Remembering LeRoy Neiman and His Wartime New York

For LeRoy and so many others, the experience of New York was an important part of what made the war a defining event. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with LeRoy's paintings will recognize this lasting influence.
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LeRoy Neiman, the American artist beloved for his splashy, brilliantly colored paintings and screen prints of athletes and sporting events, died in June at the age of 91. Apart from being astonishingly successful -- at one point he was thought to be America's wealthiest artist -- LeRoy was also a great storyteller, with a wry and often off-color sense of humor.

I got to hear LeRoy tell a great many yarns over the years -- I wrote an essay about his art with my husband David Halle, who directed the LeRoy Neiman Center at UCLA -- and had the privilege of calling him a friend. And one thing always struck me about his stories: the prominent role in so many of them of World War II.

LeRoy was drafted into the war at the age of 21. For him, as for virtually everyone of his generation, World War II was a defining event in their lives. The centrality of this experience had been on my mind already, because we are just now putting the finishing touches on a major new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, WWII & NYC (opening October 5) on just this theme. LeRoy's death drives home the reality of how World War II changed everyone, no matter whether they experienced the war on the battlefield or the home front.

Like most other soldiers who went through combat, LeRoy had his share of horrific, tragic stories. In his memoir All Told, published just before his death, he wrote about the desolation of London during the blitz -- "the terrifying paintings of Hieronymus Bosch come hideously to life." He used to speak, too, of the sickening carnage left in the wake of German artillery; of civilians killed by friendly fire; of the wanton destruction caused by armed soldiers who had too much to drink. And with his characteristic humor, he also made jokes -- for example, about the packages of condoms handed out to the troops in his unit in preparation for the Normandy invasion, not for their usual purpose but to keep the muzzles of the M1 rifles free of water and sand. And he spoke about how he worried whether his cigars -- one of his signatures, even back then -- would would survive the Channel crossing on D-Day plus Six.

LeRoy, like 3 million other soldiers, shipped out from New York City. As we show in WWII & NYC, the entire city was caught up in a massive mobilization, involving all members of society and large swaths of the physical landscape. For LeRoy and so many others, the experience of New York was an important part of what made the war a defining event. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with LeRoy's paintings will recognize this lasting influence, as recorded in All Told:

We headed out to the fancy midtown bars and restaurants in military uniform just to show the slackers and café society toffs that we were real men on a real mission, while they were weasels. They took us to Jack Dempsey's, the Latin Quarter, all the swell joints. "Unhook that 14k-gold chain, civilian, and let our men in uniform go in and get shit-faced and make fools of themselves!" Even the imperial tuxedoed door domo at the Stork Club became deferential in the presence of men in full dress uniforms... We did get to see the ritzy bôites and swanky joints, but forget about fraternizing or trying to get to first base with the mink-swaddled high-priced dames that littered these posh rooms. Instead, we saddled up to the bar and hung out in the cocktail lounges with broads we could afford. A good time was had by all. If I could have remembered it, I would have quoted that line the gladiators used to say: "Morituri te salutant -- those who are about to die salute you," but nevertheless it was a swell farewell to the grand old USA.

New York City connected people with the war in myriad other ways. Not only was its great natural harbor the major port of embarkation between 1942 and 1945 for North Africa and Europe, but it was also the home of the busiest shipyard in the world. New York's media industry made the city the center of the Allied propaganda effort. Its talent pool of scientists and academics (augmented by refugees from fascism) made it the starting point for the super-secret effort to build an atomic bomb (called, appropriately, the Manhattan Project). The unique mixture of peoples and cultures in the city, and the many educational and civil society organizations headquartered there, positioned New York as the perfect place to promote the ideals of unity in diversity, and democracy over fashion. And when the war ended, New York City was the place, more than any other, where victory was celebrated, and where more soldiers were welcomed home than in any other port.

LeRoy Neiman was born in Minnesota and resided in Chicago -- but like so many others who experienced the city during World War II, he eventually became a New Yorker. He moved to the city in 1963 and lived in the Hôtel des Artistes, just a few blocks south of the New-York Historical Society, for the rest of his life. You could say it was the same ritzy bôites and swanky joints he'd visited in 1942 that attracted him back to the city -- along with new establishments of culture and art, like Lincoln Center and the midtown art gallery scene. As he writes in All Told, World War II defined him:

I went from a drifter going nowhere fast to being a hero (sort of). I had a go at changing history -- maybe not all by myself -- I fought at the battle of Normandy, I slogged through the Ardennes, and I celebrated the liberation of Paris on the streets with beautiful French girls throwing flowers at me. I said good-bye to my first true love and discovered what I really wanted to do with my life.

And he discovered New York, which became, in his words, "the inspiration for my beat."

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