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.
I. “THERE WASN’T MUCH OF A PLAN IN ANY OF THIS”
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,” I wonder: What work are you talking about? It’s really nice. I think it’s always most gratifying to be recognized for something 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 it was specifically to throw cards in a James Bond movie. That’s what I wanted to do. But 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 suppose I’m fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to pursue them. Even when times were difficult, I didn’t go out and take some job that I wasn’t interested in. 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: But 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. Indeed, if the six-year-old you could have seen how it would all turn out, he’d probably have said, “That’s right. That make 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 checker 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, I mean, 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: Right. 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. 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’m seven — it’s silly, it’s ridiculous.
BLVR: How many hours were you practicing every day?
RJ: It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I really started paying attention. The early stuff is — things with apparatus. Silly things. When I was 13 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 as well. 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 9 or 10 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 52 Assistants is that he was in 70s and that I would get to spend a couple of years with him. He was 78, but he lived to be 98! 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 happens when I move to California. I get 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 30s. 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 in Brooklyn as a kid.
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 a 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: [He hesitates] Oh, I don’t know, certainly six or seven. Other times in my life probably 10. 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.
II. THE ART OF THE CON
BLVR: Meeting David Mamet was central to your development as an artist. The language in his films seems ideally suited to you.
RJ: It’s just wonderful.
BLVR: The language of the underworld?
RJ: Well, it’s something I was particularly into. By then I was already collecting canting dictionaries and was very interested in the speech, the argot.
BLVR: When I think about your long-held fascination with the language of the underworld, of low-life culture, I often wonder: is it a scholarly affection, or is it just who you are, that this is the world you live in?
RJ: [He exhales. Then begins to sigh.] It’s gotta be some crazy combination of both. I don’t know. Again, I have to say, I didn’t set myself out to be . . . I mean, I have to say, I suppose if I could look back, if I were to start again, I’d go to school now. I never took a course in the history of show business. Or a history of language. Or an acting class. Or anything. I never did any of that.
BLVR: You were taking cooking classes at Cornell’s school of hotel and restaurant management. I think of that story, which you tell in two of your books, of sticking your hand in a hot oven — and inadvertently branding the word “Ajax” onto your fingers. Of course, I’m not sure I entirely believe it.
RJ: No, no, no. That’s a real story.
BLVR: But it wasn’t a class on Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.
RJ: Right. And more than that, it’s not a course on the history of show business. I never took a course on vaudeville or musicals. I certainly never took a course on etymology. I really don’t know. I think it all comes back to reading. I think initially I was looking at low-life books hoping there would be some sleight-of-hand techniques in them that could be applicable to me.
BLVR: You still were quite young.
RJ: Oh yeah. A teenager, even younger. Then I started collecting them. I had this ritual. I’d be on the road, often opening for rock and roll bands. And I would spend the days going to museums and libraries and bookstores and print shops, that’s what I would do in the day. I’d take a nap and then do my performance. And I’d be in another city the next day. And that’s how I built my collection. I also went to libraries and read. There was no Google. In the early years I certainly couldn’t afford the books that interested me, so I went and read them. You can talk to antiquarian booksellers who will tell you about me coming to their shops for years before I was able to afford their treasures.
BLVR: But this interest in the language of the underworld, of low-life culture, seems to run up immediately into to your interest in the art of the con. Where does this interest in the confidence game come from? From sleight of hand? From books? From personal experience?
RJ: It was simply what I did and who I am. Because I wasn’t doing it for a degree, and because I wasn’t doing it for a job, I didn’t have to rationalize it. But I do remember at one point in my career saying to myself, “God, what do I want to do? This historical stuff or perform?” Because I was so interested in both. And I remember at one point thinking to myself, “Why do I have to make that choice? Why I can’t I do both?”
BLVR: But by saying “it was simply what I did and who I am” — I think that gets to the heart of the matter. If someone really considered your interests, would it be out of line to wonder whether this guy was, in part, a criminal?
RJ: Sure, I know people in this world who are criminals. And I like them. I’ve said this before: We all love con artists unless we ourselves, or people we know, have been taken. And that lesson has now been brought home by the whole Madoff scandal. Before that it was harder to wrap your head around these things, because so few people had actually been affected by them. But now I know people in my life, really wealthy people, who lost every penny. Now it’s much, much harder to be as casual about con artists.
But I do know why someone would find cons so appealing. That’s why there are so many films and TV shows about them, even though most of them lack verisimilitude. It’s an appealing concept: a criminal who uses brains rather than brawn. It’s very hard to get behind somebody who’s going to run through the room and shoot people. But someone who out thinks them is remarkably appealing.
BLVR: But I guess that’s really my question. Are these circles that you’ve studied up close as a participant? Or simply as a keen (and disinterested) observer?
RJ: [Pauses. Then speaks very quickly.] Well, some of each.
BLVR: I think of Dai Vernon, essentially going on various quests. He spent a lot of his life seeking out master manipulators, gamblers.
RJ: Gamblers. Absolutely.
BLVR: Now I’m assuming Dai was an upright fellow.
RJ: He was.
