№ 4

Ricky Jay

It’s very hard to get behind some­body who’s going to run through the room and shoot peo­ple. But some­one who out­thinks them is remark­ably appealing.”

—The Believer


A pro­posed phi­los­o­phy of life:
Never turn down a chance to meet a one-hundred-year-old man

Ricky Jay, a dear friend of his once observed, can’t remem­ber any­thing that’s hap­pened after 1900. This isn’t a com­monly noted prob­lem for some­one born in 1948 (or some­one born around 1948, since, like so many of the basic facts of Jay’s life, it’s not entirely clear what is true and what isn’t). The sleight-of-hand artist, author, actor, and cura­tor isn’t just con­ver­sant in the minu­tiae of ear­lier eras. In an ideal uni­verse, he admits, he might have inhab­ited the eigh­teenth cen­tury — although he doesn’t see it as dread­ful that he’s found him­self strad­dling the twen­ti­eth and twenty-first.

Ricky Jay’s nat­ural home is the world of decep­tion — of con­jur­ers and con men, of illu­sion and the art of the con­fi­dence game. With a sim­ple deck of cards, he can per­form unpar­al­leled acts of pres­tidig­i­ta­tion. He is a direct descen­dant of sleight-of-hand mas­ters Dai Ver­non and Char­lie Miller. Early on, how­ever, his fame grew out of a wild sig­na­ture pose: wield­ing cards as weapons. Jay could throw cards for speed (90 miles per hour) and dis­tance (190 feet) and, up close, could pierce water­mel­ons. He was also an obses­sive col­lec­tor of arcana from the his­tory of magic, weav­ing long-forgotten tricks and pat­ter into his act, then writ­ing about his dis­cov­er­ies at length, in one-of-a-kind vol­umes such as Learned Pigs & Fire­proof Women (1986) and, more recently, Cel­e­bra­tions of Curi­ous Char­ac­ters, a col­lec­tion of forty-five short essays he first pro­duced for NPR.

Jay’s more recent renown, how­ever, might come from film and tele­vi­sion. Thanks largely to David Mamet, a long­time friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor who first cast him in House of Games (1987), Jay devel­oped a par­al­lel career as an actor. His roles have included a clas­sic James Bond vil­lain (techno-terrorist Henry Gupta in Tomor­row Never Dies), a PI schooled in magic lore (Last Days), and a nar­ra­tor whose syn­tax and style seem lifted straight out of a Ricky Jay tale (Mag­no­lia). He was, for its inau­gural sea­son, a cen­tral part of the HBO series Dead­wood, both as a writer and an actor (in the role of card dealer Eddie Sawyer).

In per­son, Jay seems immune to an interviewer’s worka­day con­cerns. He’s hope­less with dates. He’s hazy on per­sonal details. When we met in Los Ange­les last year — early spring, at a small Japan­ese restau­rant in the Bel Air hills near his home — there was always the sense that the facts were only part of the point. Lis­ten to his sto­ries, about gam­blers and magi­cians and cheats, and you’re led into a world where true fic­tions feel like the way things might really be.


THE BELIEVER: With your enor­mous range as a magi­cian, actor, author, and cura­tor, how are you most com­monly iden­ti­fied these days?

RICKY JAY: It’s still prob­a­bly most with sleight of hand. But the thing that’s excit­ing is when some­one approaches me and says, “I like your work,” and I won­der: What work are you talk­ing about? It’s really nice. I think it’s always most grat­i­fy­ing to be rec­og­nized for some– thing that’s fur­thest away from what you do. In high school, my fan­tasies were to write for the New Yorker and to be in a James Bond movie. It’s much more sur­pris­ing to me that those two things have hap­pened than the suc­cess with my one-man shows in New York.

BLVR: You always wanted to be in a Bond film?

RJ: As a high-school kid grow­ing up in New Jer­sey, sure. It was right in that period when what could be cooler? But the dream was specif­i­cally to throw cards in a James Bond movie. That’s what I wanted to do. I just don’t under­stand how all this hap­pened. I just don’t under­stand how I became friendly with Joe Mitchell at the New Yorker, for instance. Those are the things that are really baf­fling and wonderful.

