Jayâs hands seem out of scale with the rest of him. He is of average height but has a hefty, imposing build. During the seventies, he regularly toured with various rock groups as an opening act and could easily have passed as foreman of the road crew; at the time, he had dark-brown hair that reached the middle of his back, and a dense, flowing beard. He now keeps his hair and beard neatly trimmed. He has a fleshy face, a high forehead, and dark eyes. His eyes light up and then crinkle when he laughsâa burst of what might or might not indicate pleasure, followed by a dry, wise-sounding chuckle that could mean anything. His inflection is New York with a Flatbush edge. In three of Mametâs filmsââHouse of Games,â âThings Change,â and âHomicideââJay has been cast to type as a confidence man, a gangster, and an Israeli terrorist, respectively. In one scene of the play within a play of âHouse of Games,â he portrays a menacing professional gambler.
âIâm always saying thereâs no correlation between gambling and magic,â Jay said as he shuffle-cut the cards. âBut this is a routine of actual gamblersâ techniques within the context of a theatrical magic presentation.â
He noticed me watching him shuffling, and asked softly, with deadpan sincerity, âDoes that look fair?â
When I said it looked fair, he dealt two hands of five-card draw and told me to lay down my cards. Two pair. Then he laid down his. A straight.
âWas that fair?â he said. âI donât think so. Letâs discuss the reason why that wasnât fair. Even though I shuffled openly and honestly, I didnât let you cut the cards. So letâs do it again, and this time Iâll let you cut the cards.â
He shuffled again, I cut the cards, he dealt, and this time I had three tens.
âReady to turn them over?â
My three-of-a-kind compared unfavorably with his diamond flush.
âIs that fair?â he said again. âI donât think so. Letâs talk about why that might not be fair. Even though I shuffled the cardsââhe was now reshuffling the deckââand you cut the cards, you saw me pick up the cards after you cut them, and maybe you think there was some way for me to nullify the cut by sleight of hand. So this time Iâll shuffle the cards and you shuffle the cards.â
Jay shuffled the deck, I riffle-shuffled the deck and handed it back to him, and he said, âAnd Iâll deal six hands of pokerâone for myself and five for you. Iâll let you choose any one of the five. And Iâll beat you.â
He dealt six hands. Instead of revealing only one of my five hands, I turned them all face up.
âOh, oh,â he said. âI see you want to turn them all over. I only intended for you to pick oneâbut, well, no, thatâs all right.â
The best of my five hands was two pair.
Jay said, âNow, did that seem fair?â
I said yes.
Jay said, âI donât think so,â and showed me his cardsâfour kings.
I rested my elbows on the table and massaged my forehead.
âNow, why might that be unfair?â he continued. âIâll tell you why. Because, even though you shuffled, I dealt the cards. That time, I also shuffled the cards. Now, this time you shuffle the cards and you deal the cards. And you pick the number of players. And you designate any hand for me and any hand for you.â
After shuffling, I dealt four hands, arranged as the points of a square. I chose a hand for myself and selected one for him. My cards added up to nothingâking-high nothing.
âIs that fair?â Jay said, picking up his cards, waiting a beat, and returning them to the table, one by oneâthe coup de grÃ¢ce. âI. Donât. Think. So.â One, two, three, four aces.
Jay has an anomalous memory, extraordinarily retentive but riddled with hard-to-account-for gaps. âIâm becoming quite worried about my memory,â he said not long ago. âNew information doesnât stay. I wonder if itâs the NutraSweet.â As a child, he read avidly and could summon the title and the author of every book that had passed through his hands. Now he gets lost driving in his own neighborhood, where he has lived for several yearsâhe has no idea how many. He once had a summer job tending bar and doing magic at a place called the Royal Palm, in Ithaca, New York. On a bet, he accepted a mnemonic challenge from a group of friendly patrons. A numbered list of a hundred arbitrary objects was drawn up: No. 3 was âpaintbrush,â No. 18 was âplush ottoman,â No. 25 was âroaring lion,â and so on. âRicky! Sixty-five!â someone would demand, and he had ten seconds to respond correctly or lose a buck. He always won, and, to this day, still would. He is capable of leaving the house wearing his suit jacket but forgetting his pants. He can recite verbatim the rapid-fire spiel he delivered a quarter of a century ago, when he was briefly employed as a carnival barker: âSee the magician; the fire âmanipulatorâ; the girl with the yellow e-e-elastic tissue. See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one, one of the worldâs three living âmorphrodites.â And the e-e-electrode ladyÂ .Â .Â .â He can quote verse after verse of nineteenth-century Cockney rhyming slang. He says he cannot remember what age he was when his family moved from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs. He cannot recall the year he entered college or the year he left. âIf you ask me for specific dates, weâre in trouble,â he says.
Michael Weber, a fellow-magician and close friend, has said, âBasically, Ricky remembers nothing that happened after 1900.â
Jay has many loyal friends, a protective circle that includes a lot of people with show-business and antiquarian-book-collecting connections and remarkably few with magic-world connections.
Marcus McCorison, a former president of the American Antiquarian Society, where Jay has lectured and performed, describes him as âa deeply serious scholarâI think he knows more about the history of American conjuring than anyone else.â
Nicolas Barker, who recently retired as one of the deputy keepers of the British Library, says, âRicky would say you canât be a good conjurer without knowing the history of your profession, because there are no new tricks under the sun, only variations. Heâs a superbly gifted conjurer, and heâs an immensely scholarly person whose knowledge in his chosen field is gigantic, in a class by itself. And, like any other scholarly person, he has a very good working knowledge of fields outside his own.â
The actor Steve Martin said not long ago, âI sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual Ãlite of magicians. Iâve had experience with magicians my whole life. Heâs expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Rickyâs a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who canât necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything.â
A collector named Michael Zinman says, âHeâs instantly reachable, up to a limit.â Those most familiar with his idiosyncrasies realize that there are at least three Ricky Jays: a public persona, a private persona, and a private persona within the private persona. Jay can remember his ageâsomewhere in his fortiesâbut says that it is irrelevant. It is also irrelevant that Jay was not his surname at birth; it was his middle name. Janus Cercone, who wrote the screenplay for âLeap of Faith,â a recent film that stars Steve Martin as a flimflam faith healer and credits Jay as the âCons and Frauds Consultant,â told me, âI talk to Ricky three times a day. Other than my husband, heâs my best friend. I think I know him as well as just about anyone does, and I know less about his background and his childhood than about those of anyone else I know.â
Mamet and Jay have been friends for several yearsâa bond rooted, in part, in their shared fascination with the language, science, and art of cons and frauds.
âIâll call Ricky on the phone,â Mamet says. âIâll ask himâsay, for something Iâm writingââA guyâs wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and thereâs some sort of mountebank. What would the mountebank be doing?â And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire description of what the mountebank would be doing. Or Iâll tell him Iâm having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, âThatâs the most bizarre request Iâve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? Thereâs nothing like that in the literature. I mean, thereâs this one 1760 pamphletââJokes, Tricks, Ghosts and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire.â But, other than that, I canât think of a thing.â Heâs unbelievably generous. Rickyâs one of the worldâs great people. Heâs my hero. Iâve never seen anybody better at what he does.â
I once asked Mamet whether Jay had ever shared with him details of his childhood.
Mamet replied, âI canât remember.â
I said, âYou canât remember whether you discussed it or you canât remember the details?â
He said, âI canât remember whether or not I know a better way to dissuade you from your reiteration of that question without seeming impolite.â
Jayâs condensed version of his early life goes like this: âI grew up like Athenaâcovered with playing cards instead of armorâand, at the age of seven, materialized on a TV show, doing magic.â Confronted with questions about his parents, he suggests a different topic. Whatever injuries were inflicted, his mother and his father were apparently equally guilty. Any enthusiasm he ever expressed they managed not to share. âIâm probably the only kid in history whose parents made him stop taking music lessons,â he says. âThey made me stop studying the accordion. And, I suppose, thank God.â He loved to play basketball. There was a backboard above the garage of the family house, which had aluminum siding. âDonât dent the house!â his mother routinely warned. His father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate. âHe kept his toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and the Brylcreem in a closet about a foot away,â Jay recalls. âOnce, when I was ten, I switched the tubes. All you need to know about my father is that after he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem he put the toothpaste in his hair.â
Though Jay first performed in public at the age of four, he rejects the notion that magicâor, in any case, his mature style of magicâis suitable entertainment for children. Nor does he apologize for his lack of susceptibility to the charms of children themselves. I once drove with him from central Massachusetts to my home, near New York City. We had to catch a plane together the next day, and I had invited him to spend the night in a spare room, on a floor above and beyond earshot of my three sons. While acknowledging that they were Ricky Jay fans, I promised him that they would all be in bed by the time we arrived and off to school before he awoke the next morning. As it turned out, we had no sooner entered the house than I heard one of my six-year-old twins announce âI think Rickyâs here!â Before he could remove his coat, the three of them, all in their pajamas, had him cornered in the kitchen. My eleven-year-old son handed him a deck of cards. The other boys began parroting the monologue from one of his television appearancesâpatter from a stunt in which he tosses a playing card like a boomerang and during its return flight bisects it with a pair of giant scissors. Jay gave me the same look I imagine he gave Mort, the unfortunate New Yearâs Eve party guest. I immediately reached for the phone directory and found the number of a nearby motel.
