What makes the Walter Carsen story so compelling is the sheer complexity of the man. He was best known as one of Canada’s more beloved philanthropists. As a businessman, he could seal a multi million-dollar deal with a handshake. He was the epitome of Old World charm and continental sophistication, well-versed in politics, economics and the arts. The private man, however, was deeply conflicted. As daughter Johanni Carsen says: “My father’s life was one of outer calm and inner drama.”
Carsen was a serial philanthropist who tended to be loyal to one art form at a time. His funding corresponded to the specific needs of an organization. He subsidized the refurbishment of the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre and helped to build the Christopher’s Loft rehearsal space. He gave the Art Gallery of Ontario the Walter Carsen Reading Room in its new reference library. He was the lead donor for the National Ballet of Canada’s new home, the Walter Carsen Centre. The Dancer Transition Resource Centre was also very important to him because it helped former dancers find new careers. He also sponsored Canada’s National Ballet School’s artist-in-residence program. According to his son, while most philanthropists give away 5 per cent of their fortunes, Carsen gave away more than 75 per cent. “With my father, it wasn’t the tip of the iceberg,” says Robert Carsen. “It was the iceberg.”
It was his affinity for the arts that became the cornerstone of his extraordinary philanthropy. The art galleries of Ontario, Hamilton, Windsor, St. Catharines and Oshawa, the Shaw Festival, Canadian Opera Company, and the National Ballet of Canada are among the many organizations that benefited from Carsen’s largesse. In 2001, he donated $1.1-million to the Canada Council to establish the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts that recognizes distinguished lifetime careers in dance, theatre and music. He also was a great humanitarian. Carsen was so upset reading about street people dying in the cold that he set up the Walter Carsen Fund for the Homeless within the United Way.
Carsen was born in 1912 into a family of assimilated Jews in Cologne, Germany. His father died when he was six, and he was adopted by his stepfather, a famous lawyer. Although Carsen would have preferred to study medicine, he trained in the law out of respect for his stepfather. In 1938, Carsen went to London to avoid Nazi persecution while his older brother, Kurt, went to Uruguay. His parents ultimately fled to the Netherlands, but were transported to Auschwitz where they died. “Walter’s way of dealing with bad things was silence,” his late wife Clementine once said in an interview. “I went along with his refusal to talk about the past because it was his protective shell.”
In 1940, Carsen was arrested as an enemy alien even though he was a Jewish refugee. When Eric Koch was writing his 1980 book Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder, about the mostly German Jews the British sent to prison camps in Canada, Carsen refused to be interviewed. His inability to come to terms with the Holocaust continued throughout his life. In fact, when asked about his background, he would describe himself as “European.”
One way out of the camps was to help in the war effort and, in 1943, Carsen got a job in Toronto grinding optical lenses – while in Britain, he and a partner had opened a business that imported optical instruments.
He also met Clementine Nalm, his future wife and a fellow German Jewish refugee, in a local restaurant after a proms concert. Although both were on dates with other people, a smitten Carsen called her the very next day. The couple married on May 1, 1943.
“Walter always felt grateful for his new life in Canada,” said Clementine Carsen, who died four years ago, “and, even though we were just married, he volunteered for the army and I completely supported him in this.”