But we can’t pre­tend any of this has been easy. I had a very tough time mak­ing a liv­ing for a lot of years. But I’ve been one of these peo­ple, my whole life, where I’ve turned down work when I really couldn’t afford to. I just take the jobs that seem sat­is­fy­ing and inter­est­ing, rather than being on some goofy series play­ing some wand-wielding magi­cian. I guess I’ve always had a lot of inter­ests, and I’m for­tu­nate in the fact that I’ve been able to pur­sue them. some­how I was able to scrape enough money together. but I stayed on people’s couches for years — for years I lived on people’s couches.

BLVR: You were never just a sleight-of-hand artist. Your career has nur­tured many of the things that have fas­ci­nated you since you were a kid. If the six-year-old you could have seen how it would all turn out, he’d prob­a­bly have said, “That’s right. That makes sense. That’s what I wanted to do.”

RJ: I sup­pose it makes sense. but, of course, my grand­fa­ther was the rea­son I got into it so young. He was a won­der­ful ama­teur magi­cian, but he was also a really good three-cushion and balk­line bil­liard player. and a really good chess player. And a really good check­ers player. And a cal­lig­ra­pher. Many of the inter­ests I have came from him. He came over from Austria-Hungary as an immi­grant when he was young, and he got fairly suc­cess­ful in business.

BLVR: He was an accountant.

RJ: Right. a CPA — with­out going to col­lege, from an act of Con­gress, which is a pretty bizarre thing in itself. He was an inter­est­ing guy. And what he did was he took lessons in the things that inter­ested him — origami, so many things. By the time I was a kid he was fin­ished tak­ing lessons. He cer­tainly was doing magic. But when he took bil­liard lessons he took them from Willie Hoppe. He found the peo­ple, the won­der­ful people.

BLVR: You met the magi­cian Dai Ver­non through him.

RJ: When I was four. So that’s sort of the point. My grand­fa­ther enjoyed life. By the time I met him, my grand­fa­ther was really into magic. He had fin­ished these other phases. And maybe because I had some inter­est in cryp­tog­ra­phy and cal­lig­ra­phy, he talked to me about them, but he wasn’t actively tak­ing lessons in any of these other areas.

BLVR: Phys­i­cally, you took to sleight of hand immediately.

RJ: Yeah. When I was in junior high school, I remem­ber my par­ents had me take some bat­tery of tests. A research insti­tu­tion gave one of those “think what you’d be good at in the future” kind of tests. Some were phys­i­cal and some were men­tal. There was a test about mov­ing pins into — it looked like a piece of plas­tic with recessed holes in it. And then a pile of pins. You were sup­posed to put exactly three pins into every hole.

BLVR: This wasn’t a problem.

RJ: As it turned out, this was no prob­lem, obvi­ously. I was in the hun­dredth per­centile. Of course, based on this, my par­ents’ deter­mi­na­tion was that I should be a sur­geon. But how much of this was nat­ural incli­na­tion and how much was from all those years of dili­gent prac­tice? I just don’t know. But here’s another thing you have to under­stand. When I was that age, I was awful. It wasn’t like I was some pre­co­cious kid. I was inter­ested, eager. But I’ve seen footage of me when I was seven — it’s silly, it’s ridiculous.

BLVR: How many hours were you prac­tic­ing every day?

RJ: It wasn’t until I was twelve or thir­teen that I really started pay­ing atten­tion. The early stuff is — things with appa­ra­tus. Silly things. When I was thir­teen I did an act for quite a while pro­duc­ing doves. The dif­fer­ence was that Sly­dini [the magi­cian] made me a cos­tume for it, com­pletely by hand. He was a won­der­ful tai­lor. He sewed the cos­tume — basi­cally every seam had a flower on it — and worked on the magic.

BLVR: You first per­formed on TV when you were seven. What was your act?

RJ: Oh, some awful appa­ra­tus crap. Terrible.

BLVR: Over the years, you’ve writ­ten about the impor­tance of the “gifted amateur.”

RJ: Ver­non talked about it, too. In the art of magic, and it’s true to this day, some of the absolute, unques­tion­ably best things are invented by or devel­oped by ama­teurs, not by pro­fes­sion­als, who often make use of things invented by ama­teurs in their acts. These purists who have no inter­est in it other than their appre­ci­a­tion of the art — it’s lovely.