Just as resolutely as he avoids children, Jay declines opportunities to perform for other magicians. This habit has earned him a reputation for aloofness, to which he pleads guilty-with-an-explanation. According to Michael Weber, he has a particular aversion to the âmagic lumpenââhoi polloi who congregate in magic clubs and at conventions, where they unabashedly seek to expropriate each otherâs secrets, meanwhile failing to grasp the critical distinction between doing tricks and creating a sense of wonder. One guy in a tuxedo producing doves can be magic, ten guys producing doves is a travesty. âRicky wonât perform for magicians at magic shows, because theyâre interested in things,â Weber says. âThey donât get it. They wonât watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own. Theyâll be inspired to do that trick that belongs to Ricky. Magic is not about someone else sharing the newest secret. Magic is about working hard to discover a secret and making something out of it. You start with some small principle and you build a theatrical presentation out of it. You do something thatâs technically artistic that creates a small drama. There are two ways you can expand your knowledgeâthrough books and by gaining the confidence of fellow-magicians who will explain these things. Ricky to a large degree gets his information from booksâold booksâand then when he performs for magicians they want to know, âWhere did that come from?â And heâs appalled that they havenât read this stuff. So thereâs this large body of magic lumpen who really donât understand Rickyâs legacyâhis contribution to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity. They think heâs an Ãlitist and a snob.â
Jay does not regard âamateurâ as a pejorative. His two most trusted magician confidants are Persi Diaconis, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and Steve Freeman, a corporate comptroller who lives in Ventura, California. Both are world-class sleight-of-hand artists, and neither ever performs for pay. Jay extolls them as âpure amateurs in the best sense.â The distinction that matters to Jay is between âgoodâ magic and âbad.â Magic âgives me more pleasure and more pain than anything else Iâve ever dealt with,â he says. âThe pain is bad magicians ripping off good ones, doing magic badly, and making a mockery of the art.â One specific locale that he steers clear of is the Hollywood Magic Castle, a club whose membership consists of both amateur and professional conjurers. On a given night, one can see a great performer at the Magic Castle, but all too often the club is a tepid swamp of gossip, self-congratulation, and artistic larcenyâa place where audiences who donât know better are frequently fed a bland diet of purloined ineptitude. Many years ago, Jay had an encounter there that he describes as typical.
âA guy comes up and starts telling me heâs a fan,â he recalls. âI say thank you, thatâs nice to hear. He says he used to see me perform in Boulder, Colorado. Thatâs nice, too, I say. Then he starts talking about this wonderful piece I did with a mechanical monkeyâreally one of the most bizarre routines I ever worked outâand I thank him, and he says, âYeah, I get a tremendous response when I do that. Audiences just love it.â And I say, âLet me ask you something. Suppose I invite you over to my house for dinner. We have a pleasant meal, we talk about magic, itâs an enjoyable evening. Then, as youâre about to leave, you walk into my living room and you pick up my television and walk out with it. You steal my television set. Would you do that?â He says, âOf course not.â And I say, âBut you already did.â He says, âWhat are you talking about?â I say, âYou stole my television!â He says, âHow can you say that? Iâve never even been to your house.â This guy doesnât even know what a metaphor is. People ask me why I donât do lectures at magic conventions, and I say, âBecause Iâm still learning.â Meanwhile, youâve got people who have been doing magic for ten months and they are actually out there pontificating. Itâs absurd.â
T. A. Waters, a mentalist and writer, who is the librarian at the Magic Castle, told me, âSome magicians, once they learn how to do a trick without dropping the prop on their foot, go ahead and perform in public. Ricky will work on a routine a couple of years before even showing anyone. One of the things that I love about Ricky is his continued amazement at how little magicians seem to care about the art. Intellectually, Ricky seems to understand this, but emotionally he canât accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty years ago.â
At some point within the past twenty years, Jay asked Dai Vernonâaka. the Professorâhow he coped with affronts of this sort, and Vernon replied, âI forced myself not to care.â
âMaybe thatâs how he lived to be ninety-eight years old,â Jay says.
Jayâs admirers invariably dwell upon his technical masteryâwhat is known in the trade as âchops.â According to Diaconis, he is, âsimply put, one of the half-dozen best card handlers in the world. Not maybe; everybody thinks so.â Diaconis and Jay were casual acquaintances as kids on the New York magic scene during the fifties, then lost track of each other for several years, in part because Jay deliberately exiled himself from the mainstream magic world. They reÃ«stablished contact twenty-odd years ago, after Diaconis caught one of Jayâs appearances on the âTonight Show.â By then, Jay had honed an out-of-left-field brand of gonzo-hip comedy magic, a combination of chops and antic irreverence. Often, he would begin a performance by demonstrating a not easily marketable skill that eventually earned him a listing in the âGuinness Book of World Recordsâ: throwing a playing card for distance. A properly launched card would go ninety miles an hour. Unobstructed, it could travel a hundred and ninety feet. From ten paces, it could pierce the outer rind of a watermelon. After impaling the flesh of a watermelon with a card, Jay would rifle one card after another into the exact same spot. He also used a plastic chicken and windup toys as props and targets, often inflicting disabling injuries. His patter was voluble, embroidered with orotund, baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance, as the âthick pachydermatous outer melon layer.â In a memorable routine, the âLaughing Card Trick,â which involved no words at all, Jay showed his hands empty and then produced cards one at a time, along the way building suspense with cackling laughter. Each time he produced a cardâsomehow, it was always a jack of spadesâhe gripped it with his lips. After doing this maneuver four times, he removed the cards from his mouth and revealed thatâvoilÃ !âthey had become the four aces. Next, he would do spirit-writing on a tortilla. Downshifting, he would segue to âThe Four Queens,â a minuetlike Victorian parable in which the four face cards representing âthe feminine portion of the smart setâ were âbesiegedâ by âsuitors from the lower orders.â In other words, each of the four queens was grouped with three numbered cards. âLadies and gentlemen,â he would announce, âas you have seen, I have taken advantage of these tenderly nurtured and unsophisticated young ladies by placing them in positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities.â Somehow, the queens must âfind each otherâs companyââthat is, transport themselves so that what remained would be three groups of four numbered cards and a quartet of queens. This Jay accomplished in a manner so simple, natural, and miraculous as to render prestidigitation invisible, thereby raising the strong possibility of divine intervention.
