I must confess, I knew very little about LeRoy Neiman before reading this autobiography. I first saw some of his lithographs at charity golf outings and I was impressed, but that was the extent of my knowledge of his life and work.
Now, I know that the late LeRoy Neiman was an eccentric man who hob-knobbed with famous people and was well respected in the commercial art community. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t so respected in the fine art community.
All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs begins by talking about Neiman's mother Lydia and how she eloped with Charles Julius Runquist (his father). She was 17; he was 44. Two children later, Runquist left. Lydia packed up with her two small boys and moved. She sought a better life for her sons. She picked up small jobs and ends up meeting and marrying John L. Neiman. She changes the boys’ last names and their religion to Catholicism.
Neiman was lost for many years. He was later recruited into the army in 1942. That’s where he learned how to cook. However, his passion, even as a child, was with drawing. When he returned from the war, he went to art school at the School of Art Institute of Chicago where he studied all the Impressionists and Cubism. He said, “Art is an addiction, a little like sex, the more you get, the more you want.”
Furthermore, as he remarks upon his education, “At art school there was a period when I liberated myself from everything I’d seen and been taught–broke away from it all and decided I would paint things the way I wanted–give a character a green nose or orange hair, anything that made the person or the situation interesting..."
And that he did. He painted with color, lots of it, and changed the way things looked and felt. Neiman put an interesting twist on reality.
Later, he was commissioned by Hugh Hefner to draw the cover of his first Playboy magazine in 1960. It was a drawing of a “femlin,” a beautiful sexy woman. After that, the two together developed the idea of the Playboy Bunny. Hef, as he is referred to in the book, took the liberty of adding a collar and classing the look up a bit. That’s when the first Playboy Mansion was open to the public. After that, he became the artist of record for the publication.
At Playboy, Neiman became close to Shel Silverstein and the two were inseparable for a while. Neiman loved working for Playboy. It gave him the opportunity for his work to be known.
However, Neiman felt as if his Playboy connection “sealed his fate as an artist who would not be accepted by the art establishment.” Nevertheless, his connection with to Playboy allowed the artist to travel the world and cover many sporting events, including major golf tournaments, boxing matches, and even chess matches.
Neiman became very close with Salvador Dali in the 1960s. He felt as if Dali understood him. That’s where the mustache comes into play, noting that he owes his the extravagant length of his mustache to Dali’s wife, Gala. She told him not to do anything half way: “Either grow your mustache wider like Salvador or cut it to mouth width like Omar Sharif.”
Neiman goes on to write that by the mid-'60s, “Art was part of pop culture and you needed some sort of image to identify yourself with when your picture got in the paper.” And we all know which direction he took. Hence, the LeRoy Neiman look. Toward this end, he loved drawing sports figures in action and hung out with the greatest athletes of all time. He spends a chapter on his relationship with Muhammad Ali and later talks about his dealings with U.S. presidents.
All Told is a well written book that includes numerous magnificent photos of Neiman’s work. The book gives the reader a greater appreciation for the man he was and the legacy he left us with. It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t get an opportunity to interview him. He died right after celebrating his 91st birthday on June 20, 2012.