№ 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.]