I don’t remember when I first became aware of LeRoy Neiman’s art but I do remember when I became a true fan. It was when I bought Frank Sinatra’s album “Duets” and saw the cover Nieman did for it. A few weeks after Neiman’s death I learned about his autobiography / memoir “All Told: My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs”. Reading it was a joy filled trip through the twentieth century with one of its outstanding individualists.
Neiman’s mother raised him and his older brother in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family was poor even during the Roaring Twenties. When the Depression came it forced the boys to take temporary refuge at their grandparents farm so the family would at least not sink into deeper poverty. Neiman took to the street life early, exploring the city while playing hooky from school. Exploring the state capitol building in Minneapolis he first became intrigued with art. How it was possible to paint the glass in the eyeglasses of the former governors puzzled him.
After serving in World War Two as a cook, where he was often AWOL, and spending a year with the occupation forces as a painter he realized that the GI Bill was his ticket to a better life. Returning to Minneapolis he earned his high school diploma and went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the beginning of a long association between Nieman and the school. He started teaching fashion illustration for the school before he graduated and, as I learned on a visit to Chicago, Nieman provided the school with its first student center which opened shortly before his death.
Working as a fashion illustrator in Chicago, he met two important people on the same day. Janet Byrne, who he would marry and spend the rest of his life with, and Hugh Hefner, who he would work with until 2008 when Nieman cut back his schedule. I don’t want to recap the story of Nieman’s life here, you will enjoy it more in his own words and pictures. According to Neiman he always wanted to paint like Jackson Pollock but “faces kept coming through the paint”. Throughout the book Neiman drops the names of artists and works that he admired. Some of those names, like Pollock and George Bellows, I was already familiar with but his descriptions of their works ignited a curiosity about many others that I will be looking for whenever I visit a museum. The book is filled with Neiman’s art and photographs from his life and the printing is the quality you would expect from the namesake of Columbia University’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.
The second half of the book is more memoir than autobiography, by that I mean that the arrangement is more topical than chronological. Neiman’s life was too full of five star events and encounters with all types of celebrities to condense into a book in any other way. His friendships with Ali, Sinatra, and Miss Lillian, President Carter’s mother, provide some of the best stories in the book. Thanks to Neiman’s writing style, he has a friendly, conversational voice that is easy to read, no part of the book that is less than entertaining.