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 Jay's grandfather had been. To the extent that anyone could fill that void, Charlie Miller did. "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women," which Jay spent ten years writing, is dedicated "to my wonderful friend Charles Earle Miller, a unique, eccentric, and remarkable entertainer." Had Miller not been Vernon's contemporary, Jay believes, he would have been regarded as the greatest sleight-of-hand figure of his time. "For fifty or sixty years, Charlie lived in Vernon's shadow," he says. "And yet Vernon knew that Charlie was the best sleight-of-hand artist he'd ever seen." Vernon once described Miller as "un- questionably the most skillful exponent of the magic art it has ever been my pleasure to know." Miller was a shy, vulnerable man, for whom public perfor- mance was a bravura act. As a friend to Jay, Diaconis, Steve Freeman, and an- other accomplished magician, John Thompson-his four most reverent acolytes-he was emotionally much warmer than Vernon. "Vernon was very comfortable to be around," Freeman says. "But Charlie was your pal, Charlie was your uncle, Charlie cared about you." On the West Coast, he was the pre- mier cruise-ship performer, and this arrangement suited his essentially rootless nature. (Jay himself worked very few cruise ships-a merciful policy, he says, because "the 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.") For Vernon, Jay says, "making 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." Charlie Miller was, if anything, more cerebral, even more obsessive.

"Charlie and Vernon were both magicians for magicians," says Robert Lund, the founder of the American Museum of Magic, in Marshall, Michigan. "Only magicians truly appreciated what Charlie was doing. Charlie knew more about why you do it this way instead of that way than anyone I've ever met in my life, including Ricky Jay. If there were a hundred ways of doing an effect-a card trick or sawing a lady in half-Charlie 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."

More than any other magician Jay has known, Miller had an orthodox devo- tion to preserving the secrets of the art-a 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, "Why did you publish these, Professor? We don't want the animals using tools." As a palliative, they can speculate about the secrets that Miller took to the grave-an absolutism that, while perhaps depriving him of mun- dane celebrity, at least made the secrets themselves immortal. "Charlie would never tell anything to anybody who wasn't really on the inside," Diaconis says. "There's something called the Sprong shift. Sprong was a night watchman- he 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. It's a move that has been passed down only orally. It's 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. He'd keep moving around the room to see it from every possible angle."

After both Vernon and Miller died, there were memorial services at the Magic Castle-events that Jay refused to attend, because, he said to Freeman, "most of those people didn't know anything about Vernon and Charlie." "I now say that keeping secrets is my single most important contribution to magic," Diaconis says. "Listen, I have lots of things I won't tell Ricky about. It's 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 I'd picked. For half an hour, I was as badly fooled as I've ever been. In order for him to bring that about, he had to take dead aim at me. That's a phrase we use in discussing the big con: taking dead aim-deeply re- searching somebody's habits."

Jay once subjected Freeman to an equally unsettling experience. "I walked into Ricky's apartment one day, and I was wearing a shirt that Charlie Miller had given to Ricky and that Ricky had left at my house," Freeman says. "I was returning it, but, just for fun, I had put it on. I took the shirt off, and Ricky said, `Oh, just leave it on the back of that chair.' 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 didn't see my card. And he said, `Oh, well, go over and look in the pocket of that shirt over there.' 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. That's not a feeling we get to have very often anymore." 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 "our worst customer." She hastens to point out, "He could be our best customer. He wants everything but can hardly buy anything." Both Daileys re-gard Jay as "a true eccentric" in the English sense-part Bloomsbury, partFawlty 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 PrÈvost's "La PremiËre Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions," the earliest known important conjuring book, printed in Lyons in 1584.

"I bought it unhesitatingly," recalls Jay, for whom possession of the PrÈvost is a bittersweet memory; uncharacteristically, he parted with it during a fiscal cri- sis. "I 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 didn't pan out because of one of his divorces. Another was a tour of Australia that was cancelled by a natural disaster-in other words, by an act of God. This book was so fucking rare that people in the magic world just didn't know about it."

It is the Daileys' impression-a perception shared by other dealers in rare books and incunabula-that 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 "an incunable romantic."

