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Searching for America's premier magician Ricky Jay

Searching for America's premier magician Ricky Jay
Ricky Jay poses for a portrait at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. (David Sprague / For the Times)

It is well past 8 on a brisk St. Louis evening, and the audience in Washington University's Edison Theater is abuzz with anticipation. The 100-plus, carefully placed stadium-style seats have been sold out for months. That's almost always the case for a performance of "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants," whether the production is staged off-Broadway, at London's famed Old Vic, or in a modest Los Angeles theater. Tonight the house is thick with professorial types, affluent Missourians, enterprising students and local theater people, all here to see a relative unknown who is reputed to be an extraordinary performer.

That man is Ricky Jay, America's most accomplished sleight-of- hand artist, a magician extraordinaire and inspiration to a growing cult of devotees. Jay is one of America's leading magic historians, as well as a peerless expert on the art of the con. (He named his consulting company — which gives advice about con artistry to movie makers — "Deceptive Practices.") Jay is also a character actor who keeps popping up in David Mamet movies, among them "State and Main," tentatively scheduled for release late this year. He's currently filming a movie about a mother and daughter con team with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver and is starting to develop, with Mamet, a new magic show, targeted for Broadway. A new book, composed of articles that appeared in his "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," will be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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He is also a private man, obsessively private, and any attempt to unearth the real Ricky Jay — performance artist? eccentric? mountebank? — turns into a scavenger hunt. I can observe his unique talents and talk to a coterie of his longtime friends, who turn up at odd times to watch him rehearse, lecture or perform, but to be an FOJ you must be loyal and not very forthcoming. Two of Jay's best- known friends are Mamet and the actor Steve Martin, but they're not talking. Two of his lesser-known pals are Persi Diaconis, a Stanford University statistics professor and magic expert, and Steve Freeman, a California accountant and an unknown outside the world of magic, but someone who, I've been told, handles a deck of cards as skillfully as Horowitz played piano. They don't talk about Ricky Jay either.

So it seems my journey of discovery will be a one-on-one. Not only will I need to track Jay's movements and become familiar with his day-to-day routine, but I will also need to get to know him personally. I will have to merit his trust.

*

"EVERY PROFESSION IS A CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE LAITY," JAY INTONES during his St. Louis performance — using a clever aphorism attributed to George Bernard Shaw — and the audience is about to bear witness. Jay strolls onto the small stage in a dark, iridescent suit and a carnival barker's black shirt buttoned to the waist. He is middle- aged, with thinning hair, a bushy beard and a stout frame, more teddy bear than matinee idol. He certainly doesn't look like an athlete. Could this be the man capable of throwing an ordinary playing card over a four-story building? (Yes, it could.)

Then Ricky Jay speaks, in notes of the East Coast — New York, perhaps, maybe Brooklyn. He introduces himself, and his 52 assistants, which, as you've probably deduced, are a deck of ordinary playing cards, unmarked, unstripped, unopened. Jay fondles them, caresses them and, in his own words, as he spreads them lengthwise across a long table, describes them as having everything from "ingratiating simplicity" to "regal splendor." He should know. For years, decades, in fact, cards were his best friends, his steadfast companions, in hotel rooms, rehearsal halls and modest apartments.

Ricky Jay. from "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay."
Ricky Jay. from "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay." (Jesse Dylan)

For the opening effect on this night, he produces the four queens ("representing the feminine portion of the smart set") from the deck by having them jump out, one by one, as he performs a fast riffle. Then he places each queen face up in a separate corner of the table, covering each with three "common" numbered cards.

As he picks up the piles individually, the first three queens are magically changed into a commoner. Instead of a queen and a 7, 9 and 10, for example, there's a 7, two 9s and a 10. And where are the royal ladies? The fourth and final pile of cards is then revealed to be all four queens. It's a stupefying trick, and even watching it later in slow motion (an earlier performance in Los Angeles was taped for an HBO special), no one can imagine how it is done.

As the show progresses, Jay regales the audience with eloquent patter, using rhyming slang from centuries past. Quoting 15th century poet Francois Villon and employing 19th century jargon, he takes us on a trip from the beau monde to the demimonde. By the end of the evening, everyone in the audience is baffled, as emotionally drained as the congregation of a Pentecostal minister.

"Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants" was directed by Mamet, whose trademark style — an incessant rhythm and unrelenting pace — infuses the show. (They met through Jules Fisher, a New York lighting designer who has won seven Tony awards.) In performing these almost supernatural effects, each one introduced by Jay's engaging prose, the cards take on lives of their own, as forces that we aren't familiar with are called to order. Through a combination of the amazing and the mundane, Jay's "assistants" turn up in sealed packages, slip from the center of the deck as if propelled, hurl across the stage as the performer screams, "Yaaatz," and even come to rest in the pachydermic outer rind of a halved watermelon. The audience watches intently, picking up only subtle clues as to how they're performed.

