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.
A fait accompli
When I offered to do his 90th birthday last year, I couldn't have known it would be the grand finale, but I did want to make it a fait accompli and soiree his guests would not soon forget.
We celebrated in the studio with his close friends, family and his staff with lots of great food. Chef John Greeley of the 21 Club prepared LeRoy's favorite steak tartare. We served rare vintage wines, including amuse bouche, with ripe artisanal cheeses, French Champagne, American sturgeon caviar, three homemade birthday cakes, including his favorite German chocolate made by Lynn, and my specialty, Mama Bennett's Four-Layer Coconut Cake.
Laura Ward, one of Lynn's friends, a ravishing redhead, donned a black wig and fishnet stockings and jumped out of a giant paper cake dressed as the Femlin, the Playboy character he created that has appeared in every issue for the past 50 years. Meanwhile, Dickson belted out an operatic version of “Happy Birthday” — a seminal moment. We finished the day reminiscing over Cuban cigars.
It was the most important party I have done in my long career, and my good friends helped pull off this masterpiece.
Au revoir, mon ami
A common thread of my life and LeRoy's was the love of the good life, which included close friends, delicious food, interesting people and lots of action, which is why we loved the 21 Club so much. And often we would meet my friends, Robert and Beth Pemberton, at the 21 Club. Oklahoma wine merchant Stan Stack showed up once to my complete surprise. We closed the restaurant that night.
LeRoy was hard to miss, always dressed elegantly, usually in a white suit with a colorful shirt and ascot, his unmistakable trademark mustache from ear to ear, a Cuban Cohiba close by and black and white Spectators on his feet. Many years ago I adopted wearing those black-and-white wingtip shoes, calling them my LeRoy Neiman shoes. He loved that.
And LeRoy generously wrote a touching accolade on the back cover of the recently published cookbook for my nephew, “From Chef Chip's Kitchen,” which his mother, and my sister, Kaye, and I wrote to honor Chip's memory.
My heart sank when I received an email in late June from Lynn informing me that “Boss” was in the hospital with pneumonia.
At his age of 91 I instinctively knew it would be difficult for him to recover despite his lionhearted nature.
LeRoy passed away in New York City with his wife, Janet, of 55 years, family, and of course, Lynn, by his side.
LeRoy was a generous benefactor and supporter of the arts, a sweet, caring gentleman, and a devoted fan and friend. LeRoy often signed his sketches of me over the past two decades “Of and For John Bennett, Your eternal friend, LeRoy.”
And so he always will be.
Goodbye, LeRoy, your eternal friend, John.