Part I, The Author’s Song
The passing of the scroll …
It’s gone to a good place.
To an iconoclastic, white-tie wearin’ John Lennon lovin’ “huge Bob Dylan fan,” spirit of the 60s, buddy of Brinkley’s, crony of Thompson’s, and owner of the Indianapolis Colts (my new and forever favorite team), Jim Irsay.
It was football that got Jack out of Lowell,
and it was football that saved his holy scroll.
… it’s late in the game, the secret weapon, a long bomb from Brinkley caught on the 2 million yard line by Irsay fresh off the bench, dodges past Sterling Lord on the 1 yard line — touchdown!
$2.2 million dollars — a new world record for an original manuscript, more than Joyce’s Ulysses, which some people think is a pretty good book, more than Kafka’s Trial, and every other literary piece ever written. In fact, it comes to about $2,430,000 when you add in the commission and taxes.
I’d tell you about visiting the scroll
Four out of five days you could see it unrolled,
But I’ll save that for some other time
Cuz the essence of the moment is the auctioneer’s rhyme …
I went over to Christie’s across from NBC and next door to The Today Show at about 11:30AM to register so I wouldn’t have trouble getting in later. They asked me how much the bank could clear me for. I wrote down some absurd amount, which actually was my accumulated debt, now that I think of it, not my plus column. So I was literally sweating it out in the humid high noon heat till the Christie’s cutie came out and said, “I can’t get anybody on the phone at Citibank. They keep giving me the runaround. Here, just sign this Credit Check form and here’s your paddle.” Whoopee Cushion! I was in! Swingin’ paddle #427.
Returning around 2:45, I walked again through the opulent and decidedly un-Beat Christie’s Palace past the 6-foot wall mountings of animals in foliage like 3-D Rousseaus, and climbed the ornate inner staircase two cushioned steps at a time until my bean crested the second floor and I immediately saw a mob filling the doorway and spilling into the hallway (oh-oh!) from the auction room, the same as where the scroll was displayed. I squeezed through like I had a seat, got to the front of the mob (something I seem to have a knack for) and lo — there it was — the packed in-action auction room! There were 120 seats, all filled, about 25 people standing on each side, so maybe 175 in all, plus 12 Christie’s suits manning rows of telephones on either side of the rectangular room, and about 20 people in the press corral at the back with five major camera set-ups, but none with network logos.
There were several assorted Sampases, Doug Brinkley, Sterling Lord, Ann & Sam Charters, Regina Weinrich, Michelle Esrick, Ed Adler, and scattered throughout was the hard core group of five of us who were there at closing time on the last day: photographer Aaron Schuman and writer Ken Caffrey in the press pen, writer Ronna Johnson who’s coming out with a second take on Women of The Beats later this year, and New York Beat guitarist Randy Hutton whom we’ll hear before long at one of the shows. Others too in the eternity of it.
And I’m there tryin’ to figure it out — who’s with who, what’s goin’ on. It’s Lot number 242 when I come in. Jack’s scroll soul is number 307. A guy gets up from a seat in the back row right in front of me. I hesitate maybe 10 seconds, then step forward before someone else reaches their courage threshold and I ask the next seated person if he’s gone for good and get this rich suit’s disdain, “I have no idea.” Which I interpret as Snagged! Homie’s home. Howdy doody and a whole lot more!
Part II — The Auctioneer’s Song
There are rows of people and the flashing of paddles as the auctioneer speeds through oodles of numbers, pointing out bidders like a presto allegro conductor. But — Sure looks like it’s goin’ to a phone bidder, I think immediately, as they’re lined up like stoic, somber six-gun shooters facing down each other across the room, concentrating, in their zones, conferrin’ with the coach on the phone-gun, “When do I pull the trigger, chief?”
The bidding increments are all predetermined. Over $1,000, each next bid is $100 — so if you bid, that’s your bid — you can’t pick an amount. Over $5,000 it goes up $500 with each bid. Over $10,000 it goes up $1,000 every time. Over $1 million it goes up in $100,000 increments. When it hits $2 million it starts going up in $200,000 steps. But by then it’s gettin’ outta my league.
