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.”
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.
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.
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