BLVR: Yet he sought these people out, most famously, perhaps, when he traveled to Kansas City in search of Allen Kennedy, creator of the so-called “center deal.” Have you embarked on these kinds of quests? Pursued these kinds of relationships?
RJ: Absolutely, sure.
BLVR: Can you talk about it?
RJ: Probably not [laughs]. Well I can talk about when it didn’t work. When I learned a great lesson. When I was supposed to meet the Yellow Kid, for instance — the Yellow Kid Weil, the great confidence man. I finally got somebody I knew who could introduce me to him. I was in Chicago, and I was supposed to meet the Yellow Kid. I already had a plane to come back on. This guy said, “He can meet you now.” But it just became too difficult: I was packed, I was ready to go to the airport. We all decided this is crazy, we’ll see him the next time I’m in town. But the Yellow Kid was 100 years old! [laughs]. He died a few weeks later. So for me this experience prompted a philosophy of life, which is, “Never turn down a chance to meet a 100-year-old man.” The application of that obviously goes beyond being 100. It is, “Avail yourself of those opportunities.”
BLVR: What happens when you go on one of these quests?
RJ: Well, they’re all different. They depend on the individual relationship. But sometimes it is an interesting thing — you show something to show you know something. You very carefully don’t come on like you know something. You gauge each situation differently: based on the individual, their situation, and who it is that’s introduced you. They’re little exercises in psychology.
BLVR: Can you give me an example?
RJ: It’s hard.
BLVR: You haven’t done this recently?
RJ: Have I? No. Recently? . . . Actually I did do it recently. A mutual friend brought a gambler and asked me if I’d like to meet this “somebody.” Yes, this was quite recently, seven or eight weeks ago. This was somebody I’d heard of — and he’d heard of me. A card player. Our mutual friend was nice enough to get us together. The person was kind enough to show me some things. He knew something about my work, because some of my work is available, of course, so he was kind enough to do something for me. It’s a very exciting time — you pay very careful attention and ask some really serious questions. Part of it was also the mutual friends that we knew — so he knew that this was real. There’s this amazing thing of testing and making sure in these situations. The interest in, “Did you know so and so,” and “Yeah, I do.” It’s almost like two hardened criminals talking and saying, “Were you in the joint during such and such?” and “Who did you know?” It’s that kind of thing. To make sure confidences will be kept. The amazing thing is, since I saw this guy, he is now in jail.
BLVR: Because of what he does professionally?
RJ: [Pause] He did something illegal. He didn’t go out and shoot somebody. He did something with cards and— Look, do I like this guy? Yeah. I absolutely do.
BLVR: You’ve often said that keeping secrets is a central part of what you do. But here you’re talking about an interaction where secrets are shared. You’re really putting yourself out there — you’re giving material away.
RJ: But that’s making a decision. [He stops and leaves to go to the bathroom. When he returns, there is a long pause. He stutters.] What were you asking again?
BLVR: You were about to say, that’s making a decision—
RJ: Oh. For whom I choose to teach something, expose something. I don’t like the idea of publishing books of tricks. I’m happy to share my material with people who I think can handle it well. I’m not a believer in giving up methods that anyone can do, because most of the people who do them will do them badly. I’m a believer in Sturgeon’s Law: 90 percent of everybody who does everything is incompetent.
BLVR: But the material that you do keep secret will disappear after you’re gone. Is this a tradition among magicians?
RJ: I would always say I’m more comfortable with that, with Charlie Miller taking his secrets to the grave, than having everyone butcher it.
BLVR: You once said that as an art, the confidence game is a kind of performance for an audience—
RJ: Of one. I was very proud of that.
BLVR: That seems to say a lot about you. Your interest is in the art of it.
RJ: I’d say that’s true. Yes, I’m interested in the art. And in the development of the confidence game as well, which is a subject not easy to find good material on.
BLVR: And it is an art, isn’t it?
RJ: I think so, sure. You see accounts everywhere of criminals saying to con men, “You’re so smart, why didn’t you use your skills for good.” And most confidence men are of course thinking, “I don’t want to be serious. I want to go out and take down a score. That’s what I do.”
III. ONE WORD: DECEPTION
BLVR: Your new book, Celebrations of Curious Characters, seems to present a very powerful contradiction in your work. On the one hand, there’s this real fealty to the facts, to historical truth, to examining forgotten or obscure entertainers and artists. On the other hand, there’s the presentation of contemporary, real-life experiences, either yours or others. But how do we know what is true, and what isn’t? Is it just a writerly conceit? The tale of an eccentric historical character is woven into a story from Ricky Jay’s life to create an effect? to reveal a nugget about existence? to entertain? to create a wonderful illusion? Some of these stories are certainly true. But are they all true? Did, say, a screwdriver really fall from the rafters during the shooting of a Bob Dylan video and lodge directly into your hand?
RJ: [Silence. Long pause.]
BLVR: Have I got this entirely wrong?
RJ: No, no, no, no. This interesting to me on many levels. You are the first non-partisan reader of the book that I know of, so that’s interesting. But I’m hearing feedback from you that’s fascinating. And I like what I’m hearing. I like what you’re telling me it’s making you think about. [Long pause.] Well, I’ll tell you: the stories are real that I’m telling. But I’m reluctant to tell you that. I love the idea that you’re not sure whether the screwdriver in the guy’s tool belt fell on my hand or not.
