from the New Yorker Magazine
by Mark Singer
The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher
Taffirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar ofthe Ritz-Carlton
Hotel in Chicago, this happened:
Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive,
was per- forming magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend
of Mamet and Mosher's named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and
beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations,
Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate
on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face
down, shuf- fled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to
one of the piles and name his card.
"Three of clubs," Nogulich said, and he was then instructed
to turn over the top card.
He turned over the three of clubs.
Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly
an- nounced, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card."
After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory,
but I only do this for one person at a time."
Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card."
Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct
change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right-what was the
"Two of spades."
Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over
its top card.
The deuce of spades.
A small riot ensued.
Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited
him to a New Year's Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other
people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee
table as Jay, at Baron's request, did closeup card magic. When he had
performed several daz- zling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest
named Mort said, "Come on, Ricky. Why don't you do something truly
Baron recalls that at that moment "the look in Ricky's eyes was,
like, `Mort- you have just fucked with the wrong person.' "
Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, "The three of
hearts." After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his
right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled
the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.
"O.K., Mort, what was your card again?"
"The three of hearts."
"Look inside the bottle."
Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party
broke up immediately. ONE morning last December, a few days before Christmas,
Jay came to see mein my office. He wore a dark-gray suit and a black shirt
that was open at the collar, and the colors seemed to match his mood.
The most uplifting magic, Jay believes, has a spontaneous, improvisational
vigor. Nevertheless, because he happened to be in New York we had made
a date to get together, and I, invoking a journalistic imperative, had
specifically requested that he come by my office and do some magic while
I took notes. He hemmed and hawed and then, reluctantly, consented. Though
I had no idea what was in store, I anticipated being completely fooled.
At that point, I had known Jay for two years, during which we had discussed
his theories of magic, his relationships with and opinions of other practition-
ers of the art, his rigid opposition to public revelations of the techniques
of magic, and his relentless passion for collecting rare books and manuscripts,
art, and other artifacts connected to the history of magic, gambling,
unusual entertainments, and frauds and confidence games. He has a skeptically
friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose
style. Jay's collection functions as a working research library. He is
the author of dozens of scholarly articles and also of two diverting and
richly informative books, "Cards as Weapons" (1977) and "Learned
Pigs & Fireproof Women" (1986). For the past several years, he
has devoted his energies mainly to schol- arship and to acting in and
consulting on motion pictures. Though he loves to perform, he is extremely
selective about venues and audiences. I've attended lectures and demonstrations
by him before gatherings of East Coast under- graduates, West Coast students
of the history of magic, and Midwestern bunco-squad detectives. Studying
videotapes of him and observing at first hand some of his serendipitous
microbursts of legerdemain have taught me how inappropriate it is to say
that "Ricky Jay does card tricks"-a characteri- zation as inadequate
as "Sonny Rollins plays tenor saxophone" or "Darci Kistler
dances." None of my scrutinizing has yielded a shred of insight into
how he does what he does. Every routine appears seamless, unparsable,
sim- ply magical.
Before getting down to business in my office, we chatted about this and
that: water spouters and armless origami artists and equestrian bee trainers,
all sub- jects that Jay has written about. As we were talking, an editor
friend and two other colleagues dropped by. I had introduced Jay and the
editor once before and-presumptuously, it turned out-had mentioned earlier
that morning that he would be coming by for a private performance. Politely
but firmly, Jay made it plain that an audience of one was what he had
in mind. There was an awkward moment after the others left. I apologized
for the intrusion, and he apologized for not being more accommodating.
He reassured me that he still had something to show me. My cluttered office
didn't feel right, however, so we headed upstairs to a lunchroom, found
that it was unoccupied, and seated our- selves in a corner booth, facing
each other. He unzipped a black leather clutch that he had brought with
him and removed a deck of red Bee playing cards im- printed with the logo
of Harrah's Casino.
In "Cards as Weapons" Jay refers to Dai Vernon, who died last
year, at ninety- eight, as "the greatest living contributor to the
magical art," and he quotes Vernon's belief that "cards are
like living, breathing human beings and should be treated accordingly."
I was reminded of Vernon's dictum as Jay caressed the deck, as gently
as if it were a newly hatched chick. He has small hands-just large enough
so that a playing card fits within the plane of his palm. There is a slightly
raised pad of flesh on the underside of the first joint of each finger.
"Not the hands of a man who has done a lot of hard labor," Jay
said-a completely disingenuous line, to which he added, "One of the
best sleight-of-hand guys I know is a plumber."
