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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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