"Probably, no matter how much money he had, he would be overextended bibliomaniacally-or should the word be `bibliographically'? Anyway, he'd be overextended," William Dailey has said. "The first time I met him, I recognized him as a complete bibliomaniac. He's 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 book's emergence. He's not just interested in the book's condition. He knows who printed it, and he knows the personal struggle the author went through to get it printed." In 1971, during Jay's nomadic phase, he spent a lot of time in Boston hang- ing 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 "ten standard deviations out, just the best in the world in his knowledge of the literature of conjuring." Jay's collection-several thousand volumes, plus hundreds of lith- ographs, playbills, pamphlets, broadsides, and miscellaneous ephemera-re- flects his interest not only in magic but also in gambling, cheating, low life, and what he described in the subtitle of "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women" as "unique, eccentric and amazing entertainers: stone eaters, mind readers, poi- son resisters, daredevils, singing mice, etc., etc., etc., etc." 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 be- coming a bookdealer himself. The main thing that dissuaded him, he says, is that "I wouldn't want to sell a book to a philistine, which is what every book- seller has to do." 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 dealer's catalogue, is more worthy of owning, say, both variant editions of "A 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," 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 "pyromagical effects" on a movie called "Wilder Napalm."

"There's a pile of mail on my desk," he said.

"I hope there are a few checks in it," I said.

"Yes, actually, there are. But, of course, I just spent it all on a book."

The book in question was Thomas Ady's "A Candle in the Dark: Or a Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft," which includes an impor- tant seventeenth-century account of an English magic performance. I had once heard Jay allude to "A Candle in the Dark" 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 "exceedingly rare- only one copy has been sold in my collecting lifetime," and said that he had ac- quired his from a New York dealer "after a long negotiation." On a subsequent visit to New York, he took me to meet the dealer, Steve Weissman, a preternat- urally relaxed fellow, who was obviously quite fond of him. "We have a common interest," Weissman, who does business out of an office on the East Side, said. "We do like the same kinds of books. I don't specialize in Ricky's area of interest-only Ricky does-but 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 he's an enthusiast for a wide range of subjects. Most customers arrive and they're en- tering the dealer's world, my world. He walks in and I enter his world. The next customer through the door might be a Byron fanatic and I'll have to enter his world. It's not a unique situation, but with Ricky it's particularly gratifying, be- cause of the kind of collector he is-passionate and knowledgeable. Ideally, I would also include rich in that equation, but he doesn't qualify." Referring to "A Candle in the Dark," Weissman added, "I don't doubt that I could have sold it for more money to someone else. But it's more fun to sell it to Ricky."

A young man with a ponytail and peach-fuzzy sideburns and wearing a her- ringbone-tweed topcoat entered the shop. As he closed the door behind him, the doorknob fell off. He picked it up and handed it to Weissman's assistant and said, "I think this is yours."

Sotto voce, Jay said, "Who is that guy?"

"I think he's someone who's trying to swindle us into buying a Visa card, or something," 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, "To most people this would be hell. But to me it's just a holiday."

Several years ago, Weissman attended an auction at Christie's 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 styl- ized calligraphic script, and Barker, having spent much of his professional life cataloguing and studying antiquarian manuscripts, confesses to being "pas- sionately interested in the history of handwriting." There were more than thirty items in the auction lot, and Jay and Barker divided them according to a simple formula. "I kept all the images related to armless calligraphers," Jay says, "and Nicolas got all the calligraphers with arms."