Jay's 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 var- ious 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 laughs-a 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 Mamet's films- "House of Games," "Things
Change," and "Homicide"-Jay 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 "House of Games," he
portrays a menac- ing professional gambler.
"I'm always saying there's no correlation between gambling and magic,"
Jay said as he shuffle-cut the cards. "But this is a routine of actual
gamblers' tech- niques within the context of a theatrical magic presentation."
He noticed me watching him shuffling, and asked softly, with deadpan sin-
cerity, "Does that look fair?"
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.
"Was that fair?" he said. "I don't think so. Let's discuss
the reason why that wasn't fair. Even though I shuffled openly and honestly,
I didn't let you cut the cards. So let's do it again, and this time I'll
let you cut the cards."
He shuffled again, I cut the cards, he dealt, and this time I had three
tens. "Ready to turn them over?"
My three-of-a-kind compared unfavorably with his diamond flush. "Is
that fair?" he said again. "I don't think so. Let's talk about
why that might not be fair. Even though I shuffled the cards"-he
was now reshuffling the deck-"and 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 I'll shuffle
the cards and you shuffle the cards." Jay shuffled the deck, I riffle-shuffled
the deck and handed it back to him, and he said, "And I'll deal six
hands of poker-one for myself and five for you. I'll let you choose any
one of the five. And I'll beat you."
He dealt six hands. Instead of revealing only one of my five hands, I
turned them all face up.
"Oh, oh," he said. "I see you want to turn them all over.
I only intended for you to pick one-but, well, no, that's all right."
The best of my five hands was two pair.
Jay said, "Now, did that seem fair?"
I said yes.
Jay said, "I don't think so," and showed me his cards-four kings.
I rested my elbows on the table and massaged my forehead.
"Now, why might that be unfair?" he continued. "I'll 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." 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 nothing- king-high nothing.
"Is that fair?" Jay said, picking up his cards, waiting a beat,
and returning them to the table, one by one-the coup de gr?ce. "I.
Don't. Think. So." One, two, three, four aces.
JAY has an anomalous memory, extraordinarily retentive but riddled with
hard-to-account-for gaps. "I'm becoming quite worried about my memory,"
he said not long ago. "New information doesn't stay. I wonder if
it's the Nutra- Sweet." 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 years-he 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 chal- lenge from a group of friendly
patrons. A numbered list of a hundred arbitrary objects was drawn up:
No. 3 was "paintbrush," No. 18 was "plush ottoman,"
No. 25 was "roaring lion," and so on. "Ricky! Sixty-five!"
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: "See the
magician; the fire `manipulator'; the girl with the yellow e-e-elastic
tis- sue. See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one,
one of the world's three living `morphrodites.' And the e-e-electrode
lady . . ." He can quote verse after verse of nineteenth-century
Cockney rhyming slang. He says he can- not 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. "If you ask me for
specific dates, we're in trouble," he says.
Michael Weber, a fellow-magician and close friend, has said, "Basically,
Ricky remembers nothing that happened after 1900."
Jay has many loyal friends, a protective circle that includes a lot of
people with show-business and antiquarian-book-collecting connections
and re- markably few with magic-world connections.
Marcus McCorison, a former president of the American Antiquarian Society,
where Jay has lectured and performed, describes him as "a deeply
serious scholar-I think he knows more about the history of American conjuring
than anyone else."
Nicolas Barker, who recently retired as one of the deputy keepers of the
British Library, says, "Ricky would say you can't be a good conjurer
without knowing the history of your profession, because there are no new
tricks under the sun, only variations. He's a superbly gifted conjurer,
and he's 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 knowl- edge of fields outside his own."
The actor Steve Martin said not long ago, "I sort of think of Ricky
as the in- tellectual Èlite of magicians. I've had experience with
magicians my whole life. He's expertly able to perform and yet he knows
the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky's a master of his
craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can't
necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything."A
collector named Michael Zinman says, "He's instantly reachable, up
to a limit." 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 age-somewhere in his forties-but 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 "Leap of Faith,"
a recent film that stars Steve Martin as a flim- flam faith healer and
credits Jay as the "Cons and Frauds Consultant," told me, "I
talk to Ricky three times a day. Other than my husband, he's 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." Mamet and Jay have been friends for several years-a bond
rooted, in part, in their shared fascination with the language, science,
and art of cons and frauds. "I'll call Ricky on the phone,"
Mamet says. "I'll ask him-say, for something I'm writing-`A guy's
wandering through upstate New York in 1802 and he comes to a tavern and
there's some sort of mountebank. What would the moun- tebank be doing?'
