Remembering LeRoy Neiman

LeRoy Neiman died on Thursday at the age of 91. We revisit an interview with the colorful painter of the sporting and entertainment world from our vault on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

Just last year, Neiman donated $5 million to open a new student center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And earlier this month, he published his autobiography: All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs. Read an excerpt from his book below.

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From the Chapter: Underground Artist

Soon a whole new panorama would open up for me. One raw Sunday afternoon, a collector invited me to be his guest at a Bear’s game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. His season tickets were on the fifty-yard-line, close but not ideal for sketching. I needed to get closer to the players, but it was a sellout crowd and I wasn’t going to shorten my distance to the game unless I could get onto the field. Then I had bright idea– the dry cleaner’s tag in my shirt pocket read “PRESS.” I stuck it in my hat band and headed toward the action. Security not being what it is today; I leapt on the field and zigzagged my way to the sidelines. I was absorbed sketching J.C. Caroline, the Bear’s running back, when a cop sidled up to me, squinting at the dry cleaning tag. I ignored him. “Hey, buddy, let’s see your ID,” he snapped. 

I was stalling for an explanation when that grizzled old veteran George “Papa Bear” Halas—the team’s owner and coach appeared. “What’s the problem here?” he asked gruffly.

“What’s an artist doing on the field?” the cop fired back. Halas checked out my sketchbook, shrugged and said, “Hell, it’s okay, let the kid stay,” and walked off. I was hardly a kid, but whatever worked. Confusion about my age was something I’d profit from more than once. I’d developed a habit of lying about my age from when I was a teenage punk, cadging drinks from a distracted bartender. I probably wasn’t all that convincing, but it was the Depression, times were tough and they just looked the other way.

My basement apartment on Wabash Avenue was a minimalist environment: a mattress on the floor, ceiling pipes above—convenient for hanging clothes—a table, chairs, a TV on a crate, brick walls, and a floor treatment of wall-to-wall cement. The building’s boiler rumbled and squealed like a drunken organ. There were canvases on stretchers, some painted, some raw, paint cans, props and paraphernalia.

For an easel, I hauled a rickety upright piano down the stairs with the help of my GI Bill army buddy, Cliff Westerman. It came in handy at my B.Y.O.B. parties until the keys got so encrusted with enamel drippings that it could only play Bartok. Cliff, the poor SOB, left for Korea soon afterwards and missed our raucous parties featuring my favorite model, Mattie, who served drinks in a skimpy maid’s apron and stilettos. If I was lucky, a temporary live-in would occasionally take pity on me, straighten up the place, and cook a few meals before drifting off. Then, I’d be back to eating at lunch counters and Spam in a can.

On nights when the moon was full and the neon flashing, I’d venture out of my subterranean sanctuary like a werewolf to sniff out suitably raunchy subjects in strip joints, gin palaces and derelict dives on Clark Street. I’d also hit the posh clubs, cabarets, and crude singles bars on Rush Street, where corporate types hung out with conventioneer whoopee-makers in their desperate lunge at merry-making. These scenes were my inspiration for paintings like Expense Account, New Year’s Eve, and Cigarette Girl. The night was filled with longing, booze and despair, and the eternal search for babes in a landscape of bars and pickup joints, the mob-run Hickory House, the original Gaslight Key Club, the Tradewinds where the young Buddy Hacket packed them in, and Club Alabam, where at Christmas time, the forlorn parking attendant dressed up as Santa.

At the Gigi Club on Clark Street, energetic strippers with bored eyes gyrated on an elevated stage above an oval bar while horny guys ran fantasy scenarios in their heads. It was a fluorescent jungle where the males of the species, six deep, stared through clouds of smoke at a female artificially in heat. Hulking floor men moved threateningly through the crowd, intimidating any patron who had an empty glass in his hand by shining a flashlight at the back of his head.

The uptown scene may have looked more reputable, but the criminal element was just more organized. In Chicago, the Cicero mob began courting me. Their commissions were the kind you couldn’t exactly refuse, and they always paid in green: hoodlums and their kids on luxury yachts docked along Lake Shore Drive, boxers in action at the Marigold Gardens. In the early ’50s, viewers were glued to their TV sets watching the Estes Kefauver Senate subcommittee hearings on organized crime, and some of these local gangsters would have fit right in there. When one of these guys would come to my studio, they’d act just like gangsters in the movies, making straight for the window to scope out the street below. They had the readies, but they’d bargain you down and you weren’t about to haggle with them. After they’d negotiated the price down to say $500, they’d take their portrait, grab a couple more paintings, pull out a roll of bills, peel off a half-dozen C-notes, tuck the canvases under their arm and scram.

LeRoy Neiman's self-portrait

On a bitterly cold Chicago morning, a treacherous-looking guy showed up at my door in gray Borsalino, navy overcoat, white silk scarf, foulard cravat and cigar. You knew this guy was a big shot gangster. He wanted his mug painted. After casing the joint, he took a long look at me and asked gruffly “Wheredya want me to sit?”

“Well, I was going to paint you standing. And how about if you keep your coat and hat on, too?”

“Aw, sure, whatever ya think—you’re the artist, cuz. But make it quick, huh? ”

I threw myself into it, and I presented it to him. But something was off, and I knew it. It was the eyes. This guy was no common hood, he was a stone cold killer and it showed—he had a chilling undercurrent of cruelty. The portrait needed an icy cobalt blue glint in the eyes—I’d got it! But what would he think?

He loved it, peeled off a few bills, grabbed the painting, and headed for the street to his waiting Cadillac. Looking out the window, watching the curls of exhaust spiral up into the frigid air, I wondered how many slugs to the back of the head he’d delivered in his time.

Even when you were on their good side, you had to watch your back with this sort. Be civil, but never get too close. I remember the time Edward G. Robinson came to my first one-man show at Hammer Gallery in New York. I went up to greet the Little Caesar, a well-known art connoisseur with a great collection of paintings—Eugène Delacroix, Renoir, Gauguin, Degas, van Gogh, Lautrec, Matisse, and Picasso. So it was already an honor that he’d come to see my show at all. He took me by the hand and lead me around until we came upon a monoprint. He stopped in his tracks, pulled out his glasses, examined it closely.

“It’s Capone!” he said with that oily smile of his.

I waited. By now a crowd had gathered.

“You know, I never met the big fellah,” he said. “Just as well. They treat you good, generous and all that, but you gotta be careful not to cozy up to these gangster guys.”

From the book "ALL TOLD" by LeRoy Neiman: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs (Lyons Press, June 8, 2012)

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