In a chapter of "Learned Pigs" entitled "More Than the Sum of Their Parts," 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 appendages-arms or legs or digits-and compensated in inspiring ways. He dotes especially on Matthew Buchinger, "The Wonderful Little Man of Nuremberg," who was born in 1674, died around 1740, and, in between, married four times, sired fourteen children, and "played more than a half dozen musical instruments, some of his own in- vention, and danced the hornpipe . . . amazed audiences with his skills at con- juring . . . was a marksman with the pistol and demonstrated trick shots at nine pins . . . was a fine penman; he drew portraits, landscapes, and coats of arms, and displayed remarkable calligraphic skills." Buchinger managed these transactions without the benefit of feet or thighs, and instead of arms he had "two fin-like excrescences growing from his shoulder blades." He stood, so to speak, only twenty-nine inches high. The Christie's auction enabled Jay to add significantly to his trove of Buchingeriana-playbills, engravings by and of the Wonderful Little Man, self-portraits, specimens of his calligraphy, and ac- counts 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 "Unthan, the Pedal Paganini," and "fired the rifle . . . with enough skill and accuracy to be com- pared with the great trick shot artists Ira Paine and Doc Carver," Jay writes, "Writers, scientists, and medical men have explored the psychologies and phys- iologies of these prodigies; they and the public alike are intrigued by the rela- tionship between the horrific and miraculous."
This last phrase concisely expresses Jay's central preoccupation as a scholar and a performer. "Learned Pigs" contains only passing references to Houdini, whose tirelessness as a self-promoter was concomitant with his gifts as an illu- sionist. Jay has attempted to rescue from the margins of history performers who in their day were no less determined than Houdini to please their audi- ences. Here is an echt-Jay paragraph:

As the novelty of fire-eating and -handling wore off, those performers not ver- satile enough to combine their talents into more diversified shows took to the streets. In 1861 Henry Mayhew, in Volume 3 of "London Labour and the London Poor," described one such salamander. After a fascinating and de- tailed account of a fire king learning his trade and preparing his demonstra- tions, 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, men- talists, contortionists, illiterate savants, faith-healing charlatans, porcine- faced ladies, and noose-wearing high-divers who populate "Learned Pigs" routinely sacrifice their dignity, but they never lose their humanity. "I don't want to be seen as somebody who just writes about freaks," Jay says. "A 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 we're barraged with-it just doesn't lodge in the imagination the same way." His mission, in sum, is to reignite our collective sense of wonder.

Jay's fruitful combination of autodidacticism and free-lance scholarship is it- self a wonderful phenomenon. Reviewing "Learned Pigs" in the Times, John Gross wrote, "One effect of Mr. Jay's 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." In the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano wrote, " `Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women' is a book so magnificently entertaining that if a promoter booked it into theatres and simply distributed a copy to each patron to read, he'd have the hit of the sea- son." A blurb on the jacket from Penn and Teller says, "It's the coolest book . . . and probably the most brilliantly weird book ever." Jay wrote much of "Learned Pigs" while occupying a carrel in the rare-book stacks of the Clark Library, at U.C.L.A. 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 post- doctoral research fellowship. When Jay explained that he didn't have a doctorate, Wright said, "Maybe a master's degree would be sufficient." "Thomas, I don't even have a B.A."

Wright replied, "Well, you know, Ricky, a Ph.D. is just a sign of docility." AS Jay was completing the writing of "Learned Pigs," 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 lead- ing magic journal of its time. Above all, he was an obsessively thorough col- lector 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. Mulholland's 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, busi- nessman, and novice magician named Carl Rheuban-someone Jay had never heard of-turned 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 profli- gate 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 in- terest 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 al- lowance, 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 "a dream come true": 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, "It just seemed as if Ricky's fairy godmother had appeared to provide the environment in which to work and all the facilities to do the job." Even from the perspective of Jay, the inveterate skeptic, it was a nearly ideal sit- uation. And, clearly, Rheuban, who was occupied with diverse enterprises, re- garded him as the ideal overseer.

In April of 1990, however, First Network was abruptly closed by California banking regulators, and the Resolution Trust Corporation (R.T.C.), 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 re- ported to be the subject of a criminal-fraud investigation. With no forewarn- ing, Jay discovered that he could not even gain access to his own office without first receiving permission from self-important bureaucrats who didn't 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 em- ployer and benefactor. For the functionaries of the R.T.C., however, he harbors deep contempt. Because Rheuban's personal insolvency was enmeshed with the bank's insolvency, the fate of the Mulholland Library was for many months sus- pended in legal limbo. Brian Walton, an attorney and friend of Jay's, who ad- vised him during the fiasco, has said, "When you look at the question of the ownership of the library, the moral ownership was clearly in Ricky's 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, Ricky's treasures. One day, Ricky came by the library and there were some government people videotaping the collection for inventory purposes. And they'd just placed their equipment wherever they felt like it. Ricky looked at one guy and said, `Get your stuff off those posters.' And the guy said, `I'm So-and-So, from the F.B.I.' And Ricky said, `I don't care who the fuck you are. Get your crap off those posters.' "

