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Andy Neiman Was a Comet Flashing Through the Darkness 

click to enlarge Andy Neiman as columnist Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie.

ERIC WOOLSEY

Andy Neiman as columnist Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie.

Now 48 and a half years since his birth, six months since his disappearance and five months since he was found in the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York, we are called to think of St. Louis actor-producer-writer-teacher-musician Andy Neiman in a celestial way.

At his memorial service, held June 25, his father, Ben, and brother, David, remembered how Neiman as a small boy wept when Superman, who arrived with superpowers from the dying planet Krypton, relinquished them so he could marry Lois Lane. "My brother threw a stage 5 tantrum and couldn't understand why Superman gave them up," David said. "He wanted superpowers, and at times, he believed he had them."

His mother, Lainie, remembered toddler Andy crooning "My Blue Heaven" to gatherings of relatives and friends. "Andy seemed a little closer to God and the angels," she would say.

His uncle, Tom Collinger, applied more than two dozen nouns to Neiman, including philosopher, teacher, tutor, scholar, master of unease and unrest, but landed on comet.

"Andy was a comet that burst upon us so as to cause gasps and oohs and ahhs as comets do," Collinger said. "And, as comets do, they exit, and we can't ever forget them ...."

Until the meteor that came to be known as Halley's Comet was spotted traversing our corner of the universe, cosmologists believed that these shooting stars made one pass through the solar system never to return. But then they took note that Halley was returning approximately every 75 years.

And so it might be — at least metaphorically — for Andy's Comet. That's if his family and friends have anything to say about it. Many are determined to draw lessons from Neiman's life and death — to move it from metaphor to practical for the benefit of his beloved daughter, Eliyah, age eight, but also for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They believe that sharing his story is one way to do that.

Neiman's illness was bipolar disorder. Many stories, books and scholarly papers have been written about this peculiar and pernicious disease that has afflicted so many brilliant people, including performers such as Mariah Carey, Jimi Hendrix and Carrie Fisher. With each story shared, a greater understanding develops. The stigma attached to mental illness that over centuries provoked people to murder, institutionalize and marginalize humans with mental disorders slowly recedes. Researchers, physicians, therapists and policymakers are encouraged to develop new approaches.

But there is still much to be done. And there is reason to believe that Andy's family and friends could make a substantial difference because of the skills and passion they will bring as they honor his memory. Among Andy's closest relatives and friends are educators, scholars, marketing experts, social workers, attorneys, playwrights and actors.

"I come from a family of communicators," Lainie Neiman said. This is an understatement: The family teems with extroverts, comfortable with living life out loud, arguing, laughing, walking in the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil. They, too, burn bright.

Big Bang

Andy Neiman burst into the universe Sunday, June 3, 1973. He was the first of three children for Lainie Collinger Neiman and Bennett Neiman with David and Emily to follow in 1976 and 1979. "Andy broke me in as a mom," Lainie would say. Then she went celestial again. "When I got my first glimpse of Andy at three minutes old, I felt we had already known each other. We were like E.T. and Elliott."

It wasn't long before Lainie and everyone noticed that this child had developed an enormous sense of whimsy and a need for attention.

At the memorial service, Lainie recalled toddler Andy "saying hello to every lady in the grocery store. And when they failed to respond, he would take umbrage: 'I said, 'HI!'"

Andy learned to play chess at age three. He would ask questions that were at once impertinent and adorable. "Are you Christian or Jewish?" he would ask. "Do you believe in Jesus?"

Andy found an audience beyond family, friends and shoppers at age eight at the Jewish Community Center arts camp where he stepped into the title role of Pinocchio.

Lainie Neiman remembered Andy reveling in the applause and adulation. But he would add: "Mom, it's so hard when the applause stops."

So he would do what he could to remedy that.

There was his bar mitzvah a few years later, special because it was the first for Central Reform Congregation. The congregation was then establishing itself in St. Louis' Central West End, with Rabbi Susan Talve, who went on to become a moral force across the region. The occasion was special, too, because like a sponge Neiman absorbed CRC's teachings, its values, its essence. "Studying for his bar mitzvah with me," Talve said, "Andy never settled for easy answers."

