Ricky Jay was born in 1948 and died last Saturday. He was the greatest magician in America for more than a generation and a character whose like we will not see again. He combined the all-American love of wonder, which he understood to fixate on European aristocracy, and the all-American passion for science. He was a master of every craft he touched on and an erudite scholar when it came to the history of those crafts. Even his wisecracking stage persona came out of his recognition that Americans are practical and want the facts, even from conmen.
He lived out the drama we know from Tocqueville’s phrase that Descartes, the philosopher of doubt, is the philosophic genius of America, though no American has read his works. Skepticism is in our national character and we suspect trickery with a passion, because none of us want to be played for suckers. We don’t want to fall for pretty lies—we always suspect there’s some ugly truth hiding behind any sophisticated oratory. And what is magic but someone tricking us, creating illusions, making fools of us in the process? Well, we don’t quite know, but we can never get enough of it.
Ricky Jay knew that we Americans want magic in our lives and he made a living out of it, so it’s natural that he ended up in Hollywood. He was a great character actor and appeared everywhere from Gus van Sant’s art movies to popular entertainments like Bond movies (Tomorrow Never Dies), but he will be best remembered for working with the prestigious directors of our time. He was in Christoper Nolan’s The Prestige, in a couple of Paul Thomas Anderson movies (Magnolia, Boogie Nights), in Deadwood (for which he also wrote), and above all in just about every David Mamet movie there is.
Mamet is the man who directed him at his best, in the show that best shows his power to seduce an audience with, well, playing cards, “Ricky Jay and his 52 assistants” (1996). If you want amazement, humor, a sophisticated charmer who doubles up as an honest conman, that’s the show for you. He has the patter and he has the personality to attract 21st-century Americans fully immersed in technology to the secret parts of our hearts that still wonder in a childish way. Magic is the safest way for us to experience bafflement, an inability to explain things. It is a school of humanity inasmuch as it teaches us to take delight rather than scorn things, that is, explain them away.
Ricky Jay attracted his audience by putting on a performance that claimed no special dignity, that seemingly mocked the very crafts he had spent all his life mastering, and that invited a kind of equality. He would always prove the winner, admittedly, which was not about equality but excellence. He would prove that he was in control in ways unimaginable even moments before he achieved any given effect. But he would achieve his victories over his grateful audience fair and square, out in the open, sleeves rolled up—what’s more all-American than that?
Somehow, you have to distract your audience from your tricks. Americans are curious, so the best way to achieve distraction is to reveal every detail to close inspection. Why does it still work when you see him do it? A lot of it has to do with the most important thing about magic, what ties it to aristocracy. It’s not the tuxedos or the extravagant décor. It’s the counterfeit grace, the effortlessness, the ease with which effects are produced. We are somehow perplexed by this fake aristocracy. That’s funny if you think about it—we’re the most powerful country in world history, but we’re quite defenseless in front of elegance.
What magicians at their best do is comedy. Ricky Jay used to say it’s much harder to be a magician than a conman, because the magician tells his audience in advance that he will deceive them. They’re on their guard and get fooled anyway. He also said that magic is honest—you know what’s coming when you go in. He could have added that it’s harmless, since you pay willingly. But most importantly, magic allows us to fantasize about power, about doing impossible things, about achieving superhuman things without danger. Really, it’s a public service. If we educated our children to take Ricky Jay seriously, Las Vegas would go out of business instantaneously.
Everything in a performance, of course, is made up and very strictly under control, in a way nothing in our everyday lives is. It is natural for us, since we want comfort, to be astounded by the completely mannered, utterly artificial situation of magic. That, too, is part of aristocracy. The aristocrat in our world looks like Ricky Jay—a shady character, more conman than prince. We suspect dishonesty, but we cannot resist charm. We say honesty is the best policy, but we are fascinated by people who are professionally dishonest, whether celebrities or magicians.
You can watch a feature-length documentary about Jay on Amazon Prime, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries And Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012), and you can easily get his book “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” (1986) or watch the CBS show he made from it. There you can learn about the world of strange people who produce magical effects of all kinds.
Let me close this brief obituary with another note on aristocracy. Ricky Jay used to say about himself that he knew nothing about the 20th century. He wanted to learn as much as possible about the history of magic and he treasured the strange loyalties between magicians as much as the secrecy on which the profession thrives. His interest in the old aristocratic age had to do with his own character. He knew we all admire excellence of craft precisely because we know how rare it is, even if we think the effect it achieves is empty or pointless.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a cultural critic, writing in National Review, The Federalist, the University Bookman, and Modern Age.