The outlandishness of the situation was compounded by the fact that the Mulholland Library proved to be a splendid investment-the 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 R.T.C. 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 Network's offices, on the fifth floor, Jay pointed out that the bank's 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 R.T.C. employee, emerged from a corner office- formerly Rheuban's-and greeted us.

Our first stop was a large storage room filled with material from the collec- tion of a German physician named Peter Hackhofer. "I bought different parts of this collection from Hackhofer in several crazy transactions," Jay said. "He used to lead me on incredible goose chases all over Germany. We'd end up doing business at three in the morning on the Autobahn, halfway between Cologne and Frankfurt. We'd be pulled over to the side of the road with the- atrical 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. He'd 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 attack- ing a bellboy who rolled over some of them with a luggage cart." 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 lady's handbag, and which Jay said was "a Victorian production reticule." I knew that I could have happily occupied my- self there for several hours, but he seemed eager to move on. We walked down another long corridor, past the erstwhile loan-servicing and accounting de- partments, 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 inte- rior. Separated from this room by a glass partition was a ten-by-twelve cubicle that had been Jay's office. It contained a desk, a wall of bookshelves, and a side table. Two automatons stood on the table. One, called "The Singing Lesson," was the creation of Jean-EugËne 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-Houdin's father-in-law, Jacques Houdin. A large, framed color poster of Malini, advertis- ing his "Round the World Tour," hung on the wall to the left of Jay's desk. "I heard that that poster holds some sort of special significance for you, Ricky," James Rust said.

Jay responded with an opaque, querulous stare that said, in effect, "Hey, pal, everything in this place holds special significance for me."

Along the back wall of the main room were shelved bound volumes of The Sphinx, The Wizard, The Conjurer's 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 vignette-a comic oddity, a compilation of historical or bio- graphical arcana-but each digression inevitably led to a plaintive anticlimax, because the tangible artifacts had now passed from Jay's care. I paged through the scrapbook of Edward Maro, "a Chautauqua-circuit magician who played the mandolin and did hand shadows." A Barnum & Bailey poster trumpeting automotive daredevils-"L'Auto Bolide Thrilling Dip of Death"-had been used by Jay when he was "writing a piece about crazy car acts for an automo- tive magazine." There was a lithograph of Emil Naucke, a corpulent charmer in a flesh-colored tutu, of whom Jay said, "He 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." A lithograph of Martini-Szeny depicted "a Hungarian Houdini imitator who wore chaps and a Mexican hat and used to have himself strapped to a cactus," Jay said. "I was going to write a book on Houdini imita- tors that I would call `Houdini: Howdini, Oudini, Martini-Szeny, and Zucchini, Pretenders to the Throne.' 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."

We wandered back into Jay's former office at one point. To his obvious an- noyance, Rust wound up the "Singing Lesson" automaton. While it was play- ing, 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.

"That's nice," he said with sarcasm. "This was not detached."

Rust nodded in acknowledgment.

"That's creepy," Jay continued. "This was a really solid vellum binding.

That's why I don't want people in here who don't know how to handle books."

"Do you know how many hands have been here, Ricky?"

"Yes, and it's really creepy."

When Rust left the room, Jay said to me, "You know, I never had any agree- ment with Carl. At the outset, he asked me, `What do you want?' And I said, `I want access to this collection for the rest of my life.' And he said, `Fine.' 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." Shortly after eight o'clock 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, "I've talked to a lot of people who say they might be bidding, and I can tell you that, without a single exception, they're 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 they're not the ones who are able to buy it." As it was, the disposition of the Mulholland Library now seemed a foregone con- clusion. 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 bidder-bids would be allowed in minimum increments of fifty thousand dollars-and none had materialized.

