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Painting the Town

LeRoy Neiman, perhaps the best known, highest paid and most belittled artist of our time, confidently awaits history's judgment.
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

He gets off the elevator on the wrong floor. Wearing paint-splattered orange cotton shorts, a spotless white shirt--collar up and top three buttons open--slouchy gray gym socks and leather paint-dabbed running shoes, LeRoy Neiman just shrugs and begins trudging up the stairs in the Hotel des Artistes, his home base for some 33 years. Made up of double-height rooms, this exclusive New York City landmark was originally intended for painters. Norman Rockwell once lived here, yet celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino, Noel Coward and ex-mayor John Lindsay have also called it home. Neiman's painting studio, offices, and home are on one floor, his archives on another, and his pied-à-terre at the top. He takes the stairs to the penthouse.

On the climb, holding an unlit maduro, Neiman recalls a meaningful cigar moment of more than 20 years ago: "I was at an opening of Salvador Dalí's holograms in New York. A photographer was about to shoot a picture of me with Dalí when Victor Hammer, my dealer, came running over, urging me to get rid of the cigar. Dalí intervened, 'Keep that cigar, LeRoy. It's a good prop.'" Neiman kept the cigar.

The artist fumbles with his keys before unlocking the door. "You are about to see the real me. By taking you up here, I am baring my true self to you," he half-jokes, with his characteristic nonchalance. He opens the door to reveal a clean, garret-like space, consisting of two small light-filled rooms connected by an open doorway. In one room there is a single bed, neatly covered with a forest green printed bedspread. Centered above it hangs a Neiman oil painting titled "Hunt Rendezvous." The adjacent sitting room is dominated by a table with a glass top on a curvy wrought-iron base. Beyond the sitting room is a solarium that leads to a large terrace overlooking Central Park. The terrace is outfitted with some Adirondack chairs and an unpretentious custom-made drawing table.

The pristine penthouse seems a striking contrast to the 68-year-old Neiman's public image of the flamboyant man-about-town, with the signature handlebar moustache and a reputed affinity for wine, women and the good life. His private space looks more like a page from Martha Stewart Living than the sort of plush interior Neiman would paint. "I come up here to read and draw," the artist says in his soft, even-toned tenor.

You never catch his subjects reading or drawing. They are more apt to dine, dance, gamble, drink, box, dunk, swing, sail, cycle or drive. Powerfully, they compete and celebrate, play and perform. They are active, not passive. A roster of Neiman's subjects reads like a Who's Who of athletes, jet-setters and celebrities: Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Tommy Tune, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bobby Kennedy, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, restaurateur/chef Wolfgang Puck, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson (in their pretrial days)--even Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Odds are, the list of luminaries that Neiman hasn't painted would be shorter than a lineup of those he has.

Among the neglected was Richard Nixon. "I was in Moscow at the Goodwill Games in 1986," Neiman recalls, "and a Russian official came running over to me, insisting there was someone I had to meet. It was Nixon, who gripped me in an extended handshake and immediately asked why I'd never painted him. I admitted I'd never put him on a canvas, but confessed to having sketched him once. 'You were walking across the White House lawn with Henry Kissinger, and you both had your hands in your pockets. I drew it because I thought it was taboo for top guys to walk with their hands concealed.' 'You really got me that time,' the ex-president roared. Then he walked over to the piano and played 'God Bless America!'" Neiman laughs. "He was really a character."

Catching people with their pants down, or their hands in their pockets, as the case may be, is out of character for Neiman. Rather, he does unto others as he would have them do unto him. He glorifies them. Rhoda Altman, who has been selling Neiman's work for eight years at New York's Hammer Graphics Gallery (which has represented him for 35 years) says, "He is our modern-day Impressionist. The main difference between LeRoy Neiman and the nineteenth century Impressionists is they would paint women at their toilette with no makeup. Neiman wants to show everyone with their false eyelashes on at all times. He wants them to look their best."

Neiman even made Al Capone look good, in a posthumous 1965 portrait. "I think the exterior person is very important. I think the way things look is the way they are," Neiman says. "Even if a person is masquerading, then that's what he is. Sort of on the premise [that] a lie, once believed, becomes a truth."

He repeats this last phrase several times. Playboy's Hugh Hefner, who counts Neiman among his best and oldest friends, suggests, "He quite intentionally invented himself as a flamboyant artist not unlike Salvador Dalí, in much the same way that I became Mr. Playboy in the late '50s." Neiman and Hef both prize props. Hefner's were his pajamas and pipe, Neiman's his Dalíesque black moustache and long cigar that never seems to burn down. Of secondary importance were Neiman's trendy white suits and a selection of hats.

Neiman has had a moustache since he was first able to grow one, and he has smoked since he was 16. "I came from a world of five-cent cigars and whiskey drinking," Neiman recalls. "You were supposed to clean your plate and finish the whole cigar. My first cigar was a Muriel because I liked the name. I didn't know the first thing about good taste or dollar-and-a-half cigars. My father, a roustabout gandy dancer [railroad worker], smoked Dutch Masters, right down to the bottom. This was no afterdinner smoke. I knew that Clark Gable smoked cigars, and I knew there was something special about smoking. Not everyone did it."

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