foundation,
and Morristown’s Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The New Jersey Economic
Development Authority is expected to provide financing. And the NJSO
is mounting various fund-raising initiatives.
Once the NJSO announced the purchase at a press conference last month,
media from around the world laid siege to Axelrod. The story was the
stuff of legends because of the magnitude of Axelrod’s collection,
his patience with the NJSO, and his personal priorities that valued
keeping the collection in New Jersey above taking the highest bid.
Within the month, his tolerance for interviews had run out and he
was turning the press away.
Undeterred, I persisted in trying to reach Axelrod, hoping to persuade
him to make an exception for U.S. 1. But I had already turned to harvesting
material about him on the Internet. And as I browsed, I was becoming
more and more convinced that he was indeed a remarkable person.
From his Jersey shore base, Axelrod supports dozens of projects. Among
the beneficiaries are the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School of
Music, the Metropolitan Opera, the Axelrod Performing Arts Center
in Deal, and the Cancer Research Project Program at the Jersey Shore
Born in 1927, Axelrod became an expert on ichthyology. He founded
a publishing company after writing a book about tropical fish that
no publisher wanted. His classic 1,000-page "Tropical Fish as
a Hobby," with its 1,300 color illustrations, went through 20
printings. In addition, he wrote about pet care beyond fish —
cats, dogs, and parrots, and a manufacturer of pet snacks. His Neptune-based
company, TFH Publications, became the largest publisher of pet books
in the nation. He also wrote biographies of violinists, including
Heifetz and Ysaye, as well as a volume called "Gorbachev and the
He and his wife, Evelyn, live in Deal and sponsor an annual NJSO concert
providing a platform for a student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute,
which trains future performers and provides them with full financial
support during their training. This year’s concert takes place on
Thursday, March 20, in New Brunswick’s State Theater, and Friday,
March 21, at Trenton’s War Memorial. The soloist is 14-year-old Curtis
cellist, Jonah Kim
Reading between the lines of the available material, I saw Axelrod
as a positive person with endless interests, enormous ingenuity, and
finely-honed techniques for achieving what he wants. I suspected that
he was warm and playful. Then the phone rang. "This is Herb Axelrod,"
said a gruff voice. "I’m not giving any interviews."
"What a friendly thing to do," I thought. "He didn’t have
to call, at all." I briefly presented my case.
"I love you," Axelrod said, attempting to sign off. "Have
a nice day. I’m in my hermit stage at the moment. Call me in a year."
Axelrod turned me over to Douglas Calhoun, his lawyer and an Axelrod
insider. A Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey, corporate attorney, Calhoun
spelled out Axelrod’s resistance to the recent invasion of his privacy.
Wryly, Calhoun says, "No good deed goes unpunished. You make a
gift to the orchestra. The press picks it up; but the press is not
the real problem. You have literally hundreds of phone calls asking
for gifts. Once you stop being anonymous, it becomes a never-ending
battle with everybody who wants something from you. People you haven’t
heard from in years all of a sudden want to remind you that they’re
your best friends. Herb and Evelyn absolutely love giving. But they
want it to be voluntary."
Axelrod’s habit of charity dates to his childhood during
the Depression, when he habitually deposited part of his weekly five-cent
allowance into a metal box bearing the slogan "There is no man
so poor that there isn’t someone more poor." The anecdote comes
from the website of the Axelrod Institute of Ichthyology, established,
with Axelrod’s support, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada
Axelrod’s father, Aaron, was a violin and mathematics teacher; his
mother, Edith, worked at the Navy Procurement Office. Both were immigrants.
"They had two violins in the house," says lawyer Calhoun.
"They called the $15 one `the Strad,’ and the $10 one `the del
Gesu.’ Axelrod’s father had his students play in ensembles, and would
ask Herb to sit in if someone was missing. Herb knew that if he played
`the Strad,’ it was a first violin part, and if he played `the del
Gesu,’ he was playing second violin. That’s how he developed a love
for the instrument."
