LeRoy Neiman died Wednesday in Manhattan. He has been associated with Playboy since 1954, when he took Hef to his basement studio on Chicago's Near North Side to show him his paintings of Chicago's demimonde. Neiman's first illustration, accompanying Charles Beaumont's fiction "Black Country," appeared in the September 1954 issue. He subsequently drew the long-running "Man at His Leisure" series for the magazine and drew more than 1,000 Femlin illustrations for the Party Jokes page. Neiman went on to become Playboy's artist in residence and contributed for Playboy right up until his death. LeRoy enjoyed life, and in many ways embodied the role of the bon vivant. He was a brilliant artist and larger-than-life character with a sharp sense of humor, but he was most of all a man with a great heart. We will miss him.
Below, we have included his recollections of his most famous works. They were originally published in our January/February 2012 issue, in which we commemorated LeRoy’s 90th birthday.
SONNY LISTON: It’s February 1964 in Miami, before the first of two fights between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. I’m doing what I always do: hanging around sketching. My subject is the surly, often belligerent, sometimes hostile felon with underworld connections Sonny Liston. He spent his formative years unsuccessfully avoiding arrest, and the press is now having a field day with his police record. I’m here to grab images. At first Liston doesn’t notice me as he circles the ring, shadowboxing and scowling. Then I get the glare. “Hey, artist, get rid of the cigar.” I look up at him. “It’s not lit,” I say. Now he comes over. “I said the cigar’s got to go. I don’t care if the cigar ain’t lit. The artist is out of here!” No reason to let a good Cuban get in the way. I set it aside, move out of Liston’s radar and continue drawing. The incident didn’t mark me forever with Sonny. Eventually he asked me to sketch him at his home. “I don’t want you to paint me as a fighter,” he told me. “I want you to paint me as a gentleman.” Maybe that explained it all.
Leo Durocher: It’s two in the morning, and Sinatra is calling. “Me and the boys have decided on a housewarming gift for Durocher,” he says. I finish Leo and the Ump, my homage to the St. Paul rookie I cheered as a kid, in two weeks and express it to Palm Springs. Durocher’s widow displayed the painting at Leo’s funeral.
Bobby Fischer: Another two a.m. call, only it’s six a.m. Reykjavík time. Roone Arledge calls from the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky chess championship. “Fischer’s banned the camera crew. Get on the next plane!” First day on the set, I work with my Rapidograph. Fischer looks in my direction. My pen scratching bothers him. I take up a silent felt-tip. Fischer sniffs the air. The scent of ink! I reach for a graphite pencil—squeakless, odorless—finally off Fischer’s radar.