Alex Massie

Ricky Jay & Susan Boyle

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Ricky Jay has an op-ed in today's NYT on the Susan Boyle phenomenon. It's interesting - there may not be many people alive who know more about the history of freak shows and public oddities than Jay - but it's really just an excuse to point you towards Mark Singer's terrific New Yorker profile of Jay. It begins:

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher Taffirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar ofthe Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was per- forming magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher's named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuf- fled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

"Three of clubs," Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly an- nounced, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card."

After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time."

Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card."

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right - what was the card?"

"Two of spades."

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited him to a New Year's Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee table as Jay, at Baron's request, did closeup card magic. When he had performed several dazzling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest named Mort said, "Come on, Ricky. Why don't you do something truly amazing?"

Baron recalls that at that moment "the look in Ricky's eyes was, like, `Mort - you have just fucked with the wrong person.'"

Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, "The three of hearts." After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.

"O.K., Mort, what was your card again?"

"The three of hearts."

"Look inside the bottle."

Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party broke up immediately. Someone (who?) once said that the most thrilling thing about watching Michael Jordan play basketball was discovering or realising that you were watching someone do something better than anyone else could do anything else in the world. Sure, that mildly overstates matters, but I suspect that the privilege of seeing Jay perform close-up magic and sleight-of-hand must occasion similar feelings of awe and wonder.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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