Jules Fisher, the theatrical-lighting designer and a friend of Jayâs, told me, âRicky will look into any effect and find the side of it that is inherently magical. He doesnât present magic as a challengeâas a matter of âLook, I can make this disappear and you canât.â Rather, he wraps it in a dramatic plot. In many of his tricks, there are stories. In âThe Four Queens,â the cards take on personas, which is much more impressive than the question of how that card disappeared.â
Michael Weber has a vivid memory of seeing Jay execute âThe Four Queensâ fifteen years ago on a network-television special with Doug Henning as host. âIt was a transcendent moment in popular magic,â he says. âRicky had attitude, presentation, humor, and chops. Everybody was talking about that show. It was one of those times when all the elements of his talent were so self-evidently on display that even the people who could never before get it finally got it.â Dai Vernon once saw Jay perform âThe Four Queensâ live, during a lecture-demonstration at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, at the University of California at Los Angeles. Afterward, the Professor told his disciple that the entire performance ârestored dignity to the art of magic.â
âThe magical aspect of Ricky is very strong,â Diaconis says. âItâs one thing to see someone who is very skillful with cards and quite another to witness an effect and have just no idea what happens. With Ricky, itâs very hard to isolate technique from performance. I can sense when a sleight has happened and how it happened, but I still donât see it. I just feel it intellectually. When Ricky is doing one of his poetical pieces, heâs working in his own unique venue. Heâs mixing disparate thingsâquirky scholarship, iconoclasm, technique, a good storyâinto some soup that works. Because he picks good, strong tricks and makes them come to life, in the end thereâs this basic simplicity about what he does. Before Ricky came along, there had been comedy magicians, but never ones who really fooled people. And you can see the consequenceâthere are a dozen people now working in night clubs doing Ricky Jay acts. But none of them are Ricky Jay.â
In âLearned Pigs #038; Fireproof Womenâ Jay devotes a chapter to âMax Malini: The Last of the Mountebanks.â Malini, who was born in 1873, stood five feet two, had short arms and unusually small hands, dressed like a dandy, spoke English with a comically heavy Eastern European accent, and was celebrated as the most astonishing sleight-of-hand artist of his day. He performed all over the world, for Presidents, prime ministers, robber barons, emperors, kings, and Al Capone. Jay quotes Nate Leipzig, âa master exponent of pure magic techniqueâ and a contemporary of Maliniâs: âI would give up everything I know in magic just to get the reaction Malini does from vanishing a single coin.â At a dinner party where Dai Vernon was present, Malini borrowed a female guestâs hat, spun a half-dollar on the table, and covered it with the hat, which he then lifted to reveal not the coin but a block of ice. Though Vernon knew ahead of time that this effect would be performed, he later reported that Malini, who had remained at the table throughout the meal, âfooled the hell out of me.â Jay recounts this and other Malini anecdotes with a mixture of delight and wistfulness. In a just universe, he seems to imply, he himself would have been in Leipzigâs and Vernonâs shoes, playing to the same discerning audiences that witnessed Maliniâs exemplary talents. He writes, âMalini was rarely featured on music hall or theatre stages, even though he performed in the heyday of the great illusionists. Yet far more than Maliniâs contemporaries, the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should beânot a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants, or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles.â
Jay feels connected to Malini not only out of veneration but by a strange coincidence. Malini, who was born in a small town on the Polish-Austrian border, had the given name of Max Katz (or, perhaps, Max Katz-Breit). Max Katz was also the name of Jayâs maternal grandfather, a well-to-do accountant and, most important, the one member of the family who loved and appreciated Ricky and for whom Ricky in return felt love and gratitude. âMy grandfather was an amateur acquisitor of skill and knowledge,â Jay says. âHe was interested in a lot of thingsâpool, chess, checkers, calligraphy, cryptography, origami, magic. His philosophy was to take lessons from the best available people and then proceed on his own. He was really a terrific teacher. And his greatest contribution was to expose me to the best. Because of him, I was able to see on a regular basis the finest closeup-magic people in the world. Unlike me, he actually liked to fraternize with magicians.â At one time, Katz was president of the Society of American Magicians. When, at the age of four, Ricky did his first trick in front of an audienceâhe multiplied paper coffee creamers during a backyard barbecue for the Society of American MagiciansâDai Vernon was a witness.
Jay told me, âWhen we watched Vernon, my grandfather would say, âLook at the Professor and study the naturalness with which he handles objects.â He introduced me to Slydini and to Francis Carlyle, two other great closeup illusionists. These were guys who were capable of doing magicâsomething beyond tricksâand the fact that they were stylistically so different from each other fascinated me. With Slydini, it was important to understand that he was the master of misdirectionâdrawing the spectatorâs attention away from the sleight. With Carlyle, the purpose was to absorb what my grandfather called the clarity of instructionâhow Carlyle subtly guided the spectator in a way that enhanced the clarity of the effect. There was a period of several years when I took formal lessons with Slydini. In his stage appearances, which were infrequent, he used to perform in a toreador suit, and he made one for me. I wore it with my hair slicked back, and I had these fake sideburns pencilled in. I performed with doves. I did a piece called âThe Floating Caneââstage-illusion work, with no patter, that eventually made me realize I wanted to speak and I preferred closeup. An audition was arranged for me for âThe Ed Sullivan Show.â I wore my toreador suit and wanted to pretend I was Spanish, knowing it would increase my chances of getting on the show, but my parents wouldnât let me. By then, I had already done a lot of television. When I was five, I was supposed to appear on âStartime Kids,â with Ed Herlihy, but I dozed during the dress rehearsal and slept through the show. I was on a program called âTime for Petsâ when I was seven. I was the youngest magician who had ever been on TV. I was awful. I was a kid. The only thing thatâs important is that I was very comfortable performing. I was supposed to produce a rabbit, but they couldnât find one, so I had to work with a guinea pig, which took a leak on my fatherâs necktie. My father said, âPerfect. You get all the glory and I get all the piss.âÂ â
Weekends, Jay often made trips to Manhattan, first in the company of his grandfather and by adolescence often on his own. The cafeteria on the ground floor of the Wurlitzer Building, on West Forty-second Street, was to the magic demimonde what the White Horse Tavern was to literary pretenders. Jay also spent many contented hours at Al Flossoâs magic shop, on West Thirty-fourth Street. He preferred Flossoâs to the more popular Tannenâs, which was then in Times Square, because, above all, he loved Flosso. Also, the marvellous clutter of old posters, handbills, and books appealed to him far more than the antiseptic ambience of Tannenâs. âEarly on, I knew I didnât want to do the kind of magic other people were doing,â he says. âSo I started buying old books to look for material.â Flosso, in the guise of a sideshow pitchman from Coney Island, did wonderful comedy sleight of hand and had a flourishing careerâin the big rooms at Grossingerâs and the Concord, on the Sullivan show. When Rickyâs parents asked what kind of bar-mitzvah celebration he wanted, he said he wanted Flosso to perform. âThe thing thatâs significant about that event is that itâs literally the only warm memory I have of my parents,â he has said.
Prodded by Slydini and his grandfather, he entered several performing competitions at magic conventions. âI always won,â he says. âBut the whole thing soured me on the idea of competitions within an art.â By the time he was fifteen, he had had enough of living at home. He moved in with a friendâs family, moved back home again, moved to the resort town of Lake George, in upstate New York (where he discovered what it was like to support himself as a pro), and, before he turned eighteen, had left home for good. He either did or did not officially complete high schoolâanother one of those elusive memories. Max Katz died around that time. At the funeral, Flosso ceremonially broke a wand and placed it in the casketââthe single most frightening thing I ever saw,â Jay says. His grandfatherâs death marked the end of his relationship with his parents. (He remains on good terms with his younger sister, whom he says he admires tremendously.) By then, he was living in Illinois, having begun a peripatetic college career. Over a period of ten years, he attended five different colleges and âofficially was never anything other than a freshman.â At Cornell, he enrolled in the School of Hotel Management. âIn case I had my own joint in Vegas, I thought I might be the only guy in the business who would know how to get around in both the casino and the kitchen,â he likes to say. He and several friends formed an a-cappella doo-wop group called Chico and the Deaf Tones. The Deaf Tones were five guys named Tony plus a girl named Laura. Their big number was âTell Laura I Love Her.â
To pay tuition and otherwise make ends meet, he briefly sold encyclopedias, travelled with a carnival, worked on Wall Street as an accountant, tended bar, and, of course, did magic. From talking to Jayâs friends, I gathered that there was a time when he played cards for a living. Boldly, I once raised this subject with him, and he pretended not to hear me.
âWould anybody play cards with you today?â I asked.
