"You're my hero," says Neiman, meaning it.
"I'm just a washed-up bum," responds Ali. He moves ponderously toward a bookcase and takes down a Bible, opens it and makes Neiman read the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything."
Ali says nothing for a moment. He is busy laying out two dozen pictures of Jesus on the carpeted floor. "Imagine you're white, and you see a black Jesus and black angels all your life," he says. "It'd mess up your mind."
Neiman looks slightly uncomfortable. He quickly asks about the life-size painting he made after the second Liston fight of Ali standing triumphant in the ring, arms upraised. Ali says his estranged wife, Veronica, loaned it to a museum and he has not seen it since.
"You've got to get it back," Neiman says. "That's a great painting!"
Some critics claim they can't tell one Neiman from another, but Neiman can. "You've got to be careful not to become redundant or a hack," he says. "You've got to become more self-critical. Does my work still excite me? I'm usually picked to do a commission based on what I've done before. It's not a new experience. The only thing that inspires me then is a lot of money."
What Howard Johnson's is to the taste buds, LeRoy Neiman is to the eyes.
—A noted magazine designer
Barbered, tanned and languid, Neiman stands beneath Dali's Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized By Her Own Chastity, which hangs in Hugh Hefner's Tudor mansion in Holmby Hills in L.A. Neiman is wearing a blue-and-white print kimono. He's barefoot and smoking a long cigar, Cuban this time. Hefner lounges nearby in yellow pajamas, maroon smoking jacket and black slippers.
Neiman and Hefner first crossed paths 35 years ago in Chicago. Neiman was a fashion illustrator doing millinery drawings. Hefner was writing ad copy for a men's store and drawing cartoons. "I don't remember the moment," says Hefner. "Our eyes did not meet across a crowded room." One day, after Hefner had started his magazine, he ran into Neiman on a street and asked him to become a contributor to Playboy.
Neiman did "Man and His Leisure" for 15 years and learned a lot about much more than art. "I was a peasant when I went into the world Playboy supplied," he recalls. "I met the rich and powerful and immediately saw their shortcomings and disgusting tendencies. But I realized how formidable they were. They're jaded, and jaded people can't lose."