Up above the auctioneer is an electronic board that lists the lot number and current bid in US dollars. Below that are lines with each country’s equivalent monetary value — so as the auctioneer’s zipping up the numerical ladder, all these foreign currency values are flapping by like the track-changing sign at Penn Station. Euros, UK pounds, French francs, Swiss francs, Deutsche marks, yen and lira in 000s, and the good old Canadian dollar squeakin’ in on the bottom line. (We exist! In fact, in a general sense, there really was one of those “we exist” feelings in the room, ya know? It was the magic zing of the old Jack ring!)
So the auction’s goin’ by lickety-split. Lot 249, a copy of Ulysses signed by Joyce himself and by — get this — Matisse! (Who I always remember for saying, “Work cures everything.”) “Okay, I’ll open the bidding at … 5 thousand, 55, 6 thousand…” and 20 seconds later, “Sold for 13,000 to paddle number 319 in the fourth row.” And it all happens in less than a minute. The big ones take maybe a minute and a half, but lots of stuff’s goin’ for under 10 grand, all sorts of little things, no idea what they are, but I felt like bidding just ’cause they’re so cheap. I’m cleared for it! It had to be something cool, right? Some Emerson thing. But there’s the catch. You can’t scratch your nose or anything. Like, if you move your arm you might be bidding. Then of course your nose would get itchy, and you’d have to turn away from the auctioneer like he’s the teacher and sneak a scratch.
So you’re watchin’ your moves, watching the crowd, and watching these people watching their catalogues and marking in scores and bidding up to a certain point on lots, and then when their last item of the day is gone, they get up and leave. Professional buyers. People with money. A set of Oxford dictionaries goes for $850,000! (And I bet it’s used.) An autographed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird for $18,000. I keep wondering, Who are these people? The guy who’s sittin’ next to Brinkley gets up and steps out for a minute at about lot 270. He’s a big guy wearing this striped suit like I don’t know what, 20′s gangster? 40′s hipster? I don’t know. Big white tie on big black shirt, hair greased straight back, almost like a football player but with a cuff-linked Four Seasons polish and rock ‘n’ roll swagger.
By the time we get to lot 300 there are only four gunslingers left on the sideline phonelines as the auctioneer’s still rattlin’ through numbers like he’s unloading on Bonnie & Clyde’s car, ratta-tat-tatting by the thousands, 19 thousand, 20 thousand, my whole life savings and worth flashing by in split seconds for some piece of autographed paper. Holy Zippers! “15 thousand… 24 thousand… 45 thousand, fair warning at 45 thousand… sold for 45 thousand to paddle 474.” An Edith Wharton letter goes for only $800. Bargain. Musta been a crummy letter. “Went for a walk, love Edith.”
“Lot number 305 — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, one of only 12 orange paper copies like it, inscribed by the author, opening with a tie bid at 15 thousand dollars, somebody want to break it? Thank you, 16 thousand dollars, 17 thousand…” etc. Goes to 60,000 in 60 seconds.
Part III — The Bidder’s Song
Then comes, “Lot number 307. The Lot a lot of you have been waiting for…” (Ha-ha, a little auctioneer humor.) “Jack Kerouac’s original typescript scroll of On The Road, shown here before you on the screens. I’ll start the bidding at 650,000 dollars on this…” (I’m out.) “650,000… 700,000… 750,000… 800,000… 850,000… 900,000… 950,000… 1 million dollars over here, one million dollars in the front row, 1,100,000 dollars… (pause) 1,200,000… 1,300,000… (pause) 1,400,000… (over the phone), (then quickly) 1,500,000… (pause)…” And all this time it’s Brinkley’s buddy who’s flashin’ up his white paddle #479 as soon as anyone else bids anything — the old Instant Paddle Flash Routine — then after a pause the front row finally bids again. “1,600,000… (then quickly) 1,700,000… (pause) 1,800,000… then Boom 1,900,000… (extended pause)…” It’s totally silent in the room, of course — you could hear a dream pop. “We can wait a little bit,” the animated auctioneer allowed. “1,900,000… (long pause)… The bid is 1,900,000 with the gentleman… 1,900,000… Anybody say 2 million?” He looks down at the front row and says, “No, I’m sorry, 2 million’s next… 1,900,000… 1,900,000 then? In the third row at 1,900,000… (pause) Is there any further advance at 1,900,000? (pause) Fair warning at 1,900,000…” He raises his little wooden gavel stub and slowly begins to bring it down. “Last call… (suddenly —) 2 million!” he exclaims and points to the front row! Whoa! Then instantly — “2,200,000.” The whole crowd whoops — huge tension release — laughing, clapping, but all the way pinning-the-needle and quiet again in about 2 seconds — flying by fast as be-bop! “Anticipation!” says the auctioneer, articulating the air of the collective moment. “2,200,000… 2 million 2… (pause) At 2,200,000, in the third row. Are we all done at 2,200,000? (pause) SOLD! At 2,200,000!” And the whole room just explodes in applause! Huge release — K’BAMM!