âSure,â he said. âSilly people.â
Twice while he was still at Cornell, he appeared on the âTonight Show.â With Ithaca as his home base, he became nomadic. He performed frequently in Aspen and Lake George, did club and concert dates all over the country with various rock and jazz groupsâIke and Tina Turner, the Chambers Brothers, Leon Redbone, Al Jarreau, Emmylou Harris, Herbie Hancock, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Sometimes he was the opening act, sometimes he was the headliner. Invitations to perform in Europe materialized. In the early seventies, he moved to Los Angeles and found plenty of work, first at a club in Santa Monica called McCabeâs Guitar Shop and then at the Magic Castle. Tracy Newman, a television-comedy writer, who lived with him for a year, says she went to see him perform âprobably seventeen timesâ before they started dating. Not long ago, she told me, âThe thing Ricky had that Iâd never before seen in a magician was charm. At McCabeâs, he was doing improvisational patter. He had his stuff down so well he was just free. He had the guts to bring people onstage and really play with them, instead of having to be so careful that they might see something that would cause him to blow what he was trying to do. He was very casual, but his language had a Shakespearean feel. He was brutal with hecklersânot because it would throw him off. He just didnât like hecklers. He vaporized them.â
In those days, Dai Vernon had a sinecure at the Magic Castle that entitled him to living quarters nearby. Vernonâs presence was the main thing that had attracted Jay to Los Angeles. When he was not on the road, he sought out the Professorâs company virtually every night. Wherever they started the eveningâat the Castle or somewhere elseâthey would invariably wind up at Canterâs Deli, on Fairfax Avenue, a shrine of vinyl and Formica and leaden matzo balls. There Vernon would hold forth until five or six in the morning. A few years ago, Jay wrote a magazine article in which he described one such session at Canterâs, an occasion when he petitioned for practical counsel rather than the generous praise that Vernon typically dispensed:
âProfessor,â I protested, âI really want to know how I can improve my technique and performance. I want to take lessons from you. I really want advice.â
Vernon smiled his patented half smile, and with a delicate movement of his eyes beckoned me closer. I leaned forward with anticipation, almost unable to contain my excitement, about to receive my benediction from the master. âYou want advice, Ricky,â he said. âIâll give you advice. Fuck as many different women as you can. Not the same one. Not the same one. Fuck many different women. Many different women.â
Persi Diaconis ran away from his unhappy home at the age of fourteen and spent two years travelling with Vernonâan unsentimental education. âLife with Vernon was a challenge,â Diaconis says. âVernon would use secrecy as a way of torturing you. When he and I were on the road, he woke up one morning and said, âYou know, Iâve been thinking about sleight of hand my whole life, and I think I now know how to encapsulate it in one sentence.â And then, of course, he refused to tell me.â Another friend of Vernonâs once said, âI wouldnât have taken a million dollars not to have known him. But Iâd give a million not to know another one like him.â
Vernon was extroverted, insouciant, a winning combination of gentleman and rake. Though he perfectly fitted the role of guru, he was not the paternal mentor that Jayâs grandfather had been. To the extent that anyone could fill that void, Charlie Miller did. âLearned Pigs #038; Fireproof Women,â which Jay spent ten years writing, is dedicated âto my wonderful friend Charles Earle Miller, a unique, eccentric, and remarkable entertainer.â Had Miller not been Vernonâs contemporary, Jay believes, he would have been regarded as the greatest sleight-of-hand figure of his time. âFor fifty or sixty years, Charlie lived in Vernonâs shadow,â he says. âAnd yet Vernon knew that Charlie was the best sleight-of-hand artist heâd ever seen.â Vernon once described Miller as âunquestionably the most skillful exponent of the magic art it has ever been my pleasure to know.â Miller was a shy, vulnerable man, for whom public performance was a bravura act. As a friend to Jay, Diaconis, Steve Freeman, and another accomplished magician, John Thompsonâhis four most reverent acolytesâhe was emotionally much warmer than Vernon. âVernon was very comfortable to be around,â Freeman says. âBut Charlie was your pal, Charlie was your uncle, Charlie cared about you.â On the West Coast, he was the premier cruise-ship performer, and this arrangement suited his essentially rootless nature. (Jay himself worked very few cruise shipsâa merciful policy, he says, because âthe people who went on cruises had saved up their entire lives just to get on a boat and be away from people who looked like me.â) For Vernon, Jay says, âmaking money was only a means of allowing him to sit in a hotel room and think about his art, about cups and balls and coins and cards.â Charlie Miller was, if anything, more cerebral, even more obsessive.
âCharlie and Vernon were both magicians for magicians,â says Robert Lund, the founder of the American Museum of Magic, in Marshall, Michigan. âOnly magicians truly appreciated what Charlie was doing. Charlie knew more about why you do it this way instead of that way than anyone Iâve ever met in my life, including Ricky Jay. If there were a hundred ways of doing an effectâa card trick or sawing a lady in halfâCharlie went through all hundred and analyzed each one, looking for the most natural way of doing it, the approach that would be the most palatable and acceptable to an audience.â
More than any other magician Jay has known, Miller had an orthodox devotion to preserving the secrets of the artâa fundamental precept that Jay today shares with Diaconis and Freeman. To their dismay, Vernon wrote a series of instruction books. When these began to appear in print, Diaconis said to Vernon, âWhy did you publish these, Professor? We donât want the animals using tools.â As a palliative, they can speculate about the secrets that Miller took to the graveâan absolutism that, while perhaps depriving him of mundane celebrity, at least made the secrets themselves immortal. âCharlie would never tell anything to anybody who wasnât really on the inside,â Diaconis says. âThereâs something called the Sprong shift. Sprong was a night watchmanâhe did that for a living so that he could spend his days practicing card handling. The Sprong shift is a certain way of reversing the cards so that a card that would be in the middle will end up on top. Itâs a move that has been passed down only orally. Itâs never been described or even hinted at in writing that such a thing existed. It got disseminated to three or five of us, and the one who does it beautifully is Ricky. Charlie had the capacity to watch Ricky practice it for several hours non-stop. Heâd keep moving around the room to see it from every possible angle.â
After both Vernon and Miller died, there were memorial services at the Magic Castleâevents that Jay refused to attend, because, he said to Freeman, âmost of those people didnât know anything about Vernon and Charlie.â
âI now say that keeping secrets is my single most important contribution to magic,â Diaconis says. âListen, I have lots of things I wonât tell Ricky about. Itâs pretty hard for us to fool each other. Several years ago, he borrowed my deck and had me pick a card. Then he told me to reach into my left trousers pocket and there was the card Iâd picked. For half an hour, I was as badly fooled as Iâve ever been. In order for him to bring that about, he had to take dead aim at me. Thatâs a phrase we use in discussing the big con: taking dead aimâdeeply researching somebodyâs habits.â
Jay once subjected Freeman to an equally unsettling experience. âI walked into Rickyâs apartment one day, and I was wearing a shirt that Charlie Miller had given to Ricky and that Ricky had left at my house,â Freeman says. âI was returning it, but, just for fun, I had put it on. I took the shirt off, and Ricky said, âOh, just leave it on the back of that chair.â Then we started talking for a while and he said he wanted to show me a new trick. He spread the deck face up and told me to point to a card. I did, and then I gathered and shuffled and dealt them face up. There were only fifty-one. I didnât see my card. And he said, âOh, well, go over and look in the pocket of that shirt over there.â And the card was in the shirt pocket. It takes a lot of knowledge about people to be able to do something like that. Ricky was enormously satisfied. Did I figure it out? Well, I was very fooled at the time. I felt stupid, but it was nice to be fooled. Thatâs not a feeling we get to have very often anymore.â
Victoria Dailey, who, along with her former husband, William Dailey, deals in rare books from a shop on Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles, likes to refer to Jay as âour worst customer.â She hastens to point out, âHe could be our best customer. He wants everything but can hardly buy anything.â Both Daileys regard Jay as âa true eccentricâ in the English senseâpart Bloomsbury, part Fawlty Towers. More than fifteen years ago, they sold Jay the first book for which he paid more than a hundred dollars. The first time he spent more than a thousand dollars for a book, and, again, when he reached the five-thousand-dollar threshold, the Daileys were also involved. The latter item was Jean PrÃvostâs âLa PremiÃ¨re Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions,â the earliest known important conjuring book, printed in Lyons in 1584.
