As most readers here will already have learned, Ricky Jay passed away this past Saturday, the 24th. Jay was one of the most influential and highly regarded figures in magic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his skill with sleight of hand. However the impression he made had a lot to do with a wholly original approach to his magic and to the other passions he pursued. There was nothing stereotypical in his archly anachronistic style of performance, in the subject matter and tone of the publications he wrote or in his passion for antiquarian books, and his fascination with con artists and charlatans.
Jay's roots were here in New York where as a youngster (then known as Ricky Potash) he began performing in the shows of IBM Ring 26 and the S. A. M.'s Parent Assembly, the magic groups with which his grandfather, Max Katz, was involved. "I remember Ricky performing for the Parent Assembly when he was about six years old, said Warren Kaps, one of the longest-standing members of the Assembly. He was dressed in tails and did the floating cane. . . .For a six-year-old he performed extremely well, which was to the credit of his grandfather who made him practice, practice, practice, and it showed." Jay's grandfather was a successful accountant who also had a passion for magic as well as a number of other diverse interests. Katz was very active in the New York magic scene and was president of the Parent Assembly in the 1948-49 year. Jay recalled in an interview that his grandfather encouraged all his grandchildren in the performance of magic and some of them stuck with it for a year or two, but it was only in Jay that it became a lifelong pursuit. Jay's decision to make magic his full-time profession apparently was a major point of contention with his parents. "His parents were deeply opposed to it," said Kaps, "and he basically ran away from home. . . .It was a real tragedy. By that time I think Max had passed away. If Max had still been alive, I think it would have been much different."
In 1994 Jay created a sensation in New York with his show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. It was produced by Second Stage in a small theater on the Upper West Side and after the entire initial run sold out getting tickets took determination. In my case that meant waiting in line before the show for any returned seats. I did get to see the production from one of the last rows in the house. My fellow audience members that night included Steve Martin, Woody Allen and his wife Soon Yi, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Mike Nichols. Among the notable pieces in the show was an assembly of queens which was performed with an arcane patter. It turns out that much of the verbiage was drawn directly from The Expert at the Card Table, the seminal 1902 work of card magic attributed to S. W. Erdnase. Jay was able to create a work that thrilled contemporary audiences by finding inspiration in and bringing forward the classic underpinning of his craft.
His fascination with the history of magic and performing was also reflected in his remarkable literary output. In particular, books like Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women and Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living, enlightened readers about a range of eccentric performers who Jay discovered and documented through extensive research with antiquarian books and other resources. These publications among many others represent a legacy of information that will be available to inspire future generations. For an interesting conversation in which Jay touches on his literary interests (as well as a wide range of other topics), check out the interview with Paul Holdengraber at The New York Public Library from 2014.
Ricky Jay's life and his influence have been covered extensively in such resources as Mark Singer's extensive 1993 article in The New Yorker and the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (which can be viewed through a number of online sources including Kanopy, available for free through many libraries). What these profiles reveal is a fascinating, complicated and strikingly original individual who blazed a unique path of his own devising.