BLVR: In a piece called “Hands”?
RJ: And yet it never occurred to me for a second to make that up. That was a really traumatic experience in my life. But the video [“Tweedledum and Tweedledee”] with Dylan is real. He sent me the gold record [he begins to laugh] . . . or was it a Purple Heart [genuine laughter]. It was a really traumatic event. But the second you question it, I kind of love the idea that you think it might be fictional. Even though that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. It’s kind of like going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s so wonderful. But that’s what it makes a lot of people do, it makes people wonder, “Is what I’m seeing real or not?”
If you had to pick a single word to say what my interest is, it’s deception. In performing magic, you have the most honest form of deception there could be, because you’re saying to someone, “I am going to deceive you.” And you do. So someone’s who’s willing to do that is honest. And so when I’m telling you a story, that’s really my story, I’m telling you that story honestly — in the same way. And yet, I enjoy the fact that you question it. But I hope it doesn’t make me seem less of a writer to say, I didn’t anticipate you questioning that.
BLVR: Perhaps I’m being naïve. When I’m reading what is ostensibly nonfiction, and I encounter a first-person narrator who claims he’s the author, I tend to take him at face value.
RJ: Ah! So here’s an interesting thing. When I say to you, “If you hear me say something on stage, it may be part of a construct, much more than in a book.” Gosh, I don’t know . . . this all implies that there is some . . . some planned way that I approach things. And that’s just not the case. Each of the pieces in this book were approached as individual pieces. Rather than: If I write so many pieces with me as a character, and then tell stories that are a little difficult to believe, can I leave the impression for a reader that maybe I made this up. It doesn’t exist on that level for me. But that’s one of the fascinating things about works of art is that people bring to it material from their own experience. If you’d never read Sebald or if you hadn’t read Borges, if you hadn’t read people who play with that line, you might never have thought that.
But I don’t take this negatively at all, when you suggest these things. It makes me think of Carlos Castaneda, actually. That with all his books, there was that big question: Did he make up Don Juan? Is Don Juan real, or not? I remember when people initially talked about that, I remember saying, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me.” He’s either writing wonderful fiction, or he’s presenting research. On the other hand, if I were an academic, particularly in anthropology, I could have serious problems with him making this up and then getting other people believing it was real. But as a reader, it couldn’t matter to me less — because he’s written something that’s really appealing to read, particularly in the days when I was reading that. . . . So I get it. I get it to go both ways: I get wanting to analyze it, and I get not wanting to analyze it.
BLVR: So much of your archival work is solitary, scholarly work. But when I think of many of the obscure or eccentric characters in your books — from Max Malini to Matthew Buchinger to Toby the Sapient Pig — one thing is clear: you really want to share. It’s part mission, part reclamation project, and it’s lonely work. But it culminates in the impulse to say, “Hey take a look at this!”
RJ: When you talk about sharing, on that level it’s true. That’s what entertainers do. My criteria as an entertainer, when I’m presenting a piece, or when I’m writing, is basically, “I like this.” I’m showing you what excites me, hoping it will excite you. I suppose that’s pretty selfish in a way, but I can’t imagine it going any other way. In the panoply of magic I know hundreds of effects — but I’m only going to do the ones that seem appropriate and right because they make me feel good, and I think they’ll make you feel good.
BLVR: But it isn’t easy — turning pure historical research into entertaining history.
RJ: But it’s a crime to be a historian who bores you to tears. I just find it awful. I really find it a crime. The people who should be admired — people like Richard Altick [The Shows of London], Roy Porter [a historian of medicine], Anthony Grafton. I don’t think I’ve thought of them as models, but these are people whose work I’ve enormously admired. They write beautifully. Being readable is essential: trying to write well, and not masking it in academese.
BLVR: The changes in book production have been profound. You’ve spent most of your life captivated by long-lost entertainments. We’re living in a strange time.
RJ: I think one of the things I find so strange about it is the concept that of all this information that we’re talking about here — all of this is now Google-able. That’s really strange. And I wonder if that’s going to make it less important to people. It’s clear to me that this access to information is both good and bad. But is it bad in the sense that it winds up making you have less respect for the information you’ve been able to gather? It makes me question what a kid who grows up now is like, having the ability to get every single question they want answered instantly. What’s that going to do to the next generation of writers, filmmakers, or magicians? I’m not sure.
BLVR: I’m looking at your hands. These are extremely important instruments.
RJ: You either do the Glenn Gould ritual [laughs] and refuse to shake hands with people or you’re completely foolish and do martial arts and break bricks with them, which I actually did at one point in my life, because I was a complete moron.
BLVR: You did that?
RJ: I did.
BLVR: And now you’re in L.A. where they’re nice and warm all the time.
RJ: I’m feeling maybe the twinges of some arthritis. I don’t know. But when a screwdriver drops on it, it’s really scary.
BLVR: So that’s true.
BLVR: I can call Bob Dylan and ask him?
RJ: Sure. I’ll give you the name of the guy who runs his company.