âI bought it unhesitatingly,â recalls Jay, for whom possession of the PrÃvost is a bittersweet memory; uncharacteristically, he parted with it during a fiscal crisis. âI bought it and then, with remarkable rapidity, three particular jobs that I thought I had went sour. One was a Johnny Carson special on practical jokes that didnât pan out because of one of his divorces. Another was a tour of Australia that was cancelled by a natural disasterâin other words, by an act of God. This book was so fucking rare that people in the magic world just didnât know about it.â
It is the Daileysâ impressionâa perception shared by other dealers in rare books and incunabulaâthat Jay spends a higher proportion of his disposable income on rare books and artifacts than anyone else they know. His friend Janus Cercone has described him as âan incunable romantic.â
âProbably, no matter how much money he had, he would be overextended bibliomaniacallyâor should the word be âbibliographicallyâ? Anyway, heâd be overextended,â William Dailey has said. âThe first time I met him, I recognized him as a complete bibliomaniac. Heâs not a complete monomaniac about books on magic, but within that field he is remarkably focussed. His connoisseurship is impeccable, in that he understands the entire context of a bookâs emergence. Heâs not just interested in the bookâs condition. He knows who printed it, and he knows the personal struggle the author went through to get it printed.â
In 1971, during Jayâs nomadic phase, he spent a lot of time in Boston hanging out with Diaconis, who had begun to assemble a library of rare magic books. Diaconis takes credit for explicating the rudiments of collecting to Jay and animating his academic interest. He now regards Jay as âten standard deviations out, just the best in the world in his knowledge of the literature of conjuring.â Jayâs collectionâseveral thousand volumes, plus hundreds of lithographs, playbills, pamphlets, broadsides, and miscellaneous ephemeraâreflects his interest not only in magic but also in gambling, cheating, low life, and what he described in the subtitle of âLearned Pigs #038; Fireproof Womenâ as âunique, eccentric and amazing entertainers: stone eaters, mind readers, poison resisters, daredevils, singing mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.â Though Jay abhors the notion of buying books as investments, his own collection, while it is not for sale and is therefore technically priceless, more or less represents his net worth. There was a time, within the past decade, when he seriously considered becoming a bookdealer himself. The main thing that dissuaded him, he says, is that âI wouldnât want to sell a book to a philistine, which is what every bookseller has to do.â Unlike a lot of collectors, he actually reads and rereads the books and other materials he buys, and puts them to scholarly and performing use. Therefore, he has no trouble rationalizing why he, rather than someone else who might turn up at an auction or peruse a dealerâs catalogue, is more worthy of owning, say, both variant editions of âA Synopsis of the Butchery of the Late Sir Washington Irving Bishop (Kamilimilianalani), a most worthy Mason of the thirty-second degree, the Mind Reader and philanthropist, by Eleanor Fletcher Bishop, His Broken Hearted Mother,â Philadelphia, 1889 and 1890.
One day last spring, I got a phone call from Jay, who had just returned to Los Angeles from Florida, where he and Michael Weber spent several months doing âpyromagical effectsâ on a movie called âWilder Napalm.â
âThereâs a pile of mail on my desk,â he said.
âI hope there are a few checks in it,â I said.
âYes, actually, there are. But, of course, I just spent it all on a book.â
The book in question was Thomas Adyâs âA Candle in the Dark: Or a Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft,â which includes an important seventeenth-century account of an English magic performance. I had once heard Jay allude to âA Candle in the Darkâ during a lecture at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. The Huntington owned a copy, and so did a few other institutions. Jay described it to me as âexceedingly rareâonly one copy has been sold in my collecting lifetime,â and said that he had acquired his from a New York dealer âafter a long negotiation.â On a subsequent visit to New York, he took me to meet the dealer, Steve Weissman, a preternaturally relaxed fellow, who was obviously quite fond of him.
âWe have a common interest,â Weissman, who does business out of an office on the East Side, said. âWe do like the same kinds of books. I donât specialize in Rickyâs area of interestâonly Ricky doesâbut I find that I gravitate toward it. My stock is dominantly literary. And I like oddball subjects: slang dictionaries, magic, gambling, con games. The advantage for me with Ricky is that heâs an enthusiast for a wide range of subjects. Most customers arrive and theyâre entering the dealerâs world, my world. He walks in and I enter his world. The next customer through the door might be a Byron fanatic and Iâll have to enter his world. Itâs not a unique situation, but with Ricky itâs particularly gratifying, because of the kind of collector he isâpassionate and knowledgeable. Ideally, I would also include rich in that equation, but he doesnât qualify.â
Referring to âA Candle in the Dark,â Weissman added, âI donât doubt that I could have sold it for more money to someone else. But itâs more fun to sell it to Ricky.â
A young man with a ponytail and peach-fuzzy sideburns and wearing a herringbone-tweed topcoat entered the shop. As he closed the door behind him, the doorknob fell off. He picked it up and handed it to Weissmanâs assistant and said, âI think this is yours.â
Sotto voce, Jay said, âWho is that guy?â
âI think heâs someone whoâs trying to swindle us into buying a Visa card, or something,â Weissman said.
When the young man was ready to leave, a few minutes later, the doorknob had been reattached but would not turn. Twenty minutes elapsed before we were finally rescued by an upstairs neighbor who was able to open the door from the outside. While we waited, before our liberation seemed certain, Jay gestured at the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves of rare books and said, âTo most people this would be hell. But to me itâs just a holiday.â
Several years ago, Weissman attended an auction at Christieâs and, bidding on behalf of Jay and Nicolas Barker, of the British Library, bought a collection of rare engravings whose subject matter was calligraphy. Jay writes in a stylized calligraphic script, and Barker, having spent much of his professional life cataloguing and studying antiquarian manuscripts, confesses to being âpassionately interested in the history of handwriting.â There were more than thirty items in the auction lot, and Jay and Barker divided them according to a simple formula. âI kept all the images related to armless calligraphers,â Jay says, âand Nicolas got all the calligraphers with arms.â
In a chapter of âLearned Pigsâ entitled âMore Than the Sum of Their Parts,â Jay recounts the skills and accomplishments of various men and women, all celebrated figures between the sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries, who lacked the usual complement of appendagesâarms or legs or digitsâand compensated in inspiring ways. He dotes especially on Matthew Buchinger, âThe Wonderful Little Man of Nuremberg,â who was born in 1674, died around 1740, and, in between, married four times, sired fourteen children, and âplayed more than a half dozen musical instruments, some of his own invention, and danced the hornpipeÂ .Â .Â .Â amazed audiences with his skills at conjuringÂ .Â .Â .Â was a marksman with the pistol and demonstrated trick shots at nine pinsÂ .Â .Â .Â was a fine penman; he drew portraits, landscapes, and coats of arms, and displayed remarkable calligraphic skills.â Buchinger managed these transactions without the benefit of feet or thighs, and instead of arms he had âtwo fin-like excrescences growing from his shoulder blades.â He stood, so to speak, only twenty-nine inches high. The Christieâs auction enabled Jay to add significantly to his trove of Buchingerianaâplaybills, engravings by and of the Wonderful Little Man, self-portraits, specimens of his calligraphy, and accounts of his performances as a conjurer.
Segueing from a passage about Carl Herman Unthan, who was armless, played the violin with his feet, toured in vaudeville as âUnthan, the Pedal Paganini,â and âfired the rifleÂ .Â .Â .Â with enough skill and accuracy to be compared with the great trick shot artists Ira Paine and Doc Carver,â Jay writes, âWriters, scientists, and medical men have explored the psychologies and physiologies of these prodigies; they and the public alike are intrigued by the relationship between the horrific and miraculous.â
This last phrase concisely expresses Jayâs central preoccupation as a scholar and a performer. âLearned Pigsâ contains only passing references to Houdini, whose tirelessness as a self-promoter was concomitant with his gifts as an illusionist. Jay has attempted to rescue from the margins of history performers who in their day were no less determined than Houdini to please their audiences. Here is an echt-Jay paragraph:
As the novelty of fire-eating and -handling wore off, those performers not versatile enough to combine their talents into more diversified shows took to the streets. In 1861 Henry Mayhew, in Volume 3 of âLondon Labour and the London Poor,â described one such salamander. After a fascinating and detailed account of a fire king learning his trade and preparing his demonstrations, we find the poor fellow has been reduced to catching rats with his teeth to earn enough money to survive.
The rest of the fire-handlers, geeks, acid-drinkers, bayonet-swallowers, mentalists, contortionists, illiterate savants, faith-healing charlatans, porcine-faced ladies, and noose-wearing high-divers who populate âLearned Pigsâ routinely sacrifice their dignity, but they never lose their humanity. âI donât want to be seen as somebody who just writes about freaks,â Jay says. âA lot of the people I write about were very famous in their day, and they were a great source of entertainment. Today, audiences are just as curious, just as willing to be amazed. But look at everything weâre barraged withâit just doesnât lodge in the imagination the same way.â His mission, in sum, is to reignite our collective sense of wonder.
