LeRoy Neiman has compiled his historic sketches of Muhammad Ali
This is an artist’s studio with a difference. It is also a boxing ring.
“There were two fights,” said the artist. “The first one in Miami, the second one up in Maine. The first one had red ropes. The second one had blue ropes. It just happened that way.”
But you notice those things, the journalist said.
“That’s right,” said the artist. “Well, that became the theme of the book.” He grins behind his handlebar moustache. “The third color is yellow. Remember Harry Markson, the promoter at the Garden? He’s gone now, but he was a great guy. He said, ‘Yellow’s not a boxing color.’ But there’s a lot of yellow in this book.”
He turned the big pages, one after another. “Yellow here. Yellow background there. That’s Malcolm X. His umbrella’s yellow. Little spots of yellow all over the place.”
The artist famous and beloved around the world, but snubbed, down-rated to this day by various of the aesthetic fraternity, is LeRoy Neiman, now in his 77th year in this world, his 43rd year in these premises in the West 60s.
My 43rd year in this room,” he says. “We’re survivors is what we are.”
It is quite a room, a studio with a 20-foot ceiling. One wall is all easels—small, large, and larger. The opposite wall is paints, paint pots, brushes, scores of them, hundreds of them, pots overrunning with brilliant colors, many more than just red, blue, or yellow. The entire third wall is given over to a single huge staggering canvas of jazz musicians, but more on that later.
On the tabletop work surface along the fourth wall rests the book, a very big book, 13.75 by 16.5 by maybe four inches, that Neiman is turning the pages of, one by one, talking about each page, each drawing, each detail, each person, as he turns
“A very fancy book,” he said dryly. “Very expensive.”
It is called “The LeRoy Neiman Sketchbook: 1964 Liston vs. Clay—1965 Ali vs. Liston.” It is in fact the beautiful printed replica of a Neiman sketchbook of those years, and it costs—hold your breath—$3,750 per copy. Published by powerHouse, it was recently on exhibit for a month at the publishing house’s gallery at 68 Charlton Street.
“The first fight,” said Neiman, as he peered at the date, “was February 25, 1964. The second fight was May 25, 1965, exactly 18 months later. Clay changed his name to Ali after the first fight. Look here.”
He pointed to the reproduction of a poster for the second fight, the one in Maine. “It says: Champion vs. Challenger. They refused to print Ali’s name. He’d been Ali for 18 months already.
“The New York Times did the same thing. Look here,” turning a page to the name “Clay” in an eight-column Times headline. “They had Arthur Daley there, they had Bob Lipsyte there, and they still held onto it. That’s one of the factors in this book. I deal with that sort of thing.”
The journalist asked where and when Neiman first met the Cassius Clay who would become Muhammad Ali.
“It was one block away from here,” the artist said, “at the St. Nicholas Arena, in 1962. Clay vs. Billy Daniels, the Harlem Barber. Jack Drees, a big tall TV interviewer, said, ‘You gotta meet this kid.’ He took me to the dressing room. There was the kid. I started drawing. He said, ‘I wanna draw,’ so I gave him the pen. And he drew this stuff down here in the corner [of Neiman’s own drawing of that kid]: a rocket ship, an auto, and a sketch of himself with the words: Next Champ, Cassius Clay, 1963. He gave himself one year to win the championship—one year early.
“So he beats this guy, and has about three other fights, one in London, one in Los Angeles, one in somewhere, and now we come to Miami, Clay vs. Liston—a brute, a villain, a tough guy, but not a… well, I didn’t have problems with him. I realized, when Liston got in the ring, here was this guy who had spent half his life in jail. In the ring, he faced the same proportions, the same size as a jail cell. It made him mean, a mean cuss… but…”
Again Neiman indicated, with a gesture, that he couldn’t really dislike Liston.
Another page: Some poetry the new champ wrote into Neiman’s sketchbook: “Liston was big strong and tough, but to beat the Lip it wasn’t enough.”
Another whole page is a pen-and-ink drawing, by Clay/Ali, of the scene when he’s predicting his eight-round knockout of Liston. In one corner of the crowd at ringside is a tiny smiling face: Ali’s caricature of LeRoy Neiman.
Page after page after page, in pencil, in charcoal, in pen and ink, in conté crayon, in every medium known to drawing, and of course, afterwards, in paint. The men around Ali are Louis Serria, Bundini Brown, Angelo Dundee. Liston lacing on his shoes. Liston on the scale. Liston as a bear. (Ali had called him a bear). Liston and his wife, leaving the arena. Young Howard Cosell, looking like a dancer, at the beginning of his career. Budd Schulberg reporting on the fight for Playboy. Great sportswriter Red Smith in red crayon. Norman Mailer in black. Jake LaMotta—“I had dinner with him two nights ago,” Neiman said.