And Ricky goes to his library and then sends me an entire de- scription
of what the mountebank would be doing. Or I'll tell him I'm having a Fourth
of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle
of the woods. He says, `That's the most bizarre request I've ever heard.
You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There's nothing like
that in the litera- ture. I mean, there's this one 1760 pamphlet-"Jokes,
Tricks, Ghosts and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire."
But, other than that, I can't think of a thing.' He's unbelievably generous.
Ricky's one of the world's great people. He's my hero. I've never seen
anybody better at what he does." I once asked Mamet whether Jay had
ever shared with him details of his childhood.Mamet replied, "I can't
I said, "You can't remember whether you discussed it or you can't
remember the details?"
He said, "I can't remember whether or not I know a better way to
dissuade you from your reiteration of that question without seeming impolite."
Jay's condensed version of his early life goes like this: "I grew
up like Athena- covered with playing cards instead of armor-and, at the
age of seven, material- ized on aTV show, doing magic." 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. "I'm
probably the only kid in history whose parents made him stop taking music
lessons," he says. "They made me stop studying the accor- dion.
And, I suppose, thank God." He loved to play basketball. There was
a back- board above the garage of the family house, which had aluminum
siding. "Don't dent the house!" his mother routinely warned.
His father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate.
"He kept his toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and the Brylcreem
in a closet about a foot away," Jay recalls. "Once, when I was
ten, I switched the tubes. All you need to know about my father isthatafterhebrushedhisteethwithBrylcreemheputthetoothpasteinhishair."
Though Jay first performed in public at the age of four, he rejects the
notion that magic-or, in any case, his mature style of magic-is suitable
entertain- ment for children. Nor does he apologize for his lack of susceptibility
to the charms of children themselves. I once drove with him from central
Massa- chusetts 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, "I think Ricky's here!"
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 mono- logue from one
of his television appearances-patter 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 Year's 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 "magic lumpen"-hoi
polloi who congregate in magic clubs and at conventions, where they unabashedly
seek to expropriate each other's 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. "Ricky won't per- form for magicians at magic shows,
because they're interested in things," Weber says. "They don't
get it. They won't watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own.
They'll 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 that's technically artistic that creates a small drama. There
are two ways you can expand your knowledge-through books and by gaining
the confidence of fellow-magicians who will explain these things. Ricky
to a large degree gets his information from books-old books-and then when
he per- forms for magicians they want to know, `Where did that come from?'
And he's appalled that they haven't read this stuff. So there's this large
body of magic lumpen who really don't understand Ricky's legacy-his contribution
to the art, his place in the art, his technical proficiency and creativity.
They think he's an Èlitist and a snob."
Jay does not regard "amateur" 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 "pure amateurs in the
best sense." The distinction that matters to Jay is between "good"
magic and "bad." Magic "gives me more pleasure and more
pain than anything else I've ever dealt with," he says. "The
pain is bad magicians ripping off good ones, doing magic badly, and making
a mockery of the art." 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 larceny-a place where audiences
who don't know better are fre- quently fed a bland diet of purloined ineptitude.
Many years ago, Jay had an en- counter there that he describes as typical.
"A guy comes up and starts telling me he's a fan," he recalls.
"I say thank you, that's nice to hear. He says he used to see me
perform in Boulder, Colorado. That's nice, too, I say. Then he starts
talking about this wonderful piece I did with a mechanical monkey-really
one of the most bizarre routines I ever worked out-and I thank him, and
he says, `Yeah, I get a tremendous response when I do that. Audiences
just love it.' And I say, `Let me ask you something. Suppose I invite
you over to my house for dinner. We have a pleasant meal, we talk about
magic, it's an enjoyable evening. Then, as you're 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?' He says, `Of course
not.' And I say, `But you already did.' He says, `What are you talking
about?' I say, `You stole my television!' He says, `How can you say that?
I've never even been to your house.' This guy doesn't even know what a
metaphor is. People ask me why I don't do lectures at magic conventions,
and I say, `Because I'm still learn- ing.' Meanwhile, you've got people
who have been doing magic for ten months and they are actually out there
pontificating. It's absurd."
T. A. Waters, a mentalist and writer, who is the librarian at the Magic
Castle, told me, "Some 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 emotion- ally he can't
accept it. He gets as upset about this problem today as he did twenty
At some point within the past twenty years, Jay asked Dai Vernon-a.k.a.
the Professor-how he coped with affronts of this sort, and Vernon replied,
"I forced myself not to care."