Jayâs fruitful combination of autodidacticism and free-lance scholarship is itself a wonderful phenomenon. Reviewing âLearned Pigsâ in the Times, John Gross wrote, âOne effect of Mr. Jayâs scholarship is to make it clear that even among freaks and prodigies there is very little new under the sun. Show him a stone-eater or a human volcano or an enterologist and he will show you the same thing being done before, often hundreds of years earlier.â In the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano wrote, âÂ âLearned Pigs #038; Fireproof Womenâ is a book so magnificently entertaining that if a promoter booked it into theatres and simply distributed a copy to each patron to read, heâd have the hit of the season.â A blurb on the jacket from Penn and Teller says, âItâs the coolest bookÂ .Â .Â .Â and probably the most brilliantly weird book ever.â Jay wrote much of âLearned Pigsâ while occupying a carrel in the rare-book stacks of the Clark Library, at UCLA At one point, Thomas Wright, a librarian at the Clark and a former professor of English literature, tried to persuade him to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship. When Jay explained that he didnât have a doctorate, Wright said, âMaybe a masterâs degree would be sufficient.â
âThomas, I donât even have a BAâ
Wright replied, âWell, you know, Ricky, a PhD is just a sign of docility.â
As Jay was completing the writing of âLearned Pigs,â he received an offer, unexpected and irresistible, to become the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts. John Mulholland, who died in 1970, was a distinguished magician, historian, and writer. He was also a close friend of Houdini, whom he befriended in his capacity as editor of The Sphinx, the leading magic journal of its time. Above all, he was an obsessively thorough collector of printed materials and artifacts relating to magic and other unusual performing arts. In other words, if Jay and Mulholland had got to know each other they would have become soul mates. Mulhollandâs collection comprised some ten thousand volumes, in twenty languages. In 1966, he moved it to The Players Club, on Gramercy Park, and until his death he remained its curator. In 1984, the club put it up for sale. The auction gallery that was handling the sale enlisted Jay to help catalogue the collection and advise on its dispersal. Jay feared that it would be broken up or sold overseas, and either outcome seemed perilously likely. At a late hour, however, a young Los Angeles attorney, businessman, and novice magician named Carl Rheubanâsomeone Jay had never heard ofâturned up and bought the library intact, for five hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars.
Like a lot of promoters who floated extravagant fantasies during the profligate eighties, Rheuban knew friendly and indulgent bankers. As it happened, the friendliest of these bankers was Rheuban himself. In 1983, he founded the First Network Savings Bank, leased office space in Century City, offered high interest rates to attract deposits from all over the country, and started investing the funds in complex and wishful real-estate ventures. By the spring of 1985, Jay had an office on the bank premises, where the collection was housed. Soon, he also had a steady salary, a staff of three assistants, a healthy acquisitions allowance, friendlier-than-ever relationships with dealers all over the world, and control of a superb research library. Plans were drafted for what Jay anticipated would be âa dream come trueâ: the collection would be moved to a building in downtown Los Angeles, which would also accommodate a museum and a small theatre where he would regularly perform, as would other artists who appealed to his sensibilities. Edwin Dawes, a British historian of magic and a professor of biochemistry, who visited the library and regularly corresponded with Jay, has said, âIt just seemed as if Rickyâs fairy godmother had appeared to provide the environment in which to work and all the facilities to do the job.â Even from the perspective of Jay, the inveterate skeptic, it was a nearly ideal situation. And, clearly, Rheuban, who was occupied with diverse enterprises, regarded him as the ideal overseer.
In April of 1990, however, First Network was abruptly closed by California banking regulators, and the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC.), the federal agency created to cope with the nationwide savings-and-loan crisis, moved in to liquidate its assets. Rheuban soon filed for personal bankruptcy, and was reported to be the subject of a criminal-fraud investigation. With no forewarning, Jay discovered that he could not even gain access to his own office without first receiving permission from self-important bureaucrats who didnât know Malini from minestrone. The irony of this was unbearable. Had Ricky Jay, of all people, been victimized by a high-stakes con game?
If Rheuban did commit crimes, the government has yet to persuade a grand jury that they were transgressions worthy of an indictment. Nor does Jay at this point have a desire to know how, precisely, First Network came undone. Regardless of what was going on inside the bank, Jay had felt that his working arrangement with Rheuban was basically satisfactory. Though they have not spoken in almost two years, he expresses no bitterness toward his former employer and benefactor. For the functionaries of the RTC., however, he harbors deep contempt. Because Rheubanâs personal insolvency was enmeshed with the bankâs insolvency, the fate of the Mulholland Library was for many months suspended in legal limbo. Brian Walton, an attorney and friend of Jayâs, who advised him during the fiasco, has said, âWhen you look at the question of the ownership of the library, the moral ownership was clearly in Rickyâs hands. The financial ownership was obviously elsewhere. But, of course, artists will often become divorced from what they create. Every day, there would be one yahoo or another messing with what were, in a moral sense, Rickyâs treasures. One day, Ricky came by the library and there were some government people videotaping the collection for inventory purposes. And theyâd just placed their equipment wherever they felt like it. Ricky looked at one guy and said, âGet your stuff off those posters.â And the guy said, âIâm So-and-So, from the FBI.â And Ricky said, âI donât care who the fuck you are. Get your crap off those posters.âÂ â
The outlandishness of the situation was compounded by the fact that the Mulholland Library proved to be a splendid investmentâthe only asset in the First Network bankruptcy which had appreciated significantly. After a year and a half of what Jay regarded as neglect and mismanagement, the RTC. finally put it up for sale at auction. The day before the auction, which was to be presided over by a bankruptcy judge in a downtown courtroom, Jay gave me my first and last glimpse of the collection, which was still in Century City. In the building lobby, on our way to what had been First Networkâs offices, on the fifth floor, Jay pointed out that the bankâs small retail operation was now occupied by a custom tailor shop. Upstairs, we walked through an empty anteroom that had once been lined with vitrines, then headed down a long beige-carpeted corridor. James Rust, a young RTC. employee, emerged from a corner officeâformerly Rheubanâsâand greeted us.
Our first stop was a large storage room filled with material from the collection of a German physician named Peter Hackhofer. âI bought different parts of this collection from Hackhofer in several crazy transactions,â Jay said. âHe used to lead me on incredible goose chases all over Germany. Weâd end up doing business at three in the morning on the Autobahn, halfway between Cologne and Frankfurt. Weâd be pulled over to the side of the road with theatrical posters spread out on the roof of his car. Once, I went all the way to Germany to buy a collection that Hackhofer was going to broker, only to find out that the owner refused to sell. Months later, in New York, I met Hackhofer at a hotel. Heâd brought with him a hundred posters, which, because his room was so small, he spread out in the hallway. He had to restrain me from attacking a bellboy who rolled over some of them with a luggage cart.â The storage room contained hundreds of books, in German and French, as well as a silk pistol, a billiard-ball stand, a vanishing and appearing alarm clock, a cube-shaped metal carrying case for a spirit bell, and a paper box with a ribbon on it, which was about the size of a ladyâs handbag, and which Jay said was âa Victorian production reticule.â I knew that I could have happily occupied myself there for several hours, but he seemed eager to move on. We walked down another long corridor, past the erstwhile loan-servicing and accounting departments, and came to a locked door. As Rust unlocked it, Jay looked at me with a wry, I-will-now-have-my-liver-eaten-by-vultures sort of smile.
We stepped into a square room, perhaps thirty by thirty. Bookshelves and glass-enclosed cabinets lined the walls, and tables and flat files filled the interior. Separated from this room by a glass partition was a ten-by-twelve cubicle that had been Jayâs office. It contained a desk, a wall of bookshelves, and a side table. Two automatons stood on the table. One, called âThe Singing Lesson,â was the creation of Jean-EugÃ¨ne Robert-Houdin, the nineteenth-century watchmaker-turned-conjurer, who is considered the father of modern magic. The other was a Chinese cups-and-balls conjurer built by Robert-Houdinâs father-in-law, Jacques Houdin. A large, framed color poster of Malini, advertising his âRound the World Tour,â hung on the wall to the left of Jayâs desk.
âI heard that that poster holds some sort of special significance for you, Ricky,â James Rust said.
