Lester Chanin was asleep the night the paintings were taken. He was only 15, and though it happened more than 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 Chanin described in a recent interview as like a “meteor dropping out of space.”
Then the paintings disappeared.
“It blew the family up,” 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 professed minor celebrity. But to his family and followers, he was a towering figure — the sun around which the family orbited, according to 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’ own paintings fit that criteria, and by extension, so did he.
“An amazing giant of a personality,” said Louis K. Meisel, who represented Boobis and displayed his paintings in his gallery.
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’ studio on Central Park West, and three of them removed roughly a dozen of his paintings.
Boobis’ sudden death was an enormous blow to his family. Chanin, now 66 but then an impressionable and admiring teenager, felt it profoundly, as if the life force of his universe had been extinguished.
The disappearance of the paintings only compounded this sense of loss for Chanin. It was a feeling that would calcify over time into an obsession.
Rise of the artist
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, 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. “He knew he might die young,” his son, Barry, recalled.
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’ 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 an apartment in Manhattan, New York.
Both couples had children and eventually moved into separate apartments. Lester Chanin was born in 1956 to Larry and Barbara. In 1961, Bradford Boobis’ youngest son, Billy, died of spinal meningitis at age 3, and, in his grief, Boobis moved his family to Los Angeles.
Chanin was 9 when Boobis returned to New York. Perhaps none of the younger members of the Boobis family were more drawn to Bradford than Chanin, who had a strained relationship with his own father. Larry Chanin, 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.
A cult conceived and a growing obsession
As his reputation as a painter increased, Boobis was also starting to court people to what 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.
It is unknown how many followers Boobis had amassed at the time of his death, though Chanin estimated it was a “very small number.” His most ardent supporters included Chanin’s parents, Boobis’ mistress and a man in London to whom the paintings were sent, Chanin said, but there is no available documentation of official meetings. Boobis’ wife did not appear to be involved in LIM.
To Boobis’ 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.
LIM ended after Boobis’ death.
A few years later, in his early 20s, Chanin became close to Barry, his cousin. Barry persuaded him to pursue art, and after dropping out of SUNY New Paltz, Chanin moved in with Barry.
Chanin soon found himself as enthralled with Barry as he had been with his father. Like his father, Barry had personal charisma and experienced family tragedy. His mother, Shawn, Boobis’ 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, Chanin fell out with Barry, resumed his undergraduate studies at Hunter College and, in 1981, married a singer.
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.