Neiman's devotion to Torah study would continue throughout his life. "Andy knew more Torah than many rabbis and more Shakespeare than many English actors," his mother said.

click to enlarge Andy Neiman, then in his late 20s and early 30s, would submit images like these as he auditioned for parts in productions in St. Louis and nationwide.
  • Andy Neiman, then in his late 20s and early 30s, would submit images like these as he auditioned for parts in productions in St. Louis and nationwide.

In eighth grade, Neiman produced a video — a kind of TikTok precursor later posted on YouTube — in which he and his classmates danced, pranced and lip-synched to the tune of the Cars' "Magic" around suburban Clayton where he grew up. Watch it and you will find Neiman redefining zest.

Neiman went on to perform in high school musicals and college productions. As an adult, his passion grew, and there wasn't a boundary he feared crossing. He was Avigdor in Yentl; the columnist Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie; Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man. Likely you saw him in many productions at St. Louis' Shakespeare Festival.

A playwright as well, Andy adapted Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing into Much A Doo Wop About Nothing, a 50-minute musical with original songs and lyrics which he took on tour to more than 100 schools. He also crafted a hip-hop version of Julius Caesar.

click to enlarge In 2008, Neiman played three roles in the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's production of The Tragedy of King Richard III. - J. DAVID LEVY
  • J. DAVID LEVY
  • In 2008, Neiman played three roles in the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's production of The Tragedy of King Richard III.

Neiman brought so much passion to his work that it sometimes concerned his mother. "Are you sure you want to be an actor?" she asked. To which he responded: "Mom, are you sure you want to be a woman?"

Tortured Artist

Lainie's concerns were not misplaced. His siblings began to notice Andy losing the boyhood buoyancy he displayed in his "Magic" video. Andy was as popular and successful a student as ever there was at Clayton High School, David observed, but without ever enjoying himself that much. "He was runner-up for prom king and yet never hung out with anybody outside of school. How does that happen?" David observed.

Even as a teenager, "I think he was a true tortured artist," his sister Emily said.

Neiman attended college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he did forge friendships, including with Danny Greene, who found himself playing a role in a real-life version of The Odd Couple. In his eulogy for Neiman, Greene compared himself to uptight Felix Ungar living with Neiman's Oscar Madison. "I liked order," Greene said. "Andy could live in the mess."

Beyond his acting and producing Neiman had developed another skill — pie making. With Greene performing as sous chef, the two would stay up late making pies and then diving right in to eat them. "There was so much pie," Greene recalled in his eulogy. "So many dirty baking dishes that I got to wash."

It was exciting to be with Andy, Greene recalled. "He could impersonate any character in any movie or any TV show. He could do a Shakespearean monologue, deliver it in the voice of a stuck-up aristocrat, Kermit or Yoda. Out on the street, he would just start singing at the top of his lungs."

But Greene experienced hard times with Neiman as well. Neiman had broken up with a girlfriend in his sophomore year. The student moved on, forging a relationship with one of Neiman's friends. Neiman could not get past it.

A month after his graduation from Wesleyan, on June 19, 1995, Neiman suffered a psychotic break. His brother David was with him. They stayed up all night, as David remembered, "unearthing hard truths that had come to light," working through a relationship that had grown difficult and complicated.

At dawn, as David recalled in his eulogy, "Andy wrote on the wall in huge magic marker the words, 'On June 19, 1995, Andy Neiman was reborn.' And underneath I wrote in slightly smaller writing, 'And on that night so was David.' By noon the next day Andy held my face in his hands and revealed to me that he was the Messiah.

"It was terrifying and disturbing," David recalled, "but a small part of me wondered if it were true. That is the level of reverence that I had for my spectacular brother."

