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'Has he lost his marbles?'
Altered portrait of patron of the arts jolts longtime acquaintances
Thursday, April 22, 2004

One year ago, under twinkling lights at a lavish New Jersey Symphony Orchestra ball, three former governors and 250 members of New Jersey's power elite applauded Herbert Axelrod as the greatest arts benefactor in the history of the state.

The elderly Bayonne native, who had made a fortune through a pet care and pet publication empire, had sold the orchestra his prized collection of rare stringed instruments at a discounted price, $18 million. Bearded, loud, affable, and slightly mussed-looking in his tuxedo, the portly 75-year-old had emerged from obscurity within his home state to become a hero of the New Jersey arts world.

Yesterday Axelrod was revealed to be an inhabitant of a vastly different and shadowy world -- a fugitive on the lam from federal tax evasion charges and believed to be in Cuba.

Indicted last week on charges of concealing thousands of dollars in payments over the years in Swiss banks, Axelrod was due to appear in appear yesterday in federal court in Trenton.

Instead, he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was his yacht. His multimillion-dollar Jersey Shore mansion in Deal had been sold, as were his properties in Florida. His wife Evelyn's whereabouts were unknown.

People in the arts world were stunned. To tell the truth, they said, they had not seen him in months. And perhaps oddly, considering Axelrod said that he wanted to hear his instruments played in New Jersey, Axelrod and his wife were not current subscribers to the NJSO.

"I'm sorry this is happening to this man," Victor Parsonnet, chairman of the board of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, said upon hearing the news.

The Axelrods "are wonderful philanthropists. They've given to Curtis (Institute of Music), the Smithsonian, plus institutions in Europe. They supported all kind of artists."

Other acquaintances were just as shocked -- and baffled.

Eugene Balon, an old friend and retired professor of ichthyology (the branch of zoology that deals with fish) at the University of Guelph in Ontario, said he could hardly believe the news.

In 1989, Axelrod donated a hugely valuable collection of fish fossils to the Canadian university. Today its department is called the Axelrod Institute of Ichthyology.

"Oh my God, is he in good mind or has he lost his marbles, or what?" Balon said. "He always gave rather than took. He had so much money. Why would he do something as stupid as tax evasion?"

In a biography posted on the New Jersey Symphony Web site, Herbert Axelrod almost seems too good to be true.

It begins: "As an author, university professor, lecturer, publisher, editor, explorer, adventurer and scientist, Herbert R. Axelrod is the world's best-known tropical fish expert."

Axelrod himself painted his life as rich, dramatic, exciting, unusual.

At various times, he has claimed to have studied mathematics under Einstein, discussed creatures of the sea with Emperor Hirohito, corresponded with Winston Churchill on the subject of goldfish, and hunted for jaguars in Brazil on behalf of the Walt Disney Co., according to an article published last year in the magazine New Jersey Monthly.

The University of Guelph added to the legend by publishing a tribute noting that the young Herbert -- son of an immigrant father -- "spoke four languages before he learned English at school at the age of five."

But not everything written about Axelrod was so glowing.

In a pending lawsuit that arose from the sale of his company, TFH Publications Inc., the new owner refers to him as a shrewd con artist who cooked the books of his company and maintained a long-term extramarital arrangement with a former dental receptionist whom he put through law school.

TFH took its name from Tropical Fish Hobbyist, one of Axelrod's publications.

He began the business that eventually became TFH in 1950, according to legal papers filed by Central Garden & Pet Co., which bought TFH in 1997. The selling price was at least $80 million.

Balon, his professor friend, said Axelrod is a complicated man who -- while enormously generous -- was also exceedingly cheap when it came to paying authors and photographers for the books he put out.

He was also careless about details, Balon said, making mistakes in his own and others' writing and mismatching photos with species.

"We constantly quarreled about that," he said. "I felt it was embarrassing to have so many mistakes, and I asked him to send me the manuscripts to fix them.

"He said to me, 'Listen, I am a millionaire, and a businessman cannot be straight. They don't make money like that.'"

Axelrod was born during the Great Depression in Bayonne, where his father taught math and the violin. The older Axelrod wished him to be a great violinist. By the time he was a teenager, Axelrod told The Star-Ledger in 2002, he was accomplished enough to sub for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. But he was not a huge talent.

In 1944, after high school, he joined the Army. Later he served in Korea. When he came home he settled in New York, enrolling at New York University on the GI Bill. Axelrod said he earned a bachelor's degree in science, a master's in math, and a doctorate in medicine.

"I couldn't stand the sight of blood, so I headed into research," he said.

Axelrod found his métier when he got a job caring for the aquariums at the American Museum of Natural History. It was there he developed his love for fish. He wrote a training manual for the aquarium, which turned into his first book, "Tropical Fish as a Hobby," published in 1949.

Axelrod's publications business was founded in Neptune a few years later.

There was an early marriage, which Axelrod did not discuss in interviews, and a son, Todd, a rare manuscript dealer in Las Vegas. Herbert Axelrod married Evelyn in 1955.

In 1970, he acquired his first rare instrument, a Stradivarius violin. The purchase was financed with his wife's diamond ring. (She eventually got it back.)

The couple's philanthropy was well-known in cultural circles. They donated money and lent or gave instruments to several music schools, including Juilliard, Curtis and the Manhattan School of Music.

They also donated money closer to home. At the Jewish Community Center in Deal is a performing arts building named after Herbert Axelrod.

And Axelrod was determined to elevate New Jersey's second-tier reputation in the music world.

"I want to put New Jersey on the map," Axelrod said when he put his instruments offer on the table. "I want this to be the best- sounding orchestra in the world."

Staff writers Mark Mueller and Peggy McGlone contributed to this report.

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