"Maybe that's how he lived to be ninety-eight years old," Jay
says. Jay's admirers invariably dwell upon his technical mastery-what
is known in the trade as "chops." According to Diaconis, he
is, "simply put, one of the half-dozen best card handlers in the
world. Not maybe; everybody thinks so." 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 be- cause Jay
deliberately exiled himself from the mainstream magic world. They reÎstablished
contact twenty-odd years ago, after Diaconis caught one of Jay's appearances
on the "Tonight Show." By then, Jay had honed an out-of-left-field
brand of gonzo-hip comedy magic, a combination of chops and antic irrever-
ence. Often, he would begin a performance by demonstrating a not easily
mar- ketable skill that eventually earned him a listing in the "Guinness
Book of World Records": 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, embroi- dered with orotund,
baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance,
as the "thick pachydermatous outer melon layer."
In a memorable routine, the "Laughing Card Trick," 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 card-somehow, it was always a jack of spades-he gripped
it with his lips. After doing this maneuver four times, he removed the
cards from his mouth and revealed that-voil‡!-they had become the
four aces. Next, he would do spirit-writing on a tortilla. Downshifting,
he would segue to "The Four Queens," a minuetlike Victorian
parable in which the four face cards rep- resenting "the feminine
portion of the smart set" were "besieged" by "suitors
from the lower orders." In other words, each of the four queens was
grouped with three numbered cards. "Ladies and gentlemen," he
would announce, "as you have seen, I have taken advantage of these
tenderly nurtured and unso- phisticated young ladies by placing them in
positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities."
Somehow, the queens must "find each other's com- pany"-that
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
in- visible, thereby raising the strong possibility of divine intervention.
Jules Fisher, the theatrical-lighting designer and a friend of Jay's,
told me, "Ricky will look into any effect and find the side of it
that is inherently magical.
He doesn't present magic as a challenge-as a matter of `Look, I can make
this disappear and you can't.' Rather, he wraps it in a dramatic plot.
In many of his tricks, there are stories. In `The Four Queens,' the cards
take on personas, which is much more impressive than the question of how
that card disap- peared."
Michael Weber has a vivid memory of seeing Jay execute "The Four
Queens" fifteen years ago on a network-television special with Doug
Henning as host. "It was a transcendent moment in popular magic,"
he says. "Ricky had atti- tude, 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." Dai Vernon once saw
Jay perform "The Four Queens" live, during a lec- ture-demonstration
at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, at the University of California
at Los Angeles. Afterward, the Professor told his disci- ple that the
entire performance "restored dignity to the art of magic."
"The magical aspect of Ricky is very strong," Diaconis says.
"It's one thing to see someone who is very skillful with cards and
quite another to witness an ef- fect and have just no idea what happens.
With Ricky, it's very hard to isolate technique from performance. I can
sense when a sleight has happened and how it happened, but I still don't
see it. I just feel it intellectually. When Ricky is doing one of his
poetical pieces, he's working in his own unique venue. He's mixing disparate
things-quirky scholarship, iconoclasm, technique, a good story-into some
soup that works. Because he picks good, strong tricks and makes them come
to life, in the end there's 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 consequence-there are a
dozen people now working in night clubs doing Ricky Jay acts. But none
of them are Ricky Jay." IN "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women"
Jay devotes a chapter to "Max Malini: The Last of the Mountebanks."
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, "a master exponent of pure magic technique"
and a con- temporary of Malini's: "I would give up everything I know
in magic just to get the reaction Malini does from vanishing a single
coin." At a dinner party where Dai Vernon was present, Malini borrowed
a female guest's 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 through-
out the meal, "fooled the hell out of me." Jay recounts this
and other Malini anec- dotes with a mixture of delight and wistfulness.
In a just universe, he seems to imply, he himself would have been in Leipzig's
and Vernon's shoes, playing to the same discerning audiences that witnessed
Malini's exemplary talents. He writes, "Malini was rarely featured
on music hall or theatre stages, even though he per- formed in the heyday
of the great illusionists. Yet far more than Malini's contem- poraries,
the famous conjurers Herrmann, Kellar, Thurston, and Houdini, Malini was
the embodiment of what a magician should be-not 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."
Jay feels connected to Malini not only out of veneration but by a strange
co- incidence. 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 Jay's 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.
"My grandfather was an amateur acquisitor of skill and knowledge,"
Jay says. "He was inter- ested in a lot of things-pool, chess, checkers,
calligraphy, cryptography, origami, magic. His philosophy was to take
lessons from the best available peo- ple and then proceed on his own.