Neiman was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During the summer of 1995, he was in and out of SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital's psychiatric unit as he tried to come to grips with the emotional roller coaster that is the bipolar mind.

click to enlarge Andy Neiman (left) with his mother, Lainie, and brother, David, circa 1995. - COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • Andy Neiman (left) with his mother, Lainie, and brother, David, circa 1995.

At the time, Lainie Neiman was working with St. Mary's as a marketing and communications specialist for the psychiatric department and had a sophisticated understanding of his treatment. Looking back, she said the staff members could not have been more attentive and caring toward her son. His later interactions with health-care systems in several other states would not go nearly as well.

From Recovery to Rom-Com

For many years, Neiman, thanks in some measure to an antipsychotic medication called Seroquel, coped with and managed his illness effectively. He became one of St. Louis' most decorated and well-known actors and, as well, met the love of his life.

Neiman encountered Louise Edwards in 2000 through St. Louis Shakespeare, a professional company founded in 1984 to perform the bard's work throughout the region. Their relationship remained platonic for a decade, at least in Edwards' mind.

Then, without realizing it, the two produced a rom-com.

By 2010, Edwards was attending Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, to pursue a PhD. As it turned out, Neiman's ambitions gave him reason to move to Chicago as well. When he mentioned that to Edwards over a coffee one day, she suggested that Neiman might move in with her and split the rent.

She was looking for a roommate, not a romance. "I loved him as a friend. I thought if anything was going to happen between us romantically, it surely would have happened by then," Edwards recalled.

Without missing a beat, Edwards added, "Our lease started in September and by October we were romantically involved."

click to enlarge Louise and Andy started as friends. - COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • Louise and Andy started as friends.

That fall Edwards' father, John Edwards Sr., had died after a yearlong battle with cancer. Through her grief, Edwards learned that her roommate was as compassionate as he was passionate. Somehow, she said, he would know instinctively that what she might need in the moment was a bike ride to the IHOP for a stack of pancakes. "Andy just knew these lovely simple ways to care for someone," she said.

The two got engaged the following spring and married in June 2012.

In 2013, their daughter, Eliyah "Ellie" Neiman, arrived.

Ellie and Andy were immediately smitten with one another. Imagine having a dad who was — as Lainie once described him — a guitar-strumming combo of Willy Wonka and Kermit the Frog.

click to enlarge Andy Neiman was, among other things, a talented singer-songwriter. In the summer of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, Neiman posted a work in progress on his Facebook page. It's a song from a musical with the working title Death Fruits (Or Immortally Yours). "I’ve long imagined Jerome Davis performing this," Neiman wrote in a sidebar accompanying the video. "#PipeDream #WhenWillTheatreReturn?" - COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • Andy Neiman was, among other things, a talented singer-songwriter. In the summer of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, Neiman posted a work in progress on his Facebook page. It's a song from a musical with the working title Death Fruits (Or Immortally Yours). "I’ve long imagined Jerome Davis performing this," Neiman wrote in a sidebar accompanying the video. "#PipeDream #WhenWillTheatreReturn?"

He was not one to impose boundaries on Ellie, but to present her with possibilities. Naps were optional for toddler Ellie when dancing around to Broadway show tunes with Dada was more compelling.

More recently, after the family had moved back to St. Louis, Lainie recalled that Andy and Ellie would often walk over from their place to hers, covering about a mile. "When I asked where her shoes were, Andy replied, 'She didn't want to wear them.'

"'Andy,' I said, 'she's seven years old. She doesn't get to decide!'"

Desperate Measures

As an actor, producer, writer and musician, Neiman had been on a high wire. Now as a father, a husband and a provider who was on medication for a mental disorder, he was performing a juggling act on the wire as well.

In some ways, such a life could be ideal for someone with Neiman's interests and energy. He had side gigs that gave him an audience, as a waiter at Acero in Maplewood and the Crossing in Clayton; and as an Uber driver. He loved making connections with his customers and making their meal or their ride memorable. And neither tied him down so much that he couldn't break away to take on a role in a production.

But because his connections were also transitory and transactional, Louise said, "the work could be more depleting than sustaining."

