Carsen’s urbane veneer hid a true eccentric. One of his favourite practical jokes, his son recalled, was to startle his family by pretending to have had an accident. Once, when he really did have a bad fall and was found bleeding and unconscious, it took awhile for them to realize it wasn’t a joke. He also loved to dress up in weird ways, and walking in the street, he would often hobble, limp or stagger to the great embarrassment of his children. A boiled egg could not be decapitated before first saying “Zumzock,” followed by “Zerometer,” after the egg was hit. Throughout his life, Carsen spoke to animals in a special made-up language.
Among Carsen’s less eccentric pursuits were tennis, gardening and exotic travel. Even into his 90s, he did yoga every morning.
Carsen’s love of music began in the cultured environment of his youth – he was the grandson of a concert pianist.
His wife remembered in their early marriage spending every extra penny on concerts and records. Carsen had played in a jazz band in Germany and kept a drum set in the house. Dinner was often followed by impromptu musicals.
Carsen’s philanthropy earned him many honours. In 1993, he was awarded the Paris-based Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, and in 2002, the New York-based International Society for the Performing Arts Foundation Angel Award. In 2005, both he and son were honoured with simultaneous honorary Doctor of Law degrees by York University. The very patriotic Carsen was thrilled to be appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995 and Officer in 2002. He was given the nickname “Care Bear” by his grateful tennis club in 2002 when he paid for the redesign of the garden. Being Walter (Care Bear) Carsen was something he treasured.
Late in life, the National Ballet became his obsession, and Carsen referred to the company as his family and the dancers as his children. He had an office at the ballet and would often attend rehearsals. Former National artistic director Reid Anderson calls Carsen his artistic godfather. “I was entranced by Walter,” he says, “and we’d spend hours in his garden eating oysters and drinking white wine. Walter was a catalyst to get others to make donations, like offering matching grants and giving seed money. He wanted things to happen.”
Carsen was a man of contradictions. He was a private person who loved publicity. Despite his immense accomplishments, he possessed an innate insecurity that made him incapable of sharing the limelight. He never acknowledged that Mrs. Carsen had been a business partner, and as Robert’s fame started to grow, he felt a competition with his son as to who would have the bigger name in the arts. While Carsen had difficulty with family commitments, he was extremely loyal to friends. He lived in the world of the elite but called his tennis pro, his hairdresser and the parking lot attendant his friends. He was guarded with his family, but his home was very important to him, surrounded by objects that he loved. One of his favourite expressions was: “When I am by myself, I’m in the best of company.”
As Johanni says: “My father never came to terms with the bitter chapter of his past. He kept reinventing and redefining himself to conform to what he saw as his ideals, his vision and his creativity. He played by his own rules.
His was a life of discovery and getting involved. He genuinely loved artists, and the arts became his comfort because he could lose himself in their beauty.”
Walter Carsen died peacefully in Toronto on Oct. 8, at the age of 100.