Farewell to a Friend
Chef John Bennett writes an homage to contemporary artist LeRoy Nieman.
When lunch with friends turned into planning a trip to New York City, I knew right away the highlight of the trip would be a visit to the studio of LeRoy Neiman.
The visit that followed was just one chapter in a friendship that spanned nearly half a century with one of America's most celebrated contemporary artists. Neiman died June 20; he was 91.
It was my great privilege to know him and call him friend. It was further my privilege to introduce this dear friend to some local friends after that lunch at La Baguette on a bitter winter day in 2009.
A memorable trip
Les Freres du Mercredi, the Brothers of Wednesday, is an Oklahoma City ad hoc group of restaurateurs, chefs, wine importers, doctors, lawyers, and a judge who get together Wednesdays to discuss everything but business. On the aforementioned winter day as conversation turned to a visit to The Big Apple, I was asked to offer suggestions and introductions for their upcoming trip.
Christmas in Gotham is not to be missed with all the tinsel, lights and beautiful store windows, but LeRoy's Studio in the Hotel des Artistes on Central Park West was not to be missed.
So I asked LeRoy's longtime assistant and close friend, Lynn Quayle, if I could bring the boys to the studio to meet him. After speaking to the “Boss,” she readily agreed.
A memorable hour and a half at posing for pictures and conversation with the legend ensued. The Brothers still talk about that day. I learned later LeRoy was in great pain but graciously allowed us to come for that memorable visit. Lynn later told me I alone had been welcome to bring my tribe, and we were among the last large group to be accorded that honor.
Fast friends in France
LeRoy and I first became acquainted in Bordeaux, France, in the mid-1960s when I was on a wine-buying trip for The Cellar Restaurant at Hightower. He was on a “Man at His Leisure” assignment for Playboy magazine. I was in my mid-20s and LeRoy in his mid-40s. We seemed to click almost immediately. Over the next 45-plus years, we dined all over the world together, including a couple of his visits to Oklahoma City, but most notably in New York City at the 21 Club, La Cote Basque, and Lafayette at the Drake Hotel. LeRoy and Lynn were fixtures at the many Oklahoma-Joullian dinners we did, starting in 1988.
All the while he was sketching vignettes of my working friends, including my late nephew, chef Chip Sears, my lifelong friend chef Robert Dickson, chef Lloyd Cook and world-renowned chef Jacques Pepin. LeRoy then generously offered us the originals while all of this was being photographed and documented by Lynn.
One of LeRoy's special qualities was his understanding and acceptance of all strata of society regardless of age, class or vocation. In fact, he loved to sketch, draw and paint a cross-section of those of us in the hospitality/service industry.
Among his favored subjects were doormen, chauffeurs, men's room attendants, restaurateurs, waiters, maitre d's, sommeliers and chefs. All were a big part of his lifestyle as a bon vivant, raconteur and man-about-town. And we all loved him for the recognition and validation.