At the courthouse, we discovered that the bankruptcy-court clerk had al- tered 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 advis- ers, who were also acquaintances of Jay's. 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 GarÁons T-shirt, suËde cowboy boots.

John Gaughan, a designer of stage illusions, who was seated with Copperfield, said to Jay, "Did you bring some cards?"

"Oh, yes," Jay replied. "When you feel your life threatened, you're always prepared."

Then he asked Copperfield, "Where have you come from?"

"Atlantic City."

"Ah-from one gambling arena to another."

The judge, the Honorable Vincent P. Zurzolo, appeared briefly, only to learn that Katherine Warwick, the main lawyer for the R.T.C., 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 ensued-a debate over whether the auction could even take place and, if so, when. At last, the Judge asked a fifty-thousand-dollar question: "Is there anyone who is here to overbid the bidder who has made the initial offer?"

There was a minute of silence, broken in my corner of the spectator section by Jay muttering, "Unbelievable. Unbelievable."

And, with that, David Copperfield-a 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 "resembling entertainment the way Velveeta resembles cheese"-had bought the Mulholland Library for two million two hundred thousand dollars. Katherine Warwick reminded Copperfield's attorneys that he had fifteen days-until the end of the month- to remove the collection from Century City, because the R.T.C. was shutting down its operation there. There were handshakes among the Copperfield en- tourage, and then Copperfield approached Jay.

"Thank you for everything," he said, extending his hand.

"You'll enjoy it," Jay said. "I did."

"You know you'll be welcome any time."

"We'll speak again in the future, I'm sure," Jay said.

A friend of Jay's who also knew Copperfield said to me later, "David Copperfield buying the Mulholland Library is like an Elvis impersonator wind- ing up with Graceland."

A few weeks ago, Copperfield arranged for Jay to be flown to Las Vegas to dis- cuss the collection. A driver met Jay at the airport and delivered him to a ware- house. In front was an enormous neon sign advertising bras and girdles. It was Copperfield's 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 man- nequins 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 walls-"We Support Our Customers" and "Our Bras Will Never Let You Down"-and also the punning tributes in- scribed 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 deacti- vated, 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 bed- room, and a marble-tiled bathroom. The bathroom had two doors, one of which led to an unpartitioned expanse where the contents of the Mulholland Library-much of it shelved exactly as it had been in Century City, some of it on tables, some of it not yet unpacked-had been deposited.

Jay stayed an hour-long 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 basis-"Basically, he wanted to know whether, whenever he needs me, I would drop whatever I'm doing and tell him what he'd bought"-Jay rec- ognized an offer that he could easily resist.

After Jay returned to Los Angeles, he said, "As much as I love this collection, I didn't think I could handle going through Copperfield's bra-and-girdle empo- rium every time I went to see it."

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, "Ricky has turned down far more work than most magicians get in a lifetime." Though he earns high fees whenever he does work, a devo- tion 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 "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants"-an evening's entertainment with a deck of cards. He envisions an intimate setting.

"All I value as a performer is for people to want to see me," Jay says. "I mean people who have come just to see me-they're not going out to hear music, they're not out to get drunk or to pick up women. I'd much rather perform in a small theatre in front of a few people than in an enormous Las Vegas night club." Provided that the right theatre and the right situation materialize, David Mamet has agreed to direct such a production. "I'm very honored to be asked," Mamet told me. "I regard Ricky as an example of the `superior man,' according to the I Ching definition. He's the paradigm of what a philosopher should be: someone who's devoted his life to both the study and the practice of his chosen field."

Having directed Jay now in three films-and they are collaborating on the screenplay of another-Mamet holds him in high esteem as an actor. "Ricky's terrific," Mamet said. "He doesn't 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 that's what acting is about."

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 liv- ing-room and bedroom walls, and stacks of books on the floors make naviga- tion a challenge. Posters, playbills, and engravings decorate any available wall space-several Buchingers, Toby the Learned Pig (the most gifted of the sapi- ent swine), Madame Girardelli (the fireproof woman), Houdini suspended up- side 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 "the fifth of six generations or the fourth of five generations-depending on whose story you want to believe-of a family of Dutch Jewish magicians, a twentieth-century performer whose real name was Theodore Bamberg." Between two books on a shelf in the corner of his kitchen is a photograph of Steve Martin, inscribed "To Ricky, Without you there would be no Flydini. Think about it, Steve." 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 un- comfortably 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 calli- graphic pen. This has evidently not made the process any less daunting.

