“Ricky had many facets; the magician, the scholar, the actor, the performer, the publisher. He was interested in so many things. Whatever he tackled, he tackled to do it well,” explained Vincent Golden, curator of newspapers and magazines at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, MA, who worked with Jay on various projects. As an AAS member since 1987, Jay put together an exhibition there called “Many Mysteries Unraveled Or Conjuring literature in American: 1786-1876” in 1990.
Jay was drawn to the study of history of magic and its practitioners, and that research filled many of his books, including Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Performers and Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck. For a while he even published a quarterly magazine Jay's Journal of Anomalies. The sixteen issues--now coveted by collectors-- are filled with stories about unusual performers, talented fleas and dogs, and other curious creatures and curiosities.
In the 1980s, Jay spent time as curator of the famed Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts until it was sold to magician David Copperfield in 1991 and moved to Las Vegas.
Jay believed that scholarship was essential to his work as a magician and performer. In a 1993 New Yorker profile, Nicolas Barker, former Deputy Keeper at the British Library and onetime head of conservation at the British Museum, talked about Jay’s deep understanding of his craft. “Ricky would say you can’t be a good conjurer without knowing the history of your profession,” Barker explained, “because there are no new tricks under the sun, only variations.”
In 1990, Jay worked with May Castleberry, then at the Whitney Museum of American Art, on a two-volume set called The Magic Magic Book that showcased historical and contemporary artists’ versions of a “blow” book. Blow books have special manipulatable tabs that make the content of the book appear to change. For instance, on first examination, a book seems to have black and white images, but at second glance, the images are in color. Castleberry chose the participants while Ray worked directly with the artists--like Vija Celmins and Jane Hammond--to help them understand the mechanisms of the project. Castleberry noted Jay’s winning combination of scholar and performer: “There would be times where he’d be off on an amazing subject, then he’d get into a carny act right way, then suddenly he talked about pool halls. He’d go into a con-type character that seems at odds with the scholar you were just talking to.”
Curator and publisher Christine Burgin worked with Jay on an exhibition called “Twixt Two Worlds: Selections from the Collection of Ricky Jay” that was shown at her eponymous Manhattan gallery in 2005. “A lot of Ricky’s genius was his incredible knowledge and the way he could talk about things.” she explained. “Of course that doesn’t fool the dogs for one minute but it fools every other being... For all that he wrote, I feel like there were 100 more books he could write with everything he knew.”
Ricky Jay aptly summed up his “obsessions” in an AV Club interview: “ Sitting with a deck of cards in your hand all day is an obsession. Visiting print shops and bookstores and libraries is an obsession. And writing about this is an obsession. I think, in general, most collectors are obsessed. I think the only form of a rationalized greed is when you’re collecting something you are supposedly serious about.”
Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Electric Lit, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem