• Fri. Jun 2nd, 2023

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The Aspiring Cult Leader’s Missing Art and the Nephew Obsessed With His Legacy

Lester Chanin was asleep the night that the paintings were taken. He was only 15 and, though it happened over 50 years ago, he still remembers waking the next day to a world that seemed irrevocably changed.

The painter, his uncle Bradford Boobis, had died hours earlier, an event Mr. Chanin described in a recent interview as like a “meteor dropping out of space.”

Then the paintings disappeared.

“It blew the family up,” Mr. Chanin said.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Bradford Boobis. A tall man whose chiseled face was framed by a fluffed pompadour, Boobis was, to all appearances, a colorful eccentric and minor celebrity. But to his family and followers, he was a towering figure — the sun around which the family orbited, according to Mr. Chanin.

Boobis had also, in his later life, started courting followers to a cultlike philosophical movement which he called Life, Infinity, Man (LIM). The philosophy was rooted in humanism and considered the “works of man” — such as fine art and scientific discoveries — to be holy. According to his followers, Boobis’s own paintings fit that criteria and by extension, so did he.

The self-taught painter received high praise in a 1969 edition of American Artist magazine: “His work indicates that he has thoroughly mastered oil technique, draughtsmanship and craftsmanship.” Talented as he was with a brush, though, Boobis was most skilled in the art of shaping his own mythos. “Bradford Boobis,” read a self-published pamphlet biography, “is emerging as the greatest artist of our time.”

Boobis had limited success in the traditional art world, though he had earned enough acclaim to have once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” for a stunt in which he painted a portrait of the show’s host over the course of a week.

“An amazing giant of a personality,” Louis K. Meisel, who represented Boobis and displayed his paintings in his gallery, said of the man in a 2009 interview for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

A sepia portrait of Bradford Boobis, who is looking into the camera. He has mutton chops and a pompadour and just a hint of a smile.
Bradford Boobis, toward the end of his life, as he was trying to develop LIM, the philosophical movement he was never able to get off the ground. Joseph Abeles/Zodiac Photographs

Boobis died of a heart attack in 1972 at 44, leaving behind his wife, Shawn, and two children. That evening, according to family lore, four of his most dedicated devotees let themselves into Boobis’s studio on Central Park West, and three of them surreptitiously removed roughly a dozen of his paintings, which depicted naked figures amid distorted surroundings.

Boobis’s sudden death was an enormous blow to his family. Mr. Chanin, then an impressionable and admiring teenager, felt it profoundly, as if the life force of his universe had been extinguished.

“He was kind of like a god,” Mr. Chanin, 66, said recently. “We all kind of grew up thinking we were part of, like, the royal family or something. We just felt special.” This sense of exceptionalism, he explained, emanated from Boobis. “We felt like we came from this extraordinary background and had extraordinary genes, or whatever it was,” he said, “mostly by dint of my uncle Brad.”

The disappearance of the paintings only compounded this sense of loss for Mr. Chanin. It was a feeling that would calcify over time into an obsession.

Bradford Boobis was born in 1927 with the name Milton Boobis. He was the sixth of seven children of Pearl and Benjamin, a pair of immigrants from what is now Ukraine who moved to New York in the early 1900s. Benjamin, a jeweler, eventually went blind and, unable to do his work, died in 1960 after taking cyanide, Mr. Chanin said. At 3, Milton survived a bout with rheumatic fever but complications from the condition left him with an accelerated heartbeat. He grew up with a sense that time is fragile, the sand in his hourglass falling at a faster rate than that of most. “He knew he might die young,” his son, Barry, recalled.

Young Boobis spoke quickly and confidently, often in bold, declarative statements. While his siblings despised their last name and later pushed to legally change it, Barry said, Milton instead changed his first name. By the time he moved out of his parents’ house, at age 27, he would be Bradford Boobis.

Not long after his 18th birthday, with the United States embroiled in World War II, Boobis enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he formed a friendship with a man named Larry Chanin. After the war, Chanin started dating Boobis’s sister Zelda (she later changed her name to Barbara). Bradford, who planned to marry his girlfriend Sylvia Dworkin (she later changed her name to Shawn), encouraged Larry to marry Zelda. Once both couples were married, the four of them moved in together into a sprawling apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.

Bradford Boobis in his studio, circa 1945 or ’46. He had served as an artist in the Army, which he joined soon after his 18th birthday.

Both couples had children and eventually moved into separate apartments. Lester Chanin was born in 1956 to Larry and Barbara. In 1961, Bradford’s youngest son, Billy, died of spinal meningitis at age 3 and, in his grief, Bradford moved his family to Los Angeles.

Mr. Chanin was 9 when Bradford returned to New York after something of a star turn in Southern California: In addition to his appearance on “The Steve Allen Show,” he wrote music for Connie Francis, among others.

Perhaps none of the younger members of the Boobis family were more drawn to Bradford than Mr. Chanin, who had a strained relationship with his own father. Larry, who also worked in the art world, would call his son an “ooglie,” a made-up word meant to describe the slimy creatures that would crawl out from under rocks in Central Park at night. “He never gave me any support,” Mr. Chanin said of his father. “Never threw a ball to me. Never took me to a ballgame.”

Boobis was also working on a new series of large-scale paintings, inspired by the pain of Billy’s death: “Life and Death of a Little Sun,” painted circa 1970, depicts Boobis reaching for Billy amid green swirls. Three of Boobis’s works were selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be displayed at the now-defunct Library of Presidential Papers, making him the only living artist represented at the time, according to the 1969 American Artist piece, which also noted Boobis was scheduled to hold one-man exhibitions at the State Museums of Moscow and Leningrad that year. Barry says now that his father once refused a six-figure offer for one of his paintings, preferring for them to be kept together.

As his reputation as a painter increased, Boobis was also starting to court people to what Mr. Chanin referred to as a “cult.”

Boobis envisioned one day building elaborate LIM temples that would be decorated with great art, including his own paintings. The temples would feature an “eternal flame” meant to symbolize mankind’s creative spirit. Upon entry, visitors would strip naked and light their own torches with the flame, symbolically joining in the eternal flow of the creative spirit.

It is unknown how many followers Boobis had amassed at the time of his death, though Mr. Chanin estimated it was a “very small number.”  His most ardent supporters included Mr. Chanin’s parents, Boobis’s mistress and a man in London to whom the paintings were sent, Mr. Chanin said, but there is no available documentation of official meetings. Boobis’s wife did not appear to be involved in LIM.

To Boobis’s followers, his paintings held a spiritual significance. His plan, according to Barry, was for the paintings to be kept together for posterity. But fearing that his widow might sell them, his followers had moved quickly to spirit them away and ship them to an unknown destination.

Bradford Boobis’s “Reflections at a Cocktail Party,” circa 1970. Bradford Boobis, via Louis K. Meisel Gallery
“Portrait of a Female,” circa 1970.Bradford Boobis, via Louis K. Meisel Gallery
“Life and Death of a Little Sun,” circa 1970, inspired by the pain of the death of Boobis’s youngest son, Billy, who died of spinal meningitis at age 3, in 1961.Bradford Boobis, via Louis K. Meisel Gallery

LIM ended after Boobis’s death. The family, at least to Mr. Chanin, seemed adrift. After the paintings’ disappearance, he couldn’t reconcile the absence of his uncle, who had once loomed so large, in the world.

“His reputation disappeared. Nothing,” Mr. Chanin said. “Like all of that magic — he was a magic man. Magic! And it was gone, absolutely gone, overnight.”

A few years later, in his early 20s, Mr. Chanin became close to Barry, his cousin. Barry persuaded him to pursue art and, after dropping out of SUNY New Paltz, Mr. Chanin moved in with Barry. Like their fathers, they moved into an apartment on Riverside Drive.

Soon Mr. Chanin soon found himself as enthralled with Barry as he had been with his father. “My whole meaning of life revolved around Barry,” he said. “I became his follower. His disciple.”

Like his father, Barry had personal charisma and experienced family tragedy. His mother, Shawn, Boobis’s widow, died by suicide when she jumped out of a building about 15 years after Bradford’s death, Barry said. Shawn had been subsisting on profits from her husband’s remaining paintings that had not been sent overseas.

“She vowed that if her money ever runs out, she’s not going to live on the street. And her money ran out pretty quickly,” Barry said.

Eventually, Mr. Chanin fell out with Barry, resumed his undergraduate studies at Hunter College and, in 1981, married a singer.  For the first time in his life, outside of college, he was not living under the same roof as a Boobis.

Mr. Chanin divorced and remarried. He later had two children with his second wife, finished law school and went on to become an insurance and appellate lawyer in New York. But, he said, he could never shake the feeling that something essential had gone missing along with those paintings.

He had never believed in his uncle’s cult, he said. Yet when he put his own daughters to bed at night, he regaled them with stories of the old days — of his uncle Brad and the rest of his special family.

Mr. Chanin had long known the paintings had been whisked away to London, but it wasn’t until the final years of his father’s life — Larry died in 2015 — that he learned the whole truth about how the paintings got there. Mr. Chanin’s mother had refused to discuss the night of the paintings were taken, but after she had died, Larry told his son everything, including that Larry himself was involved. The reveal brought father and son closer together than ever.

“He was a difficult character, arrogant, superior, kind of cantankerous, judgmental,” Mr. Chanin said. “He never once complimented me, until the end. Then he became my biggest fan and supporter.”

Armed with new resolve, Mr. Chanin decided to channel his lawyerly research skills into solving the great family mystery.

He wanted to find those paintings.

Mr. Chanin had learned that the three people who removed the paintings had shipped them to a supporter of Boobis’s living in Britain, who apparently had ties to the royal family, but whose name had been lost to time.

When Barry and Mr. Chanin were living together in their 20s, Barry told him about the supporter. During his investigations, Mr. Chanin used an online database that tracks the genealogical history of the British peerage and unearthed a name that looked similar: the Honorable Robert Anthony Rayne.

Mr. Rayne, now in his early 70s, is the son of Max Rayne, a noble English lord; his public assets are worth nearly $70 million, according to Market Screener.

Mr. Chanin also found a contact email.

In 2017, he sat down in his home in Kew Gardens, N.Y., and began writing a message that he had been thinking about for nearly 50 years.

“Dear Lord Rayne,” Mr. Chanin began, his heart racing.

Three days after Mr. Chanin reached out to Mr. Rayne, he got a response:

Dear Lester,

The collection is safe and has been looked after in accordance with Brad’s wishes.

Brad and LIM were very important to me in the last few years of his life‎, I am happy to share those experiences with you.

I am curious about your sudden ‎interest after 50 years.

Robbie

The first thing Mr. Chanin did after learning of Mr. Rayne’s identity was provide his contact information to Barry. In Mr. Chanin’s mind, Barry, as the lone surviving member of Boobis’s immediate family — and now full-time painter — maintained legal rights to the paintings, though Mr. Rayne claims he is the rightful owner. Even though Barry said in a recent interview that he considers himself to be the owner of the paintings, he has no interest in claiming them because he believes his own works are the continuation of his father’s legacy.

Mr. Rayne recalled in a recent interview that he was in New York in 1972 when he received the call from Boobis’s mistress that Boobis had died. The paintings were then shipped to Mr. Rayne’s home overseas. He said he exhibited the works in London in the 1970s, and for many years he allowed for about half of them to be displayed in private homes and others in offices. He said he never knew they would become emblems of loss for Boobis’s family, most whom he had never met.

In December 2017, Mr. Chanin arranged an in-person meeting between Mr. Rayne and the Boobis family at a dimly lit midtown restaurant in New York.

Mr. Rayne told the group about his friendship with Boobis. He said he was taking good care of the paintings. He claimed he did not know the family was interested in the works and insisted he could not display them until he created high-resolution photographs of them, an expensive and time-consuming process.

As to his legal claim to the works, Mr. Rayne said in an interview he received documents stipulating the paintings should be sent to him and that he was not to resell them, though he declined to provide copies of those documents when asked.

Mr. Chanin continued to trade emails with Mr. Rayne and his son, Damian, for several years, asking for the paintings. In June 2021 he sent an impassioned plea over email to two of Mr. Rayne’s family members, writing in part, “We want our legacy back. You have yours. Why then cannot we have ours.” It wasn’t long after that Mr. Rayne finally relented. Mr. Chanin reconnected with Mr. Meisel, who then reached out to Mr. Rayne directly and offered to host a showing. Mr. Meisel, Mr. Rayne said, was one of the few figures in the art world “prepared to help promote” the paintings’ visibility. Mr. Rayne agreed to send the paintings to New York so that they could be exhibited on one condition: They were to be shipped back to London immediately afterward.

Mr. Chanin agreed. The show was set for June 2022 at the Meisel Gallery — a 20,000-square-foot building owned by the same man who had displayed Boobis’s works before his death. Mr. Meisel said two of Boobis’s paintings, “Reflections at a Cocktail Party” and “Portrait of a Female,” were “as great as anything I’d ever seen in realism and surrealism or anything representational.” Those paintings, as well as “Life and Death of a Little Sun,” present characters amid “swirling dreamlike scenes” and “hark back to sci-fi paperbacks of that era,” according to the Meisel catalog for the gallery.

Zoe, Mr. Chanin’s daughter, said she was happy for her father. But she maintains ambivalence toward Boobis and her family’s proclivity for what she calls “displaced idol worship.” She supported her father’s quest but questioned his reasons. Her father, she said, has never been able to “find his sense of identity outside of that initial family system he was in back then.”

“I don’t think anyone should have a connection to greatness that comes from another human being,” Barry said. “It should come from within yourself. I think it reflects a lack of self-esteem on Lester’s part, the way he was raised in the cult of personality. There was too much worship of Bradford Boobis.”

Zoe noted in a recent interview that her father came of age in the 1960s — a time, she said, of stark countercultural sentiment. A subset of Americans, looking for spiritual guidance, were popping LSD and doing yoga. Some, including Mr. Chanin’s parents, became involved in the Church of Scientology, said Mr. Chanin, who once took a one-week introduction course. Others, like Bradford Boobis, started cults. Zoe, 31, sees her father as a man who has never been able to pull himself out of that time or find self-worth outside of his association with his uncle.

“It’s become kind of a core belief for him — that he’s valuable because he’s part of this special Boobis tribe,” Zoe said. Her theory is that her father, whose own art career did not pan out, feels the family’s “special” gene skipped over him.

Soon after the show opened, Mr. Chanin stepped inside Mr. Meisel’s gallery, where, 50 years later, Boobis’s paintings were once again on display on American soil.

It felt “surreal,” he said, to walk through the gallery with his uncle’s paintings affixed to the white walls, surrounded by friends and family, a triumphant new swagger in his step. Zoe believes that in getting the paintings displayed for the public, her father finally felt special again. He felt like a Boobis.

Mr. Chanin continues to tell anyone who will listen about his uncle, the man with the chaotic charisma and the genius stroke with a paint brush. But even after the Meisel showing, Boobis remains a footnote in the modern art world. A Boobis painting not part of Rayne’s collection, “Who is Andrea?,” which initially sold for $25,000 in 1974, was recently purchased in an auction for $1,000 and sent to the buyer in New York: Lester Chanin.