"Writing is the only thing in my life that hasn't got easier," he said. "I can say that categorically. Right now, I'm finishing a magazine article that was sup- posed to be about human ingenuity, but somehow I've ended up writing about child prodigies. Here's my lead sentence: `Solomon Stone, the midget lightning calculator, was an overachiever.' I go from Solomon Stone to the Infant Salambo. This was a child who was from a turn-of-the-century showbiz 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 Historian-get this-`absolutely the most clever and best-informed child the world has ever seen.' "

He showed me a prospectus for Jay's Journal of Anomalies, a letterpress- printed broadside for "a periodical devoted to the investigation of conjurers, cheats, hustlers, hoaxers, pranksters . . . arcana, esoterica, curiosa, varia . . . scholarly and entertaining . . . amusing and elucidating . . . iconographically stimulating . . ."

"I just finished a piece for Jay's Journal on performing dogs who stole the acts of other dogs," he said. "Next, I want to do a piece about crucifixion acts-you 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 Rose's Theatre that contained one sentence he knew would interest me-about a woman who swung nude from a cross to the strains of Ravel's `BolÈro.' Her name was Faith Bacon. This was in the thirties. Unlike some of the other performers I've turned up, in her act she only simu- lated crucifixion. Anyway, I'm playing around with that."

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 Museum's Artists and Writers series, he is writing a book to be illustrated by William Wegman and others. It is a his- tory of trick magic books, which were first produced in the sixteenth century.

"I'm really intrigued with the concept of the book as both a subject and an ob- ject of mystery," 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 "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women," which is the only prime-time network spe- cial 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 Weber-a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering "Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis." They are cur- rently working on the new Mike Nichols film, "Wolf," starring Jack Nicholson. When Jay arrived at his office, he discovered that a parcel from a British dealer had been delivered in that day's mail.

"Oh my. Oh my. This is wonderful," he said as he examined an early- nineteenth-century chapbook that included a hand-colored engraving of its subject-Claude Seurat, the Living Skeleton. "Look," he said, pointing to some scratched numerals on the verso of the title page. "This shelf mark means this was in the library of Thomas Phillips, the most obsessive book-and-manuscript collector of the nineteenth century."

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 Jay's Journal had begun to percolate.

"I could do fasting impostors and living skeletons," Jay said. "Or 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 pre- fer a contemporary of Seurat's, Daniel Lambert. He was even fatter than Bright, but he's 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 hap- pened, 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."

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 "Hone's 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." In it he immediately found two engrav- ings of Seurat, alongside one of which he had written in pencil a page refer- ence to a competing living skeleton. "Oh, yes, I remember this," he said. "I have stuff on other living skeletons, too. I've got to show you this George Anderson poster I bought at an auction in London in 1983."

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: "T. Nelson Downs, the King of Koins . . . Samri S. Baldwin, the White Mahatma . . . Holton the Cannonball Catcher. I have a lot of stuff on cannonball catchers. . . . The Freeze Brothers, blackfaced tambourine jugglers . . . Sylvester Schaffer, a great variety artist . . . 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. . . . And here's Rastelli, perhaps the greatest juggler who ever lived. . . . What's that? Oh, a poster for `House of Games.' . . . I'm just trying to get to the George Anderson piece that's sticking out at the end. . . . Oh, this is the Chevalier D'Eon, a male fencer in drag. He used to be the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James's. It's a great story but it takes too long."

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 at- tenuation. He appeared to be five and a half feet tall and to weigh about sixty- five pounds.

"I know some people find this strange and weird," Jay said. "Actually, after this life I've lived, I have no idea what is strange and weird and what isn't. I don't know who else waxes poetic about the virtues of skeleton men, fasting impostors, and cannonball catchers. And, to be honest, I don't really care. I just think they're wonderful. I really do."

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