Beau Jack, terrific welterweight champ, shining shoes for his very existence in Miami.
“He shined Sinatra’s shoes. One night at Sinatra’s there’s a knock on the door. It’s Beau Jack, bringing back Frank’s shoes. ‘It’s an honor to shine Mr. Sinatra’s shoes,’ Beau Jack says. Sinatra replies: ‘It’s an honor to have Beau Jack shine my shoes.’”
Neiman pointed to a slight smudge on the side of a page.
“Look at the printing we did,” he said. “We kept all the marks, the fingerprints, everything.”
The second fight, the one in Maine, ended in a knockout of Liston—an invisible punch—that is a very great mystery to this day. Does Neiman have any theories about that?
“No.” Arms folded across his chest. “I keep that to myself.” Pause. “There was something strange about both of those fights. Muslims. Black Panthers. People getting killed. Malcolm X. Ali was a smart kid, a naive kid. The Muslims told him to do something, and…” He lets it trail off.
In another sketchbook there’s Joe Louis, Jimmy Cannon, and a beautiful Neiman watercolor of the very young Cassius Clay. “Nineteen years old. A kid. Loud. But a good kid. I liked him a lot. Look at him. Like a Vegas showgirl. The hands are good. The feet are good. A perfect physical specimen. And a very aware guy.”
The first Ali-Frazier fight. Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971. The champion dethroned.
“Sinatra was there, shooting this. Nothing happens, nothing happens. Last round, BANG! Ali goes down.” Neiman has captured the moment in exquisitely fine-lined pen and ink that resembles etching. The white ropes are where the ink has stopped. How do you do that, LeRoy? Do you erase?
He shrugged: “No, you just stop.”
It must take hours.
Maybe three-quarters of an hour.
There are 500 printed, numbered, signed copies of the replica like the one on this work table. Where is the original?
Where had it been before this?
“In a drawer right in the next room, for 40 years.”
How did you come to find it again?
“I didn’t find it. I knew it was there. But I don’t ever want to reflect back on what I did. You’ve got to go forward, not back. I don’t want to go back.”
So how come we now have this stunning edition?
“It’s not a grievance, but I can tell you one thing. There’ve been so many books written about Ali, and films and things. I felt that since they’re putting out all these things about him, a number of them by people who don’t know him and weren’t there—well, I was there.
“So I looked at the sketchbook and thought: there it is. What the hell, I can do the real thing.”
Neiman sent copy number one to Ali and Ali’s wife Lonnie, up in Michigan. Neiman has been as sickened as some of the rest of us by media exploitation of the aging, ailing Muhammad Ali.
“He looks at the book and looks at the book, and doesn’t say much,” Neiman said. “But Ali’s now drawing again, because of the book. He’s coming here in 10 days, with his wife. His father was a sign painter, you know. His brother tried to paint. It’s in the blood.”
And paint is in the blood of LeRoy Neiman. Take another look at the huge painting of those musicians on the opposite wall. Fifteen or 16 of them. Charlie Parker. Dizzie Gillespie. Miles Davis. Krupa. Dorsey. Goodman. Glenn Miller. Jerry Mulligan. Fats Waller. Billie Holiday. Some others.
“When I was young I knew all these guys. All dead now except Wynton Marsalis.”
Straight-faced but with irony. “I put Goodman and Dorsey and Miller in there mainly because they’re white. You can’t have an all-black orchestra. Even basketball teams have a couple of white guys.”
What are you going to do with it, LeRoy?
“I don’t know. It’s gotta have a public place. I don’t want it to go in some private mansion some place.”
The journalist suggested one exactly right place: Carnegie Hall. Neiman’s eyebrows signal: Yes, thanks—why not?
Those occasional snobs of the aesthetic fraternity may not look on a work like this—jazz musicians!—as art, but let us wait a couple of hundred years and see. God knows it is painting, and more. You can not only see it but hear it.
“Painting is life,” said LeRoy Neiman. “Just like a priest or a rabbi or anything. It’s got to be your whole life. I can’t do anything else. I never learned anything else. I can’t do anything else.” Says it twice. “I can’t do anything else.”
No one is asking you to, LeRoy. This book… your life… your work—it’s a knockout, pal.