And just as the applause is dying down, the auctioneer steps up again. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d just like to announce that that is a new world record for a literary manuscript at auction.” And another round of cheering and whooping!
Then, in The Funny Dept., as soon as the final clapping dies down, some guy yells, “Corso lives!” and throws his fist in the air. This might not have worked in the middle of the auction, but it was pretty funny in the weird million-dollar-air-void to hear a voice hollering through the twinkling cosmos, “Corso lives!” He certainly does.
And 2 million dollars says, so does our man Jack.
It was all decided in under two minutes. And as soon as it was over, I bolted up front, and the first sign I had that everything was okay was Doctor Doug grinning so wide I thought his face would snap! Brinkley beamin’ like a baby was all I needed to see. If he’s happy, I’m happy. This must be a good thing!
I said a quick hi to Casey Cyr and Michelle Esrick, the only two other hipsters who were at both the downtown On The Road show that I’d just produced at the Chelsea Commons on the 50th anniversary of the scroll’s birthday and also at the uptown auction where it finally would get its wings and leave its New York home for the first time. Jack’s tracing paper science project has outlived him. When I spoke to Dave Amram on the phone afterwards he was getting kind of choked-up about it — that Jack died with $83 in his pocket, and now just 30 years later, the notebook in that same pocket was worth more than he was.
And it turns out that the striped-suited football player who’d walked by earlier was the guy who bought it! He was all red-faced and excited and stunned — and he wasn’t goin’ anywhere. So I walked over and there was an AP reporter there asking him questions — but it’s about… football…?! Huh? It’s so weird to think there may be something bigger in this guy’s life today than buying the On the Road scroll for two million bucks. At least that’s what the AP guy was opening with. He was talking divisional realignment with the retractable-dome blues again, and it was like, Weird Scene Channel Surf. Where’s the remote? Switch back to the Jack Epiphany Channel, eh? Sudden click and Irsay’s laughing, “Yeah, it’s been a busy day.” And while he’s laughing a few other reporters surround us, then some big cameras, other people, boom mikes floating in overhead….
How does it fee-eel?
Part IV — The Acquiring Mind’s Song
“Well, ya know, it’s just… it’s exciting. Ya know, I look at it as a stewardship. I don’t believe that you own anything in this world. It’s dust to dust. It’s something that I take as a responsibility, being a writer myself, knowing the sweat and the blood that went into creating something like this, and knowing how much people love the piece — that’s all very important to me. Having the football team, how our fans love and cherish that. It’s the same thing with something like this. It’s great for Jack, right now, wherever his spiritual vibes are floating around, that he can be fulfilled, because as a writer, there’s always this seed of doubt you have. You know, is it good enough? Is it worthy? Can it stand up with others? And a lot of times great artists end up dying before they ever find out what great artists they were. In his case, obviously this got published but it left him a little bitter over some of the rejection, and so what a great honor for him that he and the manuscript can be celebrated today.”
“What would he think of his work coming out of storage and selling for a record amount?”