Then COVID-19 came to amplify his depression.

By late winter 2020, audiences for Neiman's work (and every other local thespian) evaporated. His Seroquel medication was no longer helping even at higher doses.

Friends and family rallied to supply resources and expertise for Neiman as he grew increasingly despondent and delusional, and, most alarmingly, talked about ending his life.

Over the course of many years, family members had educated themselves about bipolar illness. But as Neiman's situation grew more desperate, they were finding potholes in the roads that might lead to his recovery.

As Andy spent days and weeks in facilities, they were seeing how caregivers were ill prepared to deal with patients who frequently could present well in the moment, but required much more intensive therapy. "Their goal is to get you stabilized and get you out," said Louise.

Added Lainie: "The mental health-care system is the stepchild of all health care. With the resources we have in this country, it is beyond appalling."

click to enlarge Andy Neiman with his brother, David, in Austin, Texas in May 2021.  David had traveled from his home in New York to escort Andy to a psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania. Andy's stay there did not go well and he left within days for his sister Emily’s home in High Falls, New York.  Not long after his arrival, Emily took Andy to a hospital in Poughkeepsie. After waiting many hours for attention, Andy left the facility and went missing. His body was found June 19 in the Hudson River. - COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • Andy Neiman with his brother, David, in Austin, Texas in May 2021. David had traveled from his home in New York to escort Andy to a psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania. Andy's stay there did not go well and he left within days for his sister Emily’s home in High Falls, New York. Not long after his arrival, Emily took Andy to a hospital in Poughkeepsie. After waiting many hours for attention, Andy left the facility and went missing. His body was found June 19 in the Hudson River.

Neiman checked in and out of St. Mary's psych unit in St. Louis for one-week stays in February and March 2021. Later he would spend five weeks at a treatment center in Tucson, Arizona, then a week at a center in his father's hometown of Austin, Texas.

In May, his brother, David, flew to Austin to escort Neiman to New York and on to a facility in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Neiman stayed only two days, finding his experience there intolerable.

It was then that he called his sister, Emily. And, of course, he would. They had long been first responders to one another. Emily remembers her year in the eighth grade — "the nadir of my life" — when she visited her brother at Wesleyan for what she called a magical weekend. Andy treated her to all the respect and interest that he showed his peers. Looking back, Emily said her brother had given her "a glimpse of the beautiful and joyous future that awaited me. And I knew my pain would be finite."

Emily urged Andy to take the Amtrak to Poughkeepsie, New York, where she picked him up and brought him to her home in nearby High Falls with her husband, Simon Abramson, and three daughters.

click to enlarge Andy with his brother David and sister Emily. - COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • COURTESY NEIMAN FAMILY
  • Andy with his brother David and sister Emily.

As Emily remembers, her brother woke her about 3:30 a.m. on May 21 in deep distress, saying he had poison all over his body and needed to go to the hospital. The two jumped into her vehicle and arrived about 30 minutes later at the emergency room at MidHudson Regional Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

Because of COVID-19 protocols, Emily could not accompany her brother beyond the ER waiting room. She was told that Neiman would be admitted to the psychiatric unit by 4 o'clock that afternoon. Emily later learned that her brother was kept waiting well past that time, and, in fact, was never admitted. At 9:30 p.m., police in Poughkeepsie called Emily to tell her that her brother had gone missing a half hour earlier from the ER, wearing hospital scrubs and slippers. He had left behind his glasses, shoes, phone and ID.

click to enlarge Andy walked away from the Midhudson Regional Hospital after waiting for hours without receiving help. - RICHARD H. WEISS
  • RICHARD H. WEISS
  • Andy walked away from the Midhudson Regional Hospital after waiting for hours without receiving help.

Police began their search that night and the next day alerted authorities across the region. The Neiman family and friends kicked into high gear. Simon created a "Find Andy" Facebook group, then a GoFundMe site that raised more than $40,000 to hire private investigators. Andy Cohen, the celebrity Bravo host and a fellow Clayton High School alum, used his social media platforms to bring attention to his plight, which in turn drew coverage from The Today Show and People Magazine. As search parties made up of local volunteers scoured the region, Simon created a hotline and sorted through tips of sightings from as far away as New Jersey.

