Farewell, LeRoy: The buccaneer in the white suit

LeRoy Neiman, with one of his paintings of Muhammad Ali.

BY JERRY TALLMER  |  With his pirate’s handlebar moustache

and all-occasion, white-on-white suits, LeRoy Neiman always looked to me like nothing so much as a 19th-century Mississippi riverboat gambler. Or maybe Mark Twain in the guise of a deeply courteous, soft-spoken Mississippi riverboat gambler.

And it was true. His whole long life, which ended last month on Wednesday, June 20, at age 91, in the big beautiful old West 60s studio apartment he and his wife Janet had lived and worked in for more than 50 years — that entire life and unmatchable career had been from first to last a gigantic gamble.

A roll of the dice that is spelled out in detail, in LeRoy’s own voice — along with dozens of his quick-fire renderings, from Muhammad Ali to Samuel Beckett to Lenny Bruce to Joe Namath to Frank Sinatra to Darryl F. Zanuck to several hundred others and back again — in the big, beautiful, brand-new, autobiographical “All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs” (Lyons Press, 340 pages, $29.95). He lived just long enough to see it at last in print. Clutched it happily in his hands as he faded away.

Who would have thought that pen, pencil, eraser, charcoal, enamel, oils, watercolors, pastels, crayons and even computerized, television-linked drawing tools would carry a 23-year-old U.S. Army cook in the invasion of Germany from painting long-legged, big-bosomed girls on mess-hall walls to fame, fortune and instant recognition everywhere around the world.

Which has put the snob’s stamp of “Not to be taken seriously” on Neiman’s forehead ever since.

The only untruth LeRoy Neiman (born LeRoy Runquist) ever promulgated that I know of was his age. He ultimately knocked six years off of it. The irony is he didn’t have to. He was one of those people who are forever young, and as wide-eyed about his home territory — the worlds of sport and entertainment — as any father-deserted kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Saint Paul, Minnesota, ought to be.

Here he is, talking with me some years ago, when the elitists of art criticism were, as always, piling on:

“For an artist, watching a Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or a leading political figure.”

Of course he could do both, in the great tradition of, oh, Toulouse-Lautrec, for one, Francisco Goya for another.

Here he is on another day, speaking about his favorite of all milieux, the racetrack, in any country and in vivid color:

“[You] find the full range of social strata in one scene…and I’m there myself. I’ll place a few bets, have a few drinks. It’s a total experience” — one that made him, in semi-serious jest: “an Impressionist,” not to mention (pun coming!) a post  -Impressionist, of the whole picture, what the shrinks and the highbrow critics call the Gestalt, a word I think LeRoy Neiman would know full well but never use.

To tell truth, he himself would put himself, privately, from time to time, in the fellowship of Da Vinci, Rubens, Tintoretto, Fragonard, Dufy, Van Dongen, Kokoschka, Bellows, Pollock and others of the trade, north, south, east, west.

In a word, everybody who ever partook in the fellowship of art. Once again, who’s to say nay? Just look him up in fifty, a hundred years.

If for nothing else, he has earned some degree of immortality by his loving, pulsating coverage through the decades, much of it gathered right here at the Blue Note and elsewhere in the Village, of the great jazz musicians black and white — mostly black — of our times, almost all of whom would beat LeRoy to the finish line.

In a huge, splendiferous $3,750 LeRoy Nieman sketchbook of the two 1965 championship prizefights between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali (Clay changed his name between the fights), the ring ropes in the first encounter are red, the ropes in the second one — the weirdo match in Maine — are blue.

You catch things like that, I said to Neiman.

“Well, yes, I do,” he replied. After all, it was his profession.

Here is something else he once caught.

I don’t think LeRoy was wearing that Mississippi riverboat gambler’s white suit the first time I ever laid eyes on him, down in Florida in 1969. In fact I didn’t lay eyes on him at all at that moment because I was concentrating so hard on what two New York Post sports writers were telling me about Joe Namath and the upcoming Super Bowl III — the game Namath had guaranteed  to win — that I didn’t pay the least attention to someone working away on a drawing board just to my right.

The next day I had a look at whatever the fellow had been doing. It was a drawing of an intense feature writer — somebody who looked rather like yours truly — scribbling away in a reporter’s notebook while coping with one cigarette drooping from his lip, another sprouting upward from between the fingers of his hand that held the notebook.

It would take five years before the chap in that drawing could thank LeRoy Neiman by kicking the habit cold turkey. You ladies who made everything possible in LeRoy’s life and career — Lynn Quayle, Cara Zabor, Gail Parentau and Janet Byrne, the Irish girl he married back in 1957 and stayed married to for all the rest of his days — well, thanks and love to all of you too. Let the big guy sleep.

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