LeRoy Neiman, the artist and bon vivant known for his portraits of sportsmen, politicians and playboys, and for his iconic Playboy illustrations, died yesterday at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. He was 91.
Neiman, who is survived by his wife of 55 years, Janet Byrne Neiman, recently celebrated the publication of his memoir, All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs, which documents his rise from a rough-and-tumble childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1920s, when in his first exploration of artistic expression he began tattooing kids in the schoolyard and sketching the freaks and sword-swallowers of a traveling circus.
He would go on to become the artist-in-residence at Playboy and to become known for his paintings and illustrations of celebrities, sports events and café society and would develop a taste for “casino czars, political powerhouses, show-biz divas, Wall Street whizzes, ruthless impresarios, mob bosses, [and] Hollywood hustlers.” In addition to these pursuits, Neiman was also a connoisseur of the culinary arts. As he stated in his memoir, he soon learned that at haute cuisine restaurants, “It’s not all about the food.”
Neiman, who loved high society but had to work to get there, fancied himself similar, in a sense, to F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Like Fitzgerald I lacked the credentials that would get me in the door”), and frequented the most exclusive restaurants of his day, including Rao’s, the Colony and Le Cirque, many of which became the subjects of his paintings and many of the menus that he would adorn in impromptu moments of inspiration.
Here are a few tidbits from his memoir about New York restaurants:
“If you had the wherewithal, fancy restaurants offered you the opportunity to cast yourself in an informal play. At the very exclusive Chambord on Third Avenue, for instance, you might get a walk-on with Orson Welles as he tucked into his pressed duck or petite marmite.”
The Colony at 61st and Madison had been a swanky speakeasy in the ‘20s but was now just plain swanky. Jet-set high society, Wall Street tycoons, Park Avenue swells, and the ladies who lunch patronized the joint—not only to eat the great food but also to see and be seen.
In the slide show above, a few examples of Neiman’s drawings, inspired by the restaurants he enjoyed.