Jay responded with an opaque, querulous stare that said, in effect, âHey, pal, everything in this place holds special significance for me.â
Along the back wall of the main room were shelved bound volumes of The Sphinx, The Wizard, The Conjurerâs Monthly, The Linking Ring, The Magic Circular, Das Programm, La Prestidigitation, Ghost, The Magic Wand, The Gen, Mahatma, and other periodicals. I spent an hour and a half in the main room, exploring the contents of the file drawers, staring into the glass display cases, pulling books from shelves, admiring framed lithographs, and listening to Jay. Ultimately, the experience was disquieting. Connected to virtually every item was a piquant vignetteâa comic oddity, a compilation of historical or biographical arcanaâbut each digression inevitably led to a plaintive anticlimax, because the tangible artifacts had now passed from Jayâs care. I paged through the scrapbook of Edward Maro, âa Chautauqua-circuit magician who played the mandolin and did hand shadows.â A Barnum #038; Bailey poster trumpeting automotive daredevilsââLâAuto Bolide Thrilling Dip of Deathââhad been used by Jay when he was âwriting a piece about crazy car acts for an automotive magazine.â There was a lithograph of Emil Naucke, a corpulent charmer in a flesh-colored tutu, of whom Jay said, âHe was a German wrestler in drag, he was a famous strongman, he had a theatre of varieties, and as part of his act he danced with a midget.â A lithograph of Martini-Szeny depicted âa Hungarian Houdini imitator who wore chaps and a Mexican hat and used to have himself strapped to a cactus,â Jay said. âI was going to write a book on Houdini imitators that I would call âHoudini: Howdini, Oudini, Martini-Szeny, and Zucchini, Pretenders to the Throne.â And with these reference books over here I could look up and see exactly where Martini-Szeny performed in, say, February of 1918. I bought this entire collection from an old circus artist in Atlanta who did a barrel act.â
We wandered back into Jayâs former office at one point. To his obvious annoyance, Rust wound up the âSinging Lessonâ automaton. While it was playing, Jay turned his attention to a book that had been sitting on his desk, a seventeenth-century copy of the first book on magic to be printed in Dutch. The front cover had become separated from the binding.
âThatâs nice,â he said with sarcasm. âThis was not detached.â
Rust nodded in acknowledgment.
âThatâs creepy,â Jay continued. âThis was a really solid vellum binding. Thatâs why I donât want people in here who donât know how to handle books.â
âDo you know how many hands have been here, Ricky?â
âYes, and itâs really creepy.â
When Rust left the room, Jay said to me, âYou know, I never had any agreement with Carl. At the outset, he asked me, âWhat do you want?â And I said, âI want access to this collection for the rest of my life.â And he said, âFine.â After we moved in here, I unpacked every single book. We catalogued what we could, but, as with any active collection, you can never really catch up. In the five years I was here, I almost doubled the size of the collection. This was the only thing I ever did that I spoke of myself as doing into the indefinite future.â
Shortly after eight oâclock the next morning, I picked Jay up in front of his apartment building, and we drove downtown to the courthouse, where the auction would take place. A couple of days earlier, he had said to me, âIâve talked to a lot of people who say they might be bidding, and I can tell you that, without a single exception, theyâre utterly soulless. No one gets it, no one has a clue to what the collection is really about. There actually are people who are knowledgeable about this, but theyâre not the ones who are able to buy it.â As it was, the disposition of the Mulholland Library now seemed a foregone conclusion. David Copperfield, a workaholic stage illusionist who spends several weeks each year performing in Las Vegas and the other weeks touring the world, had agreed to pay two million two hundred thousand dollars for it. The only thing that could alter this outcome would be a competing bidderâbids would be allowed in minimum increments of fifty thousand dollarsâand none had materialized.
At the courthouse, we discovered that the bankruptcy-court clerk had altered the docket and we were more than an hour early. Jay and I retreated to a cafeteria, where we were soon joined by William Dailey, the bookdealer, and by Steve Freeman, Michael Weber, and Brian Walton. When we finally entered the courtroom, Copperfield was already seated in the front row of the spectator gallery, along with two attorneys, a personal assistant, and a couple of advisers, who were also acquaintances of Jayâs. Twenty or so other people, among them several lawyers representing creditors in the Rheuban bankruptcy, were also present. Copperfield is a slender, almost gaunt man in his mid-thirties with thick black eyebrows, brown eyes, aquiline features, and leonine dark hair. He was dressed all in black: double-breasted suit, Comme des GarÃ§ons T-shirt, suÃ¨de cowboy boots.
John Gaughan, a designer of stage illusions, who was seated with Copperfield, said to Jay, âDid you bring some cards?â
âOh, yes,â Jay replied. âWhen you feel your life threatened, youâre always prepared.â Then he asked Copperfield, âWhere have you come from?â
âAhâfrom one gambling arena to another.â
The judge, the Honorable Vincent P. Zurzolo, appeared briefly, only to learn that Katherine Warwick, the main lawyer for the RTC., had not yet arrived. Ten minutes later, she breezed in and, in a friendly, casual manner, distributed to the other lawyers present her reply to a motion objecting to the allocation of the proceeds. About half an hour of legalistic colloquy ensuedâa debate over whether the auction could even take place and, if so, when. At last, the Judge asked a fifty-thousand-dollar question: âIs there anyone who is here to overbid the bidder who has made the initial offer?â
There was a minute of silence, broken in my corner of the spectator section by Jay muttering, âUnbelievable. Unbelievable.â
And, with that, David Copperfieldâa man who owned neither a home nor an automobile but was reported to be looking for a warehouse; a man whose stage presentations were once described to me as âresembling entertainment the way Velveeta resembles cheeseââhad bought the Mulholland Library for two million two hundred thousand dollars. Katherine Warwick reminded Copperfieldâs attorneys that he had fifteen daysâuntil the end of the monthâto remove the collection from Century City, because the RTC. was shutting down its operation there. There were handshakes among the Copperfield entourage, and then Copperfield approached Jay.
âThank you for everything,â he said, extending his hand.
âYouâll enjoy it,â Jay said. âI did.â
âYou know youâll be welcome any time.â
âWeâll speak again in the future, Iâm sure,â Jay said.
A friend of Jayâs who also knew Copperfield said to me later, âDavid Copperfield buying the Mulholland Library is like an Elvis impersonator winding up with Graceland.â
A few weeks ago, Copperfield arranged for Jay to be flown to Las Vegas to discuss the collection. A driver met Jay at the airport and delivered him to a warehouse. In front was an enormous neon sign advertising bras and girdles. It was Copperfieldâs conceit that the ideal way for a visitor to view the Mulholland Library would be to pass first through a storefront filled with lingerie-clad mannequins and display cases of intimate feminine apparel. With enthusiasm, Copperfield escorted Jay around the premises, insisting that he read each of the single-entendre slogans posted on the wallsââWe Support Our Customersâ and âOur Bras Will Never Let You Downââand also the punning tributes inscribed on celebrity photographs from the likes of Debbie Reynolds, Jerry Lewis, and Buddy Hackett. When Copperfield pressed one of the red-nippled breasts of a nude mannequin, the electronic lock on a mirrored door deactivated, and he and Jay stepped into the main warehouse space. Construction work had recently been completed on an upper level. Jay followed Copperfield up a stairway and into a suite of rooms that included several offices, a bedroom, and a marble-tiled bathroom. The bathroom had two doors, one of which led to an unpartitioned expanse where the contents of the Mulholland Libraryâmuch of it shelved exactly as it had been in Century City, some of it on tables, some of it not yet unpackedâhad been deposited.
Jay stayed an hourâlong enough to register pleasure at seeing the collection once again and dismay at the context in which he was seeing it. When Copperfield asked whether he would be willing to work as a consultant on an occasional basisââBasically, he wanted to know whether, whenever he needs me, I would drop whatever Iâm doing and tell him what heâd boughtââJay recognized an offer that he could easily resist.
After Jay returned to Los Angeles, he said, âAs much as I love this collection, I didnât think I could handle going through Copperfieldâs bra-and-girdle emporium every time I went to see it.â
Clearly, Jay has been more interested in the craft of magic than in the practical exigencies of promoting himself as a performer. His friend T. A. Waters has said, âRicky has turned down far more work than most magicians get in a lifetime.â Though he earns high fees whenever he does work, a devotion to art rather than a devotion to popular success places him from time to time in tenuous circumstances. At the moment, he is mobilizing a project that should reward him both artistically and financially. What he has in mind is a one-man show, on a stage somewhere in New York, to be billed as âRicky Jay and His 52 Assistantsââan eveningâs entertainment with a deck of cards. He envisions an intimate setting.
