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The Wizard of Odd

Illusionist Ricky Jay, a keeper of magic's secrets, conjures up a dirty deal in TV's "Deadwood"

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Jay first performed magic on television at age 7. By 1962, an adolescent “Tricky Ricky” was being touted in one magic industry magazine as America’s youngest magician.

After leaving home, Jay attended four or five colleges, but never graduated. A Cornell University classmate was quoted in a 1993 article on Jay in the New Yorker as saying that Jay “sat in his room and practiced card tricks” about ten hours a day. Back then, Jay also worked as a bartender, sang in a doowop group called the Deaf Tones, sold encyclopedias, did accounting work on Wall Street and performed magic at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. He performed twice on the “Tonight Show” as a guest of Johnny Carson, himself an accomplished magician. On the road, Jay served as an opening act for the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In Jay’s sort of magic, there are no shortcuts. “To succeed as a conjurer,” said one of his heroes, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century French master of illusion from whom Harry Houdini took his stage name, “three things are essential: first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity.” Jay is best known for his uncanny way with playing cards. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Jay has thrown a card farther, higher and faster than anyone. He captured the records one day in 1976; one card he threw traveled 135 feet; another sailed into a window several stories up; another flew 90 miles an hour. He throws a card with such deadly precision it can pierce a watermelon at 20 paces. In one motion he can spray an entire deck of cards at an open wine bottle, and all the cards splatter around it except a designated one, which, somehow, curls and slips into the bottle. His first book, 1977’s Cards as Weapons, is a collector’s item.

It is unwise to play poker with this man, as he demonstrated in On the Stem when he invited an audience member to join him for a few hands. Jay shuffled, dealt—and won. “Was that fair?” he said. “I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so.”He let the man cut the cards. Jay won. He let the man shuffle and cut. Jay dealt and won. “Was that fair? I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so.” Finally, the man shuffled and cut the cards while Jay sat with his hands flat on the table and said, “You pick a hand for me and a hand for yourself.” The man did so, then turned over the four cards he selected for himself—all losers. “Was that fair?” Jay asked, and one by one turned over the cards he had been dealt. “I”—ace—“don’t”—ace—“think”—ace —“so”—ace.

The only person I ever knew who saw both Houdini and Jay perform was the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who died last year at age 99. Hirschfeld marveled at a stunt of Jay’s in which, sitting with his back to a giant chessboard, he called out moves to make a knight land on each square while he also recited Shakespeare, chanted snatches of field-holler songs and calculated the cube root of six-figure numbers selected by audience members from a stack of index cards. Hirschfeld also recalled Houdini’s physical prowess, which enabled him to, say, swell his wrists while being handcuffed, the better to slip out later. Hirschfeld, whose particular gift was capturing a personality with a stroke, offered this assessment: “Ricky is mental and Houdini was muscular.”

Jay suggests that Houdini, best known as an escape artist, isn’t in his league when it comes to illusions. “He was never a good magician,” Jay says. “He was one of the most amazing exponents of bombast in the world, a shameless self-promoter. He did some real inquiry into the history of magic and unusual entertainers, which I find very appealing. But he treated other magicians very badly. He is not my hero.” Closer to Jay’s interests was Max Malini, who lived from 1873 to 1942 and performed for luminaries worldwide, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding. Malini, Jay writes in Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, could “stand a few inches from you with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler or a pack of cards and convince you he performs miracles.”

The history of his secretive vocation remains something of an obsession for Jay, who says magic is the second oldest of all the arts, after music. His scholarly pursuits were dealt a blow a decade ago. For five years he had served as the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and Allied Arts in Los Angeles, doubling the collection and nearly quadrupling its value. In 1990, the library was auctioned off and sold for $2,200,000 to David Copperfield, who moved it to Las Vegas. Copperfield has reportedly invited Jay to see the collection, but Jay has declined and prefers not to discuss it.

Still, at Jay’s house near Los Angeles he has his own library of some 5,000 books and tens of thousands of lithographs, engravings, playbills and entertainment ephemera. “I’m very comfortable in my home, with my wife, my dog and my collection,” Jay says. “It’s where I read and write.”

Not so comfortable, fans might hope, that he gives up the grueling work of making magic.

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