On June 19, Poughkeepsie police reported to the family that Neiman's body had been found in the Hudson River. It had been nearly a month since his disappearance.

Honoring the Struggle

The Neimans are still trying to sort through what happened to Andy on the day that he went missing and how they should respond.

The hospital, while publicly expressing condolences to family and friends, has remained mum about its role in Neiman's disappearance and death. So too has the officer given the responsibility for the search and subsequent investigation.

No one suspects foul play. But family members reject use of the term suicide. What do we mean by that word anyway?

To many it seems to suggest that a person has intentionally taken his life. In a new book, One Friday in April, Donald Antrim, an award-winning author and self-described suicide survivor, writes that suicide is "a disease process, not an act or a choice."

"As long as we see suicide as a rational act taken after rational deliberation, it will remain incomprehensible," Antrim writes. "Stigma, society's unacknowledged violence toward the sick will remain strong. But if we accept that that the [person attempting suicide] is trying to survive, then we can begin to describe an illness."

The Neiman clan will probably never know the exact circumstances of Andy Neiman's death, but here's what they make of Andy's Comet as it orbits 'round the sun and the Earth.

click to enlarge Andy Neiman performing as Avigdor with Shanara Gabrielle as Yentl in the New Jewish Theatre production of Yentl in 2016. "Neiman is instantly likable in the role," wrote Riverfront Times theater critic Paul Friswold. - ERIC WOOLSEY

David (at Neiman's memorial service): "My brother was so theatrical. So exuberant. He was just never going to die in a bed. And, no, even pills weren't going to cut it. It is so utterly on brand Andy Neiman that his death would be in the most dramatic fashion possible, drawing the attention of the whole world and bringing an entire loving community together, and finally leaving us all by flowing back into the deep waters of the Hudson River with all the symbolic, poetic Shakespearean implications that I assure you my brother intended. This is how a superhero departs from this world."

Emily (at the memorial service): "What is the cost of showing your vulnerability? Is it worth it or not? The thing that stalked Andy until his dying day was an incalculable terror, an interminable number of if onlys and why didn'ts as he ran over past events in his mind again and again. A beautiful aspect of mental illness is that you cannot mask your vulnerability. Sadly, in many cases, the vulnerability becomes so pervasive that it debilitates, making it at best extremely difficult and at worst utterly untenable to build and lead a life. But a beautiful life Andy certainly did build ... I am so proud of Andy for exhibiting such bravery in confronting life with such a thin membrane between his art and the world he encountered. We are all so much the better for it."

Bennett (at the memorial service): "You were a sacred light to so many who shined brightly. You spread love and magic everywhere you went. You welcomed all sensory experiences, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings. The only problem was that you were not given any armor, so everything came to you full, unfiltered and you took it all in, every joy and every pain. Eventually, it was too much for you. To borrow a line from Don McLean, 'This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you.'"

Lainie (in a post on Facebook): "I have no idea how I will live the rest of my days without my son, Andy, but I know I will dedicate myself to three things: 1.) Celebrating his life by living well and out loud. 2.) Being an advocate and champion for decent mental health care in our country (including perhaps writing a book about his odyssey over the past couple of years) and 3.) Creating an Andy Neiman Memorial Fund/Foundation to support promising young performing artists who have limited resources. I absolutely know that we will be sharing thousands of Andy Neiman stories for the rest of our lives."

Louise (at the memorial service): "Nine years ago, Andy and I stood together and made a commitment to one another. It was a beautiful day full of love and potential and possibility. I find my heart filled with a desire to make another commitment to Andy: I stand before you today a better person for having known and loved you. I will honor you and your story and share it with Ellie as she grows. I will take care of her in all the ways that matter. We will grieve and we will heal. I will love her enough for both of us."

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