On his recruitment papers for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers he created the name Walter Carsen, and so his real surname became part of his lost history. In the process, Carsen buried his past so deeply that his children did not find out about their Jewish heritage until well into their teens, and then, only from their mother. It also led to his estrangement from his brother, although the two reconciled in later years.
As a businessman, Carsen had the uncanny knack of recognizing trends in the marketplace. He had started the import company anticipating that the British army was going to need cameras, telescopes and binoculars, and optics became the heart of his post-war corporate empire in Canada as well.
The Carsens launched their distribution business in 1946 in the basement of their small bungalow. The crowning glory for W. Carsen Co. Ltd. was becoming the exclusive Canadian representative for Olympus, the Japanese camera and optics giant, in 1949 – a business venture confirmed by a handshake. The Carsen company became known as a market leader for its top-of-the-line products, competitive pricing, and high level of service. Their imports included optical, scientific and photographic equipment, and later, a medical and survey instruments division. As Clementine Carsen said: “We handled every lens except spectacles.”
After Carsen sold the business in 1962 at the age of 50, he continued his Midas touch in real estate, property development and investments.
At 17, James Vella was the company’s second employee and ended up a vice-president. Money was so tight in those early days that Vella was responsible for collecting cartons at supermarkets that were used to ship the company’s products. Vella also recalls how important company morale and worker dignity were to the Carsens. When he married and had children, the Carsens let him borrow the company van for personal use until he could afford a car. Every year there was party for employees that included clowns, pony rides and gifts for the children.
Initially the Carsens had decided not to have children because of their own traumatic backgrounds, but changed their minds 10 years into their marriage. Born in 1952, Johanni is a Montreal potter, art therapist and Freudian psychoanalyst. Robert arrived two years later and now, based in Europe, is one of the world’s leading stage directors of opera.
After Hurricane Hazel nearly flooded the Carsen house in Hog’s Hollow, the family moved to a 15-acre estate in Thornhill in 1955. The children had chores around the estate, which included polishing the sculptures in the garden. When the estate was sold, the art pieces were donated to galleries and public places across the province.
Robert remembers a home filled with art and culture, where going to museums, concerts and theatre was a priority. As parents, the Carsens were very progressive and welcoming of their children’s friends. “In comparison with other fathers, mine was open-minded, funny and interesting,” said Robert. Johanni talks about parents who each had very strong personalities.
“It was not the easiest marriage,” she says. “My father was a womanizer, but my mother insisted that they stay together while we were growing up.”
In 1975, Carsen went through what his family calls male menopause. He separated from his wife to become, in their words, a playboy with a pied-à-terre in Toronto. He would return to Thornhill on weekends. Said Mrs. Carsen: “It was almost as if he wanted to have the youth he had lost before it was too late.” The couple never divorced. In later years they talked to each other on the phone almost every day and even holidayed together.
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