BLVR: As a kid, you must have been try­ing to fig­ure out what you’d like to do for a liv­ing. Did you see a career in magic? Or did you think you needed to do some­thing alto­gether dif­fer­ent — to make sure you had a liv­ing, so you could do magic?

RJ: The odd thing is that most of the peo­ple I was spend­ing my time with were pro­fes­sion­als. That’s, again, part of what made my expe­ri­ences dif­fer­ent. There weren’t many kids who were nine or ten hang­ing out with Ver­non and Sly­dini. These guys were pro­fes­sion­als. That’s incred­i­bly dif­fer­ent. Usu­ally it’s groups of kids hang­ing out together work­ing on things. Although my child­hood friend in New York Persi Dia­co­nis became a leg­endary sleight-of-hand per­former and mathematician.

But I think you’re imply­ing there were spe­cific deci­sions. There wasn’t much of a plan in any of this. There really wasn’t. I mean, once I was in L.A. I real­ized that I wanted to be with Ver­non — that he was an old man and I wanted to be with him. And that’s absolutely the rea­son I moved here. The story that I tell in Ricky Jay and His 52 Assis­tants is that he was in his sev­en­ties and I would get to spend a cou­ple of years with him. He was seventy-eight, but he lived to be ninety-eight! I didn’t move to L.A. because of the busi­ness, to be in tele­vi­sion or act­ing or any of that stuff. I came here to be with Ver­non and to learn sleight of hand. And then I was so lucky to meet Char­lie Miller, who was just as remark­able and per­haps an even more impor­tant fig­ure in my life.

So a lot of that hap­pened when I moved to Cal­i­for­nia. I got to go out with Ver­non almost every night, sit­ting in Cantor’s and talk­ing about magic. I was still cer­tainly devel­op­ing at that time — of course I’m still devel­op­ing. Even now I think of myself as a stu­dent of the art.

But I think we’re mak­ing too much of this as a series of fixed choices. I was a vora­cious reader. I was a lot of things. but the thing that I cer­tainly grew up around was magic and that world. I just didn’t think about mak­ing a liv­ing. I didn’t have a credit card until I was in my thir­ties. I kinda did what I did. And the same was true when I was in col­lege. I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in classes.

BLVR: Where did the card-throwing come from?

RJ: Oh, it prob­a­bly came from throw­ing base­ball cards as a kid in Brooklyn.

BLVR: Really?

RJ: Yeah, that’s another thing that’s changed so much. For kids they’re now col­lectible objects that they put in Mylar and spe­cial books. I mean, we col­lected cards, but we threw them. You threw them against the wall. You matched them heads and tails. You had fun with them. I’m a guy who’s a seri­ous col­lec­tor, and I under­stand the dif­fer­ence. But I also love the idea of hav­ing fun. so I think it was the com­bi­na­tion of hav­ing cards in my hand all the time and also being madly inter­ested in base­ball, until the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn.

There is some his­tory of magi­cians throw­ing cards. Then I got this crazy idea of using them as weapons. I don’t know where that came from. I guess that was the fresh idea: the idea of using cards as weapons. And in my act I started talk­ing about a book called Cards as Weapons that didn’t exist: “I’m the author of Cards as Weapons, the Lead­ing Hurler of Mar­tial Pro­jec­tiles.” One day I said to myself, “Hey, that would be fun to write this book.” So I wrote the book. But it’s really, I sup­pose, pecu­liar that I spoke about the book for years before it ever existed.

BLVR: How many hours were you prac­tic­ing in those days?

RJ: [Hes­i­tates] Oh, I don’t know, cer­tainly six or seven. Other times in my life, prob­a­bly ten. But I thought about that, too. Peo­ple would say, “How can you do that?” Well, peo­ple go to jobs they don’t like for eight hours a day. I love this stuff. So prac­tice, for me, was never a bur­den. It was lovely. And I like the fact that it was sat­is­fy­ing, it was reward­ing. I didn’t know as much about prac­tice then as I do now. so I’m sure I wasn’t prac­tic­ing as con­struc­tively as I could have been.

BLVR: Just with a deck of cards in your hand.

RJ: Yeah. so you could do it going to a film. It was just part of my life. I wasn’t any­where with­out a deck of cards.

[My full inter­view with Ricky Jay appeared in the May 2012 issue of the Believer.]