âAll I value as a performer is for people to want to see me,â Jay says. âI mean people who have come just to see meâtheyâre not going out to hear music, theyâre not out to get drunk or to pick up women. Iâd much rather perform in a small theatre in front of a few people than in an enormous Las Vegas night club.â
Provided that the right theatre and the right situation materialize, David Mamet has agreed to direct such a production. âIâm very honored to be asked,â Mamet told me. âI regard Ricky as an example of the âsuperior man,â according to the I Ching definition. Heâs the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone whoâs devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field.â
Having directed Jay now in three filmsâand they are collaborating on the screenplay of anotherâMamet holds him in high esteem as an actor. âRickyâs terrific,â Mamet said. âHe doesnât make anything up. He knows the difference between doing things and not doing things. The magician performs a task and the illusion is created in the mind of the audience. And thatâs what acting is about.â
Jay now spends the greater part of his typical workdays alone in his Old Spanish-style Hollywood apartment. It is the repository of his collection, the research facility for his scholarly pursuits. Overloaded bookshelves line the living-room and bedroom walls, and stacks of books on the floors make navigation a challenge. Posters, playbills, and engravings decorate any available wall spaceâseveral Buchingers, Toby the Learned Pig (the most gifted of the sapient swine), Madame Girardelli (the fireproof woman), Houdini suspended upside down in a water-torture cell, Erno Acosta balancing a piano on his head, a three-sheet poster of Cinquevalli (the most famous juggler at the turn of the century). Jay sleeps beneath a huge color lithograph of an Asian-looking man billed as Okito, whom he described to me as âthe fifth of six generations or the fourth of five generationsâdepending on whose story you want to believeâof a family of Dutch Jewish magicians, a twentieth-century performer whose real name was Theodore Bamberg.â Between two books on a shelf in the corner of his kitchen is a photograph of Steve Martin, inscribed âTo Ricky, Without you there would be no Flydini. Think about it. Steve.â This refers to a comedy magic routine that Jay helped Martin develop a few years ago, a dumb-show piece that he has performed at charity events and on television. As the Great Flydini, Martin appears onstage dressed in tails, unzips his trousers, and smiles uncomfortably as an egg emerges from his fly, followed by another egg, a third egg, a lit cigarette, a puff of smoke, two more eggs, a ringing telephone, a bouquet of flowers, a glass of wine, a silk handkerchief that a pretty girl walks off with and drops, whereupon it flies back inside his trousers, a Pavarotti hand puppet, and soap bubbles.
The last time I visited Jay in his apartment, he was working simultaneously on more than half a dozen projects. Within the past year, he has begun to do his writing on a computer, rather than in longhand on a legal pad with a calligraphic pen. This has evidently not made the process any less daunting. âWriting is the only thing in my life that hasnât got easier,â he said. âI can say that categorically. Right now, Iâm finishing a magazine article that was supposed to be about human ingenuity, but somehow Iâve ended up writing about child prodigies. Hereâs my lead sentence: âSolomon Stone, the midget lightning calculator, was an overachiever.â I go from Solomon Stone to the Infant Salambo. This was a child who was from a turn-of-the-century show-biz family. She was abandoned by them for several years, and when they turned up again they realized she had been neglected, had had absolutely no education. But within a year she was appearing onstage, having been reinvented as Salambo, the Infant Historianâget thisââabsolutely the most clever and best-informed child the world has ever seen.âÂ â
He showed me a prospectus for Jayâs Journal of Anomalies, a letterpress-printed broadside for âa periodical devoted to the investigation of conjurers, cheats, hustlers, hoaxers, prankstersÂ .Â .Â .Â arcana, esoterica, curiosa, variaÂ .Â .Â .Â scholarly and entertainingÂ .Â .Â .Â amusing and elucidatingÂ .Â .Â .Â iconographically stimulatingÂ .Â .Â .Â â
âI just finished a piece for Jayâs Journal on performing dogs who stole the acts of other dogs,â he said. âNext, I want to do a piece about crucifixion actsâyou know, real crucifixions that were done as entertainment. The idea for this came to me one Easter Sunday. Bob Lund, from the American Museum of Magic, has just sent me a little book on Billy Roseâs Theatre that contained one sentence he knew would interest meâabout a woman who swung nude from a cross to the strains of Ravelâs âBolÃro.â Her name was Faith Bacon. This was in the thirties. Unlike some of the other performers Iâve turned up, in her act she only simulated crucifixion. Anyway, Iâm playing around with that.â
Over the past few years, Jay has given a number of lectures on the origins of the confidence game, which he hopes to expand into a book-length history of cheating and deception. For the Whitney Museumâs Artists and Writers series, he is writing a book to be illustrated by William Wegman and others. It is a history of trick magic books, which were first produced in the sixteenth century. âIâm really intrigued with the concept of the book as both a subject and an object of mystery,â he said.
Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer who three years ago collaborated with him on an hour-long CBS special entitled âLearned Pigs #038; Fireproof Women,â which is the only prime-time network special ever hosted by a sleight-of-hand artist. He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weberâa consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering âArcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.â They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, âWolf,â starring Jack Nicholson. When Jay arrived at his office, he discovered that a parcel from a British dealer had been delivered in that dayâs mail.
âOh my. Oh my. This is wonderful,â he said as he examined an early-nineteenth-century chapbook that included a hand-colored engraving of its subjectâClaude Seurat, the Living Skeleton. âLook,â he said, pointing to some scratched numerals on the verso of the title page. âThis shelf mark means this was in the library of Thomas Phillips, the most obsessive book-and-manuscript collector of the nineteenth century.â
The mail had also brought a catalogue from another British dealer, who was offering, for a hundred and fifty pounds, an engraving and broadside of Ann Moore, the Fasting Woman of Tutbury. By the time we left the office, an idea for an issue of Jayâs Journal had begun to percolate.
âI could do fasting impostors and living skeletons,â Jay said. âOr what might really be interesting would be to do living skeletons and fat men. For instance, I could write about Seurat and Edward Bright, the Fat Man. Except I might prefer a contemporary of Seuratâs, Daniel Lambert. He was even fatter than Bright, but heâs been written about more. With Bright, the pleasure would be writing about the wager involving his waistcoat. When he died, the wager was that five men twenty-one years of age could fit into his waistcoat. As it happened, seven grown men could fit inside. I have an exquisite black-and-white engraving of Bright, from 1751. And I have a great hand-colored engraving of Bright and Lambert, from 1815, which has an inset of the seven men in the waistcoat.â
Back at the apartment, Jay examined the Seurat book and brought out for comparison an 1827 eight-page French pamphlet on Seurat. I asked what other Seurat material he had, and he removed his shoes, stood on the arm of a sofa, and brought down from a shelf one of four volumes of the 1835 edition of âHoneâs Every Day Book, and Table Book; or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Incident to Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days, in Past and Present Times; forming a Complete History of the Year, Months, and Seasons, and a Perpetual Key to the Almanac.â In it he immediately found two engravings of Seurat, alongside one of which he had written in pencil a page reference to a competing living skeleton. âOh, yes, I remember this,â he said. âI have stuff on other living skeletons, too. Iâve got to show you this George Anderson poster I bought at an auction in London in 1983.â
We moved into the dining room, where there was a flat-file cabinet. He opened the bottom drawer, which was filled to capacity with lithographs and engravings, each one a Ricky Jay divagation: âT. Nelson Downs, the King of KoinsÂ .Â .Â .Â Samri S. Baldwin, the White MahatmaÂ .Â .Â .Â Holton the Cannonball Catcher. I have a lot of stuff on cannonball catchers.Â .Â .Â . The Freeze Brothers, blackfaced tambourine jugglersÂ .Â .Â . Sylvester Schaffer, a great variety artistÂ .Â .Â . Josefa and Rosa Blazek, the Bohemian violin-playing Siamese twins. And here are Daisy and Violet Hilton, the saxophone-playing Siamese twins from San Antonio.Â .Â .Â . And hereâs Rastelli, perhaps the greatest juggler who ever lived.Â .Â .Â . Whatâs that? Oh, a poster for âHouse of Games.âÂ .Â .Â . Iâm just trying to get to the George Anderson piece thatâs sticking out at the end.Â .Â .Â . Oh, this is the Chevalier DâEon, a male fencer in drag. He used to be the French Ambassador to the Court of St. Jamesâs. Itâs a great story but it takes too long.â
Jay had reached and placed on the dining-room table the George Anderson poster, a postbellum piece printed in New Hampshire using wooden type and a large woodblock image of Anderson, who had made an art and livelihood of attenuation. He appeared to be five and a half feet tall and to weigh about sixty-five pounds.
âI know some people find this strange and weird,â Jay said. âActually, after this life Iâve lived, I have no idea what is strange and weird and what isnât. I donât know who else waxes poetic about the virtues of skeleton men, fasting impostors, and cannonball catchers. And, to be honest, I donât really care. I just think theyâre wonderful. I really do.âÂ â¦