On a freewheeling ride with Colts' owner

Catching Up With ... Jim Irsay

Irsay's treatment of Kerouac draft worries scholars and curators

August 18, 2002|By Nara Schoenberg | By Nara Schoenberg,Special to the Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Irsay's appearance in the wood-paneled library of his palatial mansion is an event, and not just because he is two hours late for an interview at his own home. There's his look: The owner of such items as the Indianapolis Colts, one of Elvis Presley's guitars, and now the legendary scroll upon which Jack Kerouac typed On the Road is tall and beefy, with the shoulders of a linebacker and the pale, shiny suit of a hippie loan shark.

There's his voice: a Dylan-esque drawl that lingers, lovingly, on words such as "c-o-o-o-l" and "a-u-u-u-ra."

But, most of all, there's his energy. Whether he's stubbing out cigarettes just inches away from his fragile and irreplaceable draft of On the Road or fondly recalling how he gave reporters the finger after buying the manuscript, or stripping down to a tie, an artfully placed guitar and little else in the course of a photo shoot, Irsay is, depending how you look at it, either a party permanently in progress or an accident waiting to happen.

A year after Irsay, 43, bought the Kerouac manuscript at auction for a record $2.43 million, scholars' responses range from mild concern to outspoken condemnation.

"It's a disgrace," says Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia, upon being informed that, during a recent interview, Irsay smoked near the open manuscript and allowed an open bottle of water to sit two inches away from it as it lay in a non-waterproof box.

"This guy is a spoiled, rich millionaire. ... I guess if you've got that much money, you can buy a Picasso and put a cigarette out on it, but it's a disgrace. Jack Kerouac belongs to the American people. He was one of our greatest writers of the 20th century, [and] his materials should all be publicly available for study."

Irsay says the scroll is safe and he is willing to make it available to scholars. And, in a madcap three-hour interview conducted in the library, indoor basketball court and basement stage of his leafy estate on the outskirts of Indianapolis, he goes further, suggesting that precisely those qualities of his that make literary purists squirm make him the ideal guardian of the most storied relic of the 1950s countercultural awakening that was the Beat movement.

"To me, it's already got this mystical aura to it," Irsay says of the scroll. "And it would be really cool to add to that. And I think I have the capabilities and the creative thinking to do that in a way that's viewed as fun, but universally viewed as safe and respectful."

Um, uhhhh, uhhm

In discussing On the Road, Kerouac's lightly fictionalized 1957 book about a series of freewheeling cross-country road trips, Irsay offers that he recently wrote a song about a similar topic.

"It was definitely about being on the road and about Woody Guthrie and about Jack Kerouac and, ummm, it was, uh, it was actually recorded last night, um, uhhhhh, and um, it just really, really spoke to the exact same thing we're talking about.

"About, um, being on the road and, um, uhhm, about, just about the changes and just about uhhm, the aspect that uhhm, that occurs by, you know, getting on the freight trains with the hobos in the boxcars and going across the plains of America and um, and, you know, changing, um, uhhh, and laying the groundwork for, ahem, changing, uh, the country."

This leads him to a digression on Gary, Ind., and the Industrial Revolution, but Irsay eventually returns to the topic at hand.

"Uh, basically, um, uhhm, [the song] just spoke of um, exactly what the road's about, and that's about, you know, traveling and going through, um, Americana, and, um, you know, planting the seeds um, uhhm, and just, uhhh, you know, just really influencing and laying the groundwork for those to come after them.

"I mean, because, there has to be, you know, the torch that gets handed, you know? I mean, it's like Martin Luther King said, in one of his famous speeches, he said, you know, 'I won't be there, you know? I won't see the day. But you all will, you know?' "

An eccentric father

It's hard to talk about Jim Irsay's eccentricities without mentioning those of his late father, Bob, the controversial Colts owner still reviled in some circles for a 1984 decision to move the football team from Baltimore to Indianapolis -- literally, in the middle of the night.

The elder Irsay, a Chicagoan who made his fortune in the heating and air conditioning business, was given to angry outbursts, bad trades and erratic public behavior. His own mother was quoted in a scathing 1986 Sports Illustrated profile as saying, "He's a devil on earth."

The younger Irsay is himself no slouch in the flamboyance department. This is a man described by journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose tales of drug-addled mischief are the stuff of counterculture legend, as a force to be reckoned with.

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