“I’m sure he’d be just flabbergasted. It’s exciting for me — that my grandparents got off the ships from Hungary and Poland right here at Ellis Island with nothing but the clothes on their backs — and you know, that’s what this country’s all about. And I think he would be amazed. These days, people — more so than 50 years ago — if you think you have some talent, you don’t throw anything away. Like John Lennon, you know, I’m a big Lennon fan, and he used to curse his aunty, ‘You’ll regret throwing my drawings away. They’ll be worth something someday.’ So now of course everything is kept and treasured. I think there’s a lot of great intrigue with this, tying in the Beat Generation and Cassady, Burroughs, Ginsberg, those guys had a huge influence on the cultural revolution in the sixties, and people like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, they had such a big influence, and to me that’s really exciting — to be able to rub shoulders with the seed planters. The flowers are always beautiful, but the people that planted the seeds, the people who, in their time, had a way of looking at things differently, and having the courage to talk and to write and to live about it, that’s what changes the world.”
“Will you publish it?”
“A couple of things are planned. Sometime in the next coming months, somewhere in Indiana, I’ll probably put it on display at a museum. We’ve talked to a couple of people about that. In 2007 I’ve thought about having the 50th anniversary of the actual publication where maybe we’ll do a tour. We’ll follow the actual book’s journey and have the scroll do the tour of the country and kind of mirror that journey. We have Dr. Douglas Brinkley here who is involved. He’s the authorized biographer for Jack and he and I’ve discussed some various things. I actually tried to have Hunter Thompson in here today, I almost had him on the plane but then he turned back.” (laughs.) “I thought that would liven up things a little bit.” (louder laughter, then he looks up at the cameras) “Hunter, if you’re out there, we miss you.” (and laughs again)
“Why did he turn back?”
“I don’t know, it was a late night phone call and it just didn’t happen. I think he wanted to watch the Laker game,” he says laughing.
Then I asked him — “Will scholars other than Douglas be able to have access to studying the scroll?”
“Ya know, certainly. I’m very open-minded in terms of people who love it and want to have an opportunity to see it and be around it. That’s what it’s about. Like I said, I don’t view it as something I own. Someone else will have it when I’m gone, and someone else will have it when they’re gone. It’s for the future generations. You love to see the kids and people who are influenced by the book have a chance to get up and be near it. To me, trying to let fans see it and people who have an interest in it, I’m very much open-minded to try to do that.”
Then I asked a follow-up — “Would you expose the whole 120 feet when you did it in Indianapolis?”
“You know, that’s what I think has to be talked about. I really think one of the interesting things about this manuscript is the unique way that it was written, and the way that it’s comported, it’s the length minus the bit that the dog bit off.” (laughing) “It’s too bad they couldn’t auction off the dog collar of the dog — that would probably have brought in some good money here today.” (laughing)
“You’d have bought it, right?”
Laughing, “That would have been a good thing to combine it with.”
“What was the first Beat literature you ever read?”
“I would say, Naked Lunch, for me was, uh, and for me, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. I’ve had the honor to be with Bob several times and get to know him a little bit and you know certainly his writing and singing brought me to the doorstep of people like Jack, and people like Dylan Thomas who had a piece sold here.”
Then some guy asks him to sign a little rubber football, joking that it’ll be worth something in a few years. While he’s doing this the AP guy asks, “Jim, you said you were a writer. What do you write?”
“Poetry and songs. I’m a guitarist as well. I actually have an Elvis Presley guitar that he strummed, that’s probably — but for anyone out there, if you have a John Lennon, I would trade the Elvis for the Lennon,” he says, laughing again.
“You went awfully high on this; were you willing to spend more to buy this?”
“Yeah, it wasn’t important to me, I just wanted to make sure we kept it in this country, kept it in America, you know just have the ability for people to be able to share it and enjoy it, and I, you know, I’m just a fan like anyone else of it, and to me it’s just enjoyable to make sure it doesn’t get locked away somewhere or get taken away to a far distant place or something like that.”
“Did you walk in here expecting to spend a record amount for a manuscript?”
“Yeah, I was willing to spend a lot more!” he says, laughing loud, as does everyone else. “I won’t tell you what my max was…” (laughing) “I have to keep that a secret. I have a feeling — unless my fellow owner Paul Allen was goin’ against me I think I woulda got it, but if Paul was here I must admit I would have been beaten,” he says laughing.
“Do you want to read it off the scroll?”
“Yes, that would be — but we have a dog at home who’s very aggressive so we should keep that away from him,” and everyone laughs.