Jay drops a few hints during the show, announcing that he is able to observe the entire shuffle and has taught himself to remember the order of the cards in the deck as he observes them flying by. He doesn't use stripper decks (ones with the edges microscopically stripped off) nor does he rely on magnets. All his effects are performed with ordinary cards. You've already figured out that it's no use trying these stunts at home, and you certainly wouldn't want to cut him double or nothing. Jay may not have the audience appeal of a performer such as Las Vegas' Lance Burton, and he doesn't make elephants disappear like the celebrated furniture movers Siegfried and Roy. His show doesn't rely on apparatus-like oversized miter boxes or puffs of smoke. But it all works.

If you haven't seen his act, but wonder if you've seen him before, it's quite possible. Jay has had prominent roles in a variety of films, including several directed by Mamet. In "House of Games," he played a squirt-gun-wielding shill at a poker game. In 1998's "The Spanish Prisoner," he slipped into a red herring role as a lawyer in a plot that he helped concoct. He is best known to worldwide audiences as the terrorist Henry Gupta in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies." But he looks upon that role with mixed feelings. "I'm in every video store in the world," he says, "so I guess I should feel gratitude." But consumers in those stores know him as Gupta the terrorist, not Ricky Jay the magician.

Ricky Jay, left, Burt Reynolds and William H. Macy star in New Line Cinema's "Boogie Nights."
Ricky Jay, left, Burt Reynolds and William H. Macy star in New Line Cinema's "Boogie Nights." (G. Lefkowitz / New Line Cinema)

Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast Jay as a cinematographer in "Boogie Nights," is one of the magician's most unabashed fans--Jay acted and narrated in Anderson's "Magnolia" as well. In fact, Jay was one of the first people to read the script for last year's ensemble film, and the young director, who considers Jay an underused actor, has great affection for him. "He's like Mr. Wizard. Whenever I have a question about writing, one of the first people I think to ask is Ricky." Indeed, acting is only a small portion of Jay's work and helps pay for his magic, writing and researching of magic history.

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DURING A CNN INTERVIEW LATE LAST YEAR, WHEN RICKY JAY is asked about his real passion, he replies, "Well, actually, it's the good woman who I live with, but a deck of cards is the closest I can come up with." Only close friends or peers get more than a casual glimpse inside his private world. Reporters are a necessary evil.

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"I've already given you an enormous amount of information," he tells me as we ride into downtown St. Louis for a late dinner following his performance at Washington University. The truth is, he hasn't told me much of anything that's not part of the very limited public record. I cull some facts from him about his student days at Cornell University, where he spent nearly a decade during the late '60s and early '70s. It's where he became friendly with the late astronomer Carl Sagan, and where, one senses, he spent some difficult years. "I tended bar," Jay shrugs, "and academically, I never really made it past my freshman year."

I learn more about this period over dinner several weeks later at a Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park. He has invited two longtime friends, producer Michael Manheim and his wife, screenwriter Janus Cercone. Jay is uncharacteristically late so I ask Cercone: What was he doing all those years in Ithaca? She gives me one of those "helloooo" looks, and then answers: "He sat in his room and practiced card tricks."

The couple tells me that Jay is a bit of a Luddite. "He's just gotten his first cellular phone," says Cercone, "and it is so bizarre to see him with it, I can't tell you."

After Jay finally shows up, he divulges a few more details about his college years: performing in the Catskills, doing "The Tonight Show" in New York. In those days, he practiced with cards almost incessantly. He then jumps back in time, telling me that the William Morris Agency represented him as a child, that he has been in show business for as long as he can remember. As he gets up to leave, Jay shows off a new trick. He has me initial all four aces from a new deck, then proceeds to have me shuffle the aces back into the deck. Subsequently, he pulls each initialed card out of a different jacket pocket. It's an astonishing move but one that reveals nothing about Ricky Jay.

He is relatively relaxed about discussing his Jewish background, but he has one hard-and-fast rule with everyone: "I never talk about my parents." I read, somewhere, that Jay did his first trick at the age of 4. Jay alludes to having grown up in Flatbush, N.Y., in an ethnically mixed area, and also New Jersey, but won't say much more. What's more, Ricky Jay is not the full name he was given at birth, but his first and middle names. No wonder Mark Singer, who profiled Jay in a long New Yorker piece in 1993, spent more than two years interviewing him.