He was really a terrific teacher. And his great- est 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." 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 audience-he multiplied paper coffee
creamers during a backyard barbecue for the Society of American Magicians-Dai
Vernon was a witness.
Jay told me, "When we watched Vernon, my grandfather would say, `Look
at the Professor and study the naturalness with which he handles objects.'
He introduced me to Slydini and to Francis Carlyle, two other great closeup
illu- sionists. These were guys who were capable of doing magic-something
be- yond tricks-and 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 misdirection-drawing the spectator's attention
away from the sleight. With Carlyle, the purpose was to absorb what my
grand- father called the clarity of instruction-how Carlyle subtly guided
the spec- tator 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 appear- ances, 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 `The Floating Cane'-stage-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 `The Ed Sullivan Show.' 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 wouldn't
let me. By then, I had already done a lot of television. When I was five,
I was supposed to appear on `Startime Kids,' with Ed Herlihy, but I dozed
during the dress rehearsal and slept through the show. I was on a program
called `Time for Pets' 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 that's important
is that I was very comfortable per- forming. I was supposed to produce
a rabbit, but they couldn't find one, so I had to work with a guinea pig,
which took a leak on my father's necktie. My father said, `Perfect. You
get all the glory and I get all the piss.' "
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 Flosso's magic shop, on West
Thirty-fourth Street. He preferred Flosso's to the more popular Tannen's,
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 antisep- tic ambience of Tannen's. "Early on,
I knew I didn't want to do the kind of magic other people were doing,"
he says. "So I started buying old books to look for material."
Flosso, in the guise of a sideshow pitchman from Coney Island, did wonderful
comedy sleight of hand and had a flourishing career-in the big rooms at
Grossinger's and the Concord, on the Sullivan show. When Ricky's parents
asked what kind of bar-mitzvah celebration he wanted, he said he wanted
Flosso to perform. "The thing that's significant about that event
is that it's literally the only warm memory I have of my parents,"
he has said.
Prodded by Slydini and his grandfather, he entered several performing
com- petitions at magic conventions. "I always won," he says.
"But the whole thing soured me on the idea of competitions within
an art." By the time he was fif- teen, he had had enough of living
at home. He moved in with a friend's 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
school-another one of those elusive memories. Max Katz died around that
time. At the funeral, Flosso ceremonially broke a wand and placed it in
the casket-"the single most frightening thing I ever saw," Jay
says. His grandfather's death marked the end of his relationship with
his par- ents. (He remains on good terms with his younger sister, whom
he says he ad- mires 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 "officially was never anything
other than a freshman." At Cornell, he enrolled in the School of
Hotel Management. "In 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," he likes to say. He and sev-
eral 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 "Tell Laura I Love Her."
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 Jay's 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.
"Would anybody play cards with you today?" I asked.
"Sure," he said. "Silly people."
Twice while he was still at Cornell, he appeared on the "Tonight
Show." 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 groups-Ike 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 McCabe's Guitar Shop and then at
the Magic Castle. Tracy Newman, a televi- sion-comedy writer, who lived
with him for a year, says she went to see him per- form "probably
seventeen times" before they started dating. Not long ago, she told
me, "The thing Ricky had that I'd never before seen in a magician
was charm. At McCabe's, 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 heck- lers-not because it would throw him off. He just
didn't like hecklers. He va- porized them."
In those days, Dai Vernon had a sinecure at the Magic Castle that entitled
him to living quarters nearby. Vernon's presence was the main thing that
had attracted Jay to Los Angeles. When he was not on the road, he sought
out the Professor's company virtually every night. Wherever they started
the evening-at the Castle or somewhere else-they would invariably wind
up at Canter's 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 Canter's, an occasion when he petitioned
for practical counsel rather than the generous praise that Vernon typically
"Professor," I protested, "I really want to know how I
can improve my tech- nique and performance. I want to take lessons from
you. I really want advice." 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. "You want advice, Ricky,"
he said. "I'll 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." Persi Diaconis ran away from his unhappy home at
the age of fourteen and spent two years travelling with Vernon-an unsentimental
education. "Life with Vernon was a challenge," Diaconis says.
"Vernon would use secrecy as a way of torturing you. When he and
I were on the road, he woke up one morning and said, `You know, I've been
thinking about sleight of hand my whole life, and I think I now know how
to encapsulate it in one sentence.' And then, of course, he refused to
tell me." Another friend of Vernon's once said, "I wouldn't
have taken a million dollars not to have known him. But I'd give a million
not to know another one like him."