As the Olympics draw to a close, my thoughts turn to the 1976 games in Montreal, which coincided with the American Bicentennial. If America had some maturity under her belt, I certainly did not. I was eight years old and the Olympics were my first taste of gambler’s fever.
The enabler of this childhood mania was McDonalds, which offered scratch-offs whose payouts were tied to USA medal performance. A bronze medal won a Coke, silver won fries, gold a Big Mac, and a full meal of all three for the trifecta. I cannot remember the degree to which my gastronomic gluttony paid off, but I remember watching the events with great interest, and at the end the United States placed third in the medal count behind our Cold War nemesis the Soviet Union and its satellite, East Germany.
There were other highlights, a diminutive 14-year-old Romanian girl captured the imagination and became a household name, and Bruce Jenner won the decathlon. But the memory that has lingered the longest was the breaks from the events when they would kick it back to the studio were a cigar-smoking artist with a Daliesque mustache was frenetically painting a mural of Olympic scenes.
That artist was LeRoy Neiman, who painted five Olympiads during his lifetime. Neiman died last month at the age of 91, making these Olympics the perfect opportunity to examine this commercially successful yet critically marginalized artist.
LeRoy Runquist was born in 1921 in St. Paul Minnesota, the son of a railroad worker who abandoned him at a young age. He acquired the Neiman name from his step-father. As a youth he discovered a talent for drawing which could be traded for favors or cash. Neiman’s first endeavors were cartoons and tattoos for fellow Catholic schoolmates. He moved on to producing calcimine drawings for a grocery store. These drawings were on the window and would feature things like chickens, cows and fish along with their prices. Talk about humble beginnings.
Neiman was drafted in 1942 and served in the European Theater. During his stint as an army cook he graced the mess halls and kitchens he worked in with burlesque murals. While stationed in Germany shortly after the war, he painted stage sets for the army’s Special Services Division. Neiman sought professional training after the war, first at the St. Paul School of Art and then at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, were he completed four years of study and stayed on as a teacher.
During this period he worked as a freelance fashion illustrator for the department store Carson Pirie Scott, where he met a copywriter named Hugh Hefner.
Neiman joined Hefner’s fledgling Playboy magazine after a chance reunion on the street with him in 1954. Hefner and his art director Arthur Paul were impressed with Neiman’s rendering of Chicago life both high and low. Neiman had developed a new technique of using household enamel paint to create kinetic impressionistic paintings. His first work for Playboy was illustrating Charles Beaumont’s short story about a jazz musician titled “Black Country.” Although this jazz musician was fictional, Neiman loved music and went on to paint many of the legends of jazz and worked for the Newport Jazz Festival.
Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, called Neiman, “The painter of the Playboy Philosophy.” Neiman’s contributions to Playboy included the creation of the coquettish cartoon nymph called The Femlin, who graced the “Party Joke” page, and a 15-year run illustrating the “Man At His Leisure” feature, which cast Neiman in the role of a vagabond bon vivant chronicling the jet set. Subjects included Royal Ascot, running with the bulls in Pamplona, dining al fresco in Rome, nude sunbathing on the Dalmatian coast, and the dining room of the Tour d’Argent. On the subject of his ability to capture a scene, Neiman told Cigar Aficionado magazine, “I‘m not a scene painter, I‘m the scene painter.”
But Neiman’s nearly forgotten contribution during his Playboy years was his work as a fashion illustrator. There is something highly evocative about this work. For instance, the article “The Basic Wardrobe” from September 1955 features an illustrated rendering of a gentleman reaching into his closet, in which you can almost sense his hands running along the row of sports jackets until finding the perfect tweed. The college clothing article “Summa Cum Style” from the following month portrays an interior scene in which a young man dressed in Shetland sweater, chinos, white bucks and argyles reads while oblivious to his surroundings. A second student in a striped waistcoat sits looking out the window. A third is standing wearing a crested blazer, buttondown and repp tie. He has taken off his glasses, smiles, and shyly averts his eyes, having just noticed an attractive blond hailing them from the bustling street.
Neiman’s work has something familiar about it, a comfortableness that you can sense: the cavalcade of sports figures, famous personalities and big events like the Super Bowl, the 1972 Ali/ Frazier fight, or Bobby Fischer v. Boris Spassky in chess. It is as if Neiman was the Norman Rockwell of nightlife, the approachable postwar modernist. Is his work simply derivative of French Impressionists, or was he the ultimate documentarian of the Atomic Age? Time will tell if his reputation grows.
As one who grew up with purloined peeks at Playboy, I wonder if, not unlike those lovely girls next door, Neiman injected an element of voyeurism into his work, a seductive invitation to belly up to the bar and sit elbow to elbow with Frank Sinatra in the wee small hours, to be slapped on the back and called “Crumb Bum” by Toots Shor, to grace a ringside seat at a prize fight, sit at a gambling table in Baden Baden, or follow the sun off to some hedonistic paradise. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP