Beverly Axelrod was born Beverly Diana Jarrett on March 3, 1924, in New York City. She was admitted to the bar in 1949 in New York, after graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1948 as one of the only women in her class.
She married Seymour Lourd, an accountant, in 1944. They divorced in 1951, and she married Marshall Axelrod, a teacher, the same year. They divorced in 1964. She had two sons, Clayton and Douglas.
Axelrod moved to California in 1953 and quickly combined her law career with dedicated activism. She was involved in a myriad of social justice and civil rights groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was an active member of the National Lawyers Guild. She served as an attorney in or provided legal assistance for such movements as the Delano grape strike and the San Francisco civil rights protests of 1963 and 1964. In 1965, she traveled to Indonesia with Women for Peace to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. One of Axelrod's most high-profile clients was future Yippie (Youth International Party) activist Jerry Rubin, whom she represented when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1966.
Axelrod was first contacted by Eldridge Cleaver in May 1965. He wrote to her from prison, asking for her help publishing his "White Woman, Black Man" manuscript, which would later become Soul on Ice. They soon developed a regular correspondence and Axelrod would visit Cleaver frequently. In the subsequent months, they entered into a romantic relationship, with plans to marry once Cleaver got out of prison. Cleaver was released from jail in December 1966. He became the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, with Axelrod playing an active role in the group as well. As Cleaver rose to prominence, both he and his associates felt that it would be more appropriate for Cleaver as a Black revolutionary activist to be involved with a Black woman rather than a white woman--a sentiment that greatly contributed to the deterioration of Cleaver's relationship with Axelrod over the following year. Axelrod later sued Cleaver over his attempt to alter the royalty agreement they had come to regarding Soul on Ice, which she had helped him to publish and which contained excerpts from their 1965-1966 correspondence.
Upon leaving California shortly after the end of her association with Cleaver, Axelrod spent time in the Southwest working with activist Elizabeth "Betita" Martínez on the Mexican American land rights movement. Axelrod then moved to Grenada in 1969. She went on to spend time in Europe, returning to the United States in 1972. After hearing about the Wounded Knee siege in 1973, she traveled to South Dakota and helped provide legal services for those involved. In 1975, she became an Administrative Law Judge for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
In 1979, Axelrod founded Ace Investigations, a private investigation firm, which she continued to operate until her death.
Axelrod died at the age of 78 on June 19, 2002, in Pacifica, California.
"Beverly Axelrod, attorney and activist, dies." Napa Valley Register, June 22, 2002. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/obituaries/beverly-axelrod-attorney-and-activist-dies/article_4a3b7bdd-68e3-5985-bbcb-bf87ad2e9402.html.
Martínez, Elizabeth. "'Social Justice' Salutes Beverly Axelrod." Social Justice 29, no. 1/2 (2002): 186-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29768128.
Other biographical material derived from the collection.
Melanie (Lani) Kask (later Axelrod, later Wills) married Clayton Axelrod in 1989. In 1993, she started on a project to chronicle her mother-in-law's life and relationship with Eldridge Cleaver. This project eventually became a dissertation through the University of California, Berkeley.
"Obituaries: Clayton Axelrod '70." Reed Magazine, May 1996. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://www.reed.edu/reed-magazine/in-memoriam/obituaries/may1996/clayton-axelrod-1970.html.
Other biographical material derived from the collection.
The Beverly Axelrod papers document Axelrod's personal life and professional career as both a lawyer and an activist, with a great deal of the material showcasing her relationships with various individuals and groups devoted to activism, civil rights, and social justice. The collection contains correspondence, legal files, organization documentation, activist literature, state and federal records, and ephemera. The collection has been arranged into four series: I. Personal/Biographical; II. Professional; III. Eldridge Cleaver; IV. Melanie (Lani) Kask.
Series I., which spans from 1935 to 2002, contains materials relating to Axelrod's friendships, pastimes, travels, and other aspects of her personal life, as well as some of the highlights of her legal career. Subseries A. consists of correspondence, official documents regarding personal business, subject files regarding private activities or interests, and materials describing Axelrod's career accomplishments. Subseries B. contains files arranged by name, with each folder comprising material from or about individuals such as family members, friends, and professional acquaintances. Subseries C. features largely personal photographs from various eras in Axelrod's life, and Subseries D. consists of documentation of Axelrod's death and retrospectives on her career.
Series II. documents Axelrod's time as an attorney and activist from 1946 to 1999. Subseries A. consists of materials relating to Axelrod's certifications and general professional activities, as well as assorted legal resources. Subseries B. comprises files on the various cases and causes with which she was involved as a lawyer. The subseries contains both legal files for specific cases and topical files for activities and issues in which she was an attorney or consultant. Some of the movements represented in this series include the Delano grape strike, the San Francisco civil rights protests of 1963 and 1964, and San Francisco school desegregation. Subseries C. contains material from Axelrod's participation in various civil rights and social justice activism organizations. A large portion is dedicated to Axelrod's work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), represented by such materials as memos, newsletters, meeting minutes, and correspondence, as well as her work with the Black Panther Party, represented by such materials as pamphlets, correspondence, and newsletters. Other materials from Axelrod's association with specific organizations include agendas, minutes, and newsletters from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and newsletters, memos, and reports from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Subseries D. features several informational booklets from a variety of New Left organizations, assorted manifestos, and topical files on different causes.
Series III. comprises materials that document Eldridge Cleaver and Beverly Axelrod's relationship as well as Cleaver's incarceration and subsequent rise to fame. These materials span from 1954 to 1998. Subseries A. contains the 1965-1966 correspondence between Axelrod and Cleaver during the latter's time in prison. These letters are all photocopies rather than original material. Subseries B. contains reports on Cleaver, primarily by the California Department of Corrections, both during his incarceration and following his release. These reports are also photocopies. Subseries C. and D. are largely original material. Subseries C. consists of materials relating to Axelrod's suit against Cleaver regarding royalties for Soul on Ice, and includes court documents and manuscript drafts. Subseries D. features several published articles by Cleaver and ephemera from his various public engagements.
Series IV. contains Melanie (Lani) Kask's research materials, as well as her correspondence with Axelrod, Cleaver, and other individuals. The series also includes transcriptions and photocopies of the Axelrod-Cleaver 1965-1966 correspondence, as well as various drafts of Kask's dissertation. The majority of materials are from 1993-2009.
As Kask had control of Axelrod's papers for several years, it is possible that small amounts of her research materials have been incorporated into other parts of the collection beyond Series IV. Two large sets of material obtained by Kask were purposefully included in other series: the photocopied letters between Axelrod and Cleaver in Series III.A. and the photocopied incarceration records and reports in Series III.B.