After high school, Axelrod entered the army’s Army Specialized Training
Program (ASTP) as a pre-medical student. While in Korea, running a
MASH unit’s blood bank, he injured his hands. To regain his dexterity
he turned to typing. What he typed became his first book on tropical
Returning from Korea in 1952, Axelrod taught at New York University
and began to pursue a Ph.D in medical statistics; he was interested
in epidemiology. At the same time, he started the magazine Tropical
Fish Hobbyist, whose initials he used for his publishing company,
He earned his doctorate in 1960. "His thesis topic was statistical
analysis," says Calhoun, "the chi square principle. He was
looking into how large a sample you need to obtain valid statistical
results. I spent four hours about a month ago discussing the thesis
with him. He can make math sound romantic."
"When he started to accumulate wealth, he bought a very large
diamond for his wife," Calhoun says. "She thought it was too
ostentatious and didn’t want to wear it. It stayed in the safe deposit
box. Herb used to play violins with a friend in Philadelphia, and
became aware of a Strad offered for sale. His wife told him that if
he wanted to trade the diamond for the Strad, she would be happy with
Evelyn Axelrod also made the now-classic remark: "The
diamond for the Strad, but not a nickel more."
Spurred on by his wife, who also plays a key role in the Axelrod philanthropies,
Herb began acquiring instruments. "They have no staff. She’s the
person who makes it all happen. She has more energy than you would
ever imagine," says Calhoun
In 1997 Axelrod sold his impressive TFH Publications company to Central
Garden and Pet Company for $132 million. "He went out to collect
violins," Calhoun says. "He had already been collecting, and
he went out to get more. He wanted to do something wonderful with
"Over his history of acquiring violins he always wanted them heard,
not just seen. He gave a decorated set of Strads valued at $50 million
to the Smithsonian. The gift was predicated on using the instruments
in performance." The Smithsonian now has a total of four quartets
of string instruments donated by Axelrod, who has also given Philadelphia’s
Curtis Institute instruments valued at more than $2 million.
"One of the beauties of a Strad is its ability to do things if
you’re a great player," Calhoun says. "It’s like driving a
Lamborghini." Axelrod placed a number of instruments in the hands
of performing musicians, including Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Leila
Josefowicz, and Maxim Vengerov, usually for one or two years. A handful
of those instruments had to be recalled to consummate the NJSO deal.
"Herb buys only top violins," says Calhoun. "If you have
a really, really, really good violin, you come to him. He sits and
listens and can tell you whether it’s great or horrible. You could
take six violins, put them on the couch, and have a good violinist
play all six. Herb could identify the maker and the time when it was
made to within three years."
Some of the instruments of the Golden Age Collection have already
been played in NJSO concerts; the full collection is expected to have
its debut this fall.
"Herb’s first talent is picking winners from the standpoint of
the instruments," Calhoun says. "His second talent is picking
players. He can tell if your seven-year-old kid is going to be great.
"Five years ago I was with him in China, at the Shanghai Conservatory,
and we heard a girl, Angy Cheng. She came to Curtis and won two competitions
within the last month." According to a Curtis spokesman, Cheng
arrived at Curtis in September 2002 and has won the Young Artists
Competition of the Dallas Symphony, as well as the Schadt String Competition
of the Allentown Symphony during the last few weeks.
Axelrod was in Shanghai to give a master class, says Calhoun. "It
was magical. The professor wanted them to play Beethoven, but Herb
said, `Get out your Mozart because it’s more fun.’ He wanted to show
those serious students the fun side of music."
In his master classes Axelrod focuses on three topics, Calhoun says:
"First, how to acquire instruments; in other words how, as a music
professional, you can get a $500,000 violin if you don’t earn enough
money to buy one. Second, how to present yourself, that is, your image,
from the way you stand to the way you smile, to the way you enjoy
your music. Third, technique. Herb’s been arguing for many years against
vibrato. Herb tells students to play the music as it’s written, and
not to cover up what’s there."
Liberal with anecdotes, Calhoun had filled in his initial thumbnail
sketch of Axelrod. "Axelrod," he confirmed, "is a true
— Elaine Strauss
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. The Herbert & Evelyn
Axelrod concert features 14-year-old cellist Jonah Kim in the Haydn
Cello Concerto in D Major. Also "Ashes of Memory" by Michael
Hersch, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Keri-Lynn Wilson makes her
NJSO conducting debut. Classical Conversation precedes the concert
at 6:45 p.m. $15 to $63. Thursday, March 20, 8 p.m.
War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. Axelrod Annual Concert with
14-year-old cellist Jonah Kim. Classical Conversation is at 6:45 p.m.
$15 to $63. Friday, March 21, 8 p.m. <
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