“How old were you when it was published?”
“I’m 41, so I wasn’t born. I was born in ’59.”
Then Rosebud Pettet perks up beside me and says — “This gentleman here,” and she points at me, “put together On The Road marathon readings a few weeks ago in LA and New York…” (and I’m thinking, No way — she’s talking about me!?! This keeps getting weirder!) “Are you planning, since you’ve got the scroll, to do any celebrations on Jack in your hometown or wherever you plan to keep it?”
“Sure, I’m open-minded to it. I think that Dr. Brinkley, as well as my publicist Myra Borshoff, you know, I’m open-minded to hear what people want to do with it. Again, just to be able to share it and have fun with it and celebrate it. Definitely that’s what it’s about, so I’m open-minded to any of those sort of fun things.”
Then the AP guy jumps in again, “Dr. Brinkley, I’d like to know what you think, as a scholar, the significance of this is now, the fact that this went for such big bucks, what does this all mean?”
Brinkley: “That Jack Kerouac’s become one of the writers that people care about. That he’s like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Faulkner, and even more so from a cultural point of view. As Jim says, On The Road is a book that changed a lot of people’s lives. It’s a coming of age novel. And more than any other 20th century American literary document, there’s a greater interest in the history and mythology of this particular manuscript than any other one that anybody can think of. It’s unique, and it not only solidified the Beat Generation, but it also set into motion the notion of ‘First thought — best thought,’ spontaneity in literature, and then, as Jim said, it influenced so many people into the 60s. People like Thomas Pynchon who credits Kerouac’s On The Road, to people like Bob Dylan, on down today to the music world, people like Lou Reed and Tom Waits. It’s never-ending, Kerouac’s influence. And for people that love On The Road, it’s exciting that Jim has it, because he has this very open heart and wants to bring it first to the heartland for people to come see, and then have it tour the country eventually for the 50th anniversary of On The Road, so you couldn’t be doing any better than that.”
“What can you learn looking at the scroll that you can’t from reading the book?”
Brinkley: “A lot. It’s different than the book, all the names are in it so you actually see Allen Ginsberg’s name, or Neal Cassady, the real people, there are no pseudonyms. And for people that enjoy Jack Kerouac — because he’s trying to get the words quickly out of him — you can see how his mind works. And I think, more than anything, what an extraordinary typist he was! He would just type and type. One of his great gifts as a writer was his quickness. When you’re trying to get your first-thought, best-thought out, being that quick a typist, as evidenced in the scroll, with so few changes and so many beautiful paragraphs — we were looking while we were sitting down, Kerouac writing about Indiana, coming in on a bus in Indiana with the corn husks piled up, and then necking with the girl all the way to Indianapolis. There’s hardly a city in America that doesn’t somehow make a cameo in On The Road, and Kerouac doesn’t have something that’s spiritually poetic and apropos to say about it.”
Irsay: “Plus the paddle, Doug. The paddle was 47, Jack’s age, and 9, the year he died, ’69, so it’s 4-7-9, and Doug said that was a good omen right away.”
AP: “Jim, are you kind of an All-American boy?”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
Pause, stumble mumble bumble, “You’re so American, it’s unbelievable.”
“I guess I am then, you know?” (laughing) “You know, it’s like George Harrison says, ‘I hope they don’t get time to hang a sign on me.’ It’s just a, a — it’s a good thing to be called because I love this country.”
And then your friendly Beat Reporter chirps in yet again!
Brian: “Do either of you think there’s any preservation needed in the short term for it?”
Irsay: “That’s something that I’ve consulted some experts on, and that’s really important, to make sure that this thing can remain intact for a lot of years and be shown for many centuries.”
Since that wasn’t enough for me, I once again pushed the Follow-Up Button: “Was it the experts’ opinion that anything needed to be done? Is it in okay shape?”
“Just that it’s in real good shape considering the years. You know, the proper room temperatures and that sort of thing have to be looked at. When you start getting out there, 500 years, a thousand years, I think, you know, there’s some erosion, it’s inevitable, but we’re gonna find ways to protect it, obviously.”
Some new reporter announces himself and asks, “Jim, what does this purchase mean to you?”