Weeks after the Monterey Park dinner, I find myself in the home of a man named Byron Walker, a collector of rare magic and gaming literature in San Leandro. I have been brought to Walker's suburban home quite by accident by Steve Forte, a Las Vegas gaming consultant and amateur magician who has known Jay for a long time. Jay buys rare gaming and magic books from Walker, as does Forte. Five minutes after Forte tells Walker I am researching Jay, Walker produces a 1962 trade magazine for the magic industry, with none other than America's youngest magician featured inside in an advertisement. It's a shot of a boy with wavy black hair performing a "dancing cane" trick. The headline reads "Tricky Ricky," and the ad gives a home telephone number in Elizabeth, N.J.

Jay will say that he was introduced to the world of magic by his maternal grandfather, Max Katz, an amateur magician skilled enough to hang around some of the world's greatest conjurers of his time, among them, Max Malini, an inspiration for the young Ricky Jay. Malini, born in 1873, was a master magician who, as legend has it, could change an orange into a lemon in mid-flight. He was also a master illusionist who could--again, as legend has it--turn a suckling pig into a roast chicken. That last feat was performed, it's said, to squelch a prank at a dinner given in his honor. Malini, as his hosts were well aware, was a devout Jew.

*

JAY, WHOSE AGE IS LISTED AS 52 in several reference books, has lived in California for more than 20 years. ("Don't ask me for a timeline," he says, "because I don't keep track of things that way.") He drove across country at some undetermined date to be near his close friends and mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, men he speaks of with great reverence. Vernon, who was born in 1894, was a legendary magician and teacher and the resident magician at Hollywood's Magic Castle for many years. Vernon had met Jay as a child and later introduced him to Miller, a renowned expert in sleight-of-hand magic who's particularly noted for his cups-and- balls routine — a trick for which Jay is also noted. Much of what Jay knows he learned from studying men like these and others: Malini, Houdini, Johann Nepomunk Hofzinser (one of Jay's 19th century idols) and other conjurers going back centuries.

Both Vernon and Miller, who was born in 1909, were well advanced in years when Jay arrived in Southern California, and the younger man was utterly devoted to them. What was to be a temporary visit turned into a lengthy stay.

Ricky Jay and Mentor from the movie "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay."
Ricky Jay and Mentor from the movie "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries & Mentors of Ricky Jay." (Stephen Berkman)

Things weren't easy for a long time. Jay turned down a great deal of work when he first arrived in Los Angeles, particularly on the stage, a medium that he considered a "barrier to an audience." One of the first places he agreed to land was McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, where he started as an opening act and ended up the headliner. Former McCabe's concert director Bob Kimmel remembers: "One day this longhaired guy walks in, has me call a card, throws the entire deck into the air and then grabs the card, literally, out of the air.

"I guess if there is one thing that impressed me about Ricky Jay," Kimmel says, "it was the sheer reverence he had for his craft and the people who came before him in it. After a short time he had a huge following at McCabe's, and the amazing thing was that very few of those fans were connected to, or even interested in, the magic world, because we were exclusively a venue for musicians." That work led to later gigs in Las Vegas, where Jay was an opening act. He also performed in the Electric Circus, along with Ike and Tina Turner and the late Timothy Leary. And when, exactly, was this? Jay professes not to remember. "It's amazing I remember my own name, sandwiched in between the Electric Circus and Ike and Tina Turner."

If you want to see what Jay looked like during that era, get your hands on "Cards as Weapons," which he wrote in 1977. In the book, which is supposed to teach the reader how to become a ninja wielding nothing more than an ordinary deck of playing cards, there are various pictures of Jay as a longhaired, Mephistophelean character with a glint in his eye, in poses where he is hurling cards at speeds of more than 90 mph. The book is such a cult classic that the paperback recently fetched more than $300 on e-bay.com. When I ask him about it, Jay is mildly embarrassed. "Callow youth," he insists.

It was during his "post-callow youth period" that he wrote the colorful 1986 book "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women," perhaps the seminal English language work on unusual magicians and entertainers. It was also during this time that he lost one of the great loves of his life, a rare book collection. Jay was the longtime curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, assembled in part by John Mulholland, a mid-century magician whose collection later passed into the hands of Carl Rheuban, an amateur magician and former chairman of the now-defunct First Network Savings in Los Angeles. When First Network failed and the federal Resolution Trust Corp. took it over, the library, which Rheuban had expanded, was put up for sale. Jay says he had no interest in acquiring the collection, but knowing him, my assumption is that he would have liked to have seen it pass to a serious student of magic. David Copperfield bought it. To this day, Jay refuses to discuss the collection or Copperfield. "I've already covered this years ago," he tells me, "and there is nothing new to add." I bring up the subject with book collector Walker, and he says, "Copperfield bought the books for status and research."