“You know, it means a lot to really acknowledge people that stand and fight for the truth and what they believe in in their art, that ultimately it’s rewarded and celebrated. And again, there’s so many artists out there right now this very moment that are working and some of them will die without ever really receiving any due for what they’ve done. But I think, anyone’s human spirit, since you go back to the days of the cavemen, it’s just expression, it’s self-expression. People want to be recognized for having a feeling and sharing that with someone else, and I think that’s what this acknowledges. And for me, it’s just a lot of fun. I feel blessed to able to be here, and have gotten the manuscript, and just look forward to having a lot of fun with it, and sharing it, and celebrating it, because it’s enjoyable. There’s so many difficult things that go on in the world, it’s nice to celebrate life. In the NFL we do that entertaining people. I look at this the same way as just being able to do that. My next goal is to be able to sit the script next to the Lombardi Trophy, you know? That’s what you get for winning the Super Bowl, and we’re real close, you know, and to have those two things together hopefully maybe by the end of January would be great,” he says, laughing.
“Did you buy it individually, or did anybody go in with you?”
“No, just individually.”
“How old were you when you read On The Road?”
“I read it about ’77, and what it meant to me just being a teenager in the 70′s, you know, freedom, rebellion, the things that a young person looks at in life, which is just — the journey — the excitement of the journey, the search for truth and meaning and the thrills of life. It’s like Bob Seger said, ‘I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then,’” and he laughs again. “You gotta study that line hard to get the true meaning of that,” and he laughs even harder.
Then he says, “Well guys, thank you very much.” And I say right to him and very soberly, “Thank you!” and make serious direct eye contact. Something great had just happened.
There’s a lot more that went on. What’s above is the complete post-purchase impromptu news conference, minus the opening NFL realignment stuff, and a bunch of um’s and you-know’s. Afterwards, I surfed around and talked to John Sampas and asked him if they were going to publish the text of the scroll, and he answered, I believe the word was, “Absolutely,” but for sure I remember the look, which was like, Duh, dumb question, what do you think?
Then here’s some random snippets overheard from Irsay’s sit-down interview with the New York Times:
“I’m a very big Dylan Thomas fan.”
“When I saw this piece come available it really did grab my attention and I really wanted to seek it out and find out where this piece stood in the 20th century, in the context of the pieces that are out there, what others felt about it. There are people like Dr. Brinkley who professionally deals in this, he’s a writer himself, and just consulting a lot of friends, it feels like it appeals to a lot of different people.”
“I’m originally from Chicago. My influences came a lot from rock music, particularly Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and you start going behind the situation and finding out who influenced them. Paul McCartney’s worked with Ginsberg. Dylan, obviously, taking his name from Dylan Thomas, and coming to New York City in 1961 and his experiences, and through that, that’s where the interest really came. I think people are influenced by the Beat Generation, and by Dylan, in ways that they don’t even know. They may not even know of the individual, but society’s been changed so much by them.”
“Thanks a lot. I was a broadcast journalism major, so I’m a big fan of the New York Times.”
“We’re going to take good care of it, and we’re going to make sure the fans enjoy it — that’s the main thing.”
This is Brian, signing off from basecamp at Mount Kerouac. Back to you.
For an excerpt from my book about the ’82 Kerouac Conference in Boulder — check out Meeting Your Heroes.
For more from the Boulder Beat Book — check out Who All Was There.
For a story about the London “On The Road” premiere at Somerset House — check out this sex & drugs & jazz.
For a great story of the world premiere of the new shorter final version of “On The Road” — check out this Meeting Walter Salles Adventure!
For a complete overview of all the Kerouac / Beat film dramatizations including clips and reviews — check out the Beat Movie Guide.
For an inspiring and colorful description of being at a Beat jazz-&-poetry reading in Greenwich Village — check out Be The Invincible Spirit You Are.
For a story about Henri Cru’s birthday — check out The Legend Turns 70.
For a beautiful poem to Carolyn Cassady on her birthday — check out the Carolyn Cassady Birthday Poem.
For an account of the historic Beat show at the Whitney Museum in New York — check out Wailin’ at the Whitney.
by Brian Hassett
karmacoupon@ gmail.com BrianHassett.com