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Perhaps the purchase is partly to blame for Jay's distaste for performing in Las Vegas, a city that loves David Copperfield and helped make him a wealthy man. Jay won't gamble in Vegas, although he could, in theory, make a lot of money. It simply isn't in him to be a con artist. In fact, he disdains gambling in any form and he doesn't drink (except for an occasional beer). He also has an unshakable sense of ethics. In an episode of "The X-Files," in which he guest-starred, Jay is asked if he has ever cheated at cards. "Who raised you?" he replies, obviously disappointed in the question. He is like this in real life as well.

His normal day is spent reading, writing and practicing. "The writing process is the hardest one for me," he says. "The smallest distraction blows it." In spite of the performing and movies, though, for several years he has managed to publish "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," a quarterly that is one of the most unusual publications in the country. Thumbing through recent editions, printed in Jay's own design using a letterpress and heavyweight paper (Jay is no fan of third-millennium technology), I come across exhaustively researched articles on such subjects as Morimoto, a turn-of-the-century Japanese music hall artist who could make his nose disappear into his face, performing fleas and Tommy Minnock, a performer who sang salon music while quite literally nailed to a cross.

I'm learning what he does in his private time, but I need to see the public (nonperforming) Ricky Jay as well. One week, I do my own bit of shadowing, following Jay to a benefit for the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, and the next day, to a discussion with author Paul Auster at the Writer's Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. Both evenings are extremely revealing.

Auster is a New York writer Jay is fond of, and the discussion turns out to be lively. But toward the end of the evening, something happens that visibly derails Jay. Auster asks him if he has ever heard of a little trick called "The Wizard," magic performed over the telephone. Jay says, "You mean the telephone thing?" Auster nods and describes the trick as his family performed it. His grandfather would take out a deck of cards at a family gathering and then have someone pick out a card. Subsequently, he would dial a phone number of a fellow conspirator. "Hello, is this the wizard?" the grandfather would ask, and upon confirmation, the wizard was able to identify the card.

Auster leads the audience into a guessing game to reveal the trick's secret. When someone finally guesses how it is done, Jay looks slightly bemused and somewhat irritated. "What is it that we have all gained from this gratuitous exposure?" Jay says. "I tell people how certain tricks are done on a need-to-know basis only. And clearly," he says, looking out fixedly at the audience, "no one here needs to know."

This may seem like a stingy approach to a craft, but consider the hand that Jay has dealt himself. "I'm much more comfortable with someone who wants to talk about the history of sleight-of-hand than I am with someone who performs it badly. This notion of the brotherhood of magicians is nonsense. You practice a trick your whole life, and then someone comes along who's been doing magic for two weeks, and you're supposed to tell him about it?"

That's one reason Jay is rarely seen at fraternal magic clubs such as the Magic Castle, where magicians get together and share ideas. He did visit when his mentors Miller and Vernon were alive. The older men were quite well received there, and they liked it as a venue, so Jay attended out of respect. But even though he once flung an ordinary playing card over the Magic Castle's fourth-story turret, he will change the subject if you mention the place today.

He is, however, enthusiastic about his friend David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology, one of L.A's great unsung cultural phenomena. Lawrence Weschler, who writes about the museum in the book "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," gives his readers the same sense that the museum tries to impart, namely, the feeling that no one is sure what is real and what isn't. That is precisely what fascinates Jay, the one theme that permeates everything he does.

*

JAY PLANS TO SPEND THE better part of this year working on a new Broadway production to be directed, again, by Mamet, this time to likely play in an 800-seat house, the largest venue he will work as a solo act. He will continue to collect poster art, lithographs and magic memorabilia.

One day he waxes rhapsodic about a Finn who has a collection of lithographs. The next he is excited about a 19th century print he has picked up, depicting a conjurer from faraway India. Meanwhile he still reads voraciously on a dizzying variety of arcane and diverse subjects. One of the books he tells me about is "Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning" by John Solt, a treatise on the poetry and poetics of the Japanese writer Kitasono Katue. Also on his desk, he says, is "Special Cases" by Rosamund Purcell.

Jay also, for the first time in his life, appears to be emotionally settled. He is sharing his life with a gentle, willowy producer named Chrisann (no last names, please) and a floppy Bernese puppy named Boswell, the second great love of his life. Despite his penetrating gaze and a persona that continues to radiate angst, Jay appears content, almost happy. He is worried about how his magic, and magic in general, will be perceived in the future, what he refers to as "muted effects in a digital world." Does he have a protege, and would he be willing to teach someone all he knows and continue the traditions? He appears mildly uncomfortable with this question, but then answers it.

"Yes, I would," he says, "if I found the right person, preferably someone young." This is not to say that he would welcome anyone approaching him as a possible successor. In fact, that would be the strategy least likely to get his attention.

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"Sometimes I wonder if I'm losing my sense of adventure."

But the one thing I've learned on this scavenger hunt is that that contingency just isn't in the cards.

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