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New Yorker Festival: Ricky Jay

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Marin Schneider writes:

In 2000, the first year of the New Yorker Festival, Mark Singer interviewed Ricky Jay in the Milton Berle Room at the Friar's Club; on the Festival's tenth anniversary, the programmers had them recreate the experience in the much larger space of City Winery. The two men, palpably friends, have a kind of fraught rapport; Singer self-consciously leery of stumbling into secretive terrain, with Jay apparently willing to plumb same. Jay noted that Singer's 1993 profile did so much to elevate—and, in some sense, ruin—Jay's career as a cultish practitioner of sleight of hand and historian of same.

Jay cannot help but carry an air of mystery with him. Singer mentioned that his profile of Jay is the only one of his long career in which he did not know the subject's age or real name at the time of publication. As he put it, such information was irrelevant to the purposes of the profile, and "somehow it got past the fact-checkers." (Wikipedia says that "Max Katz" is in his 61st year or thereabouts.)

Endearingly, Jay revealed that he had only two outlandish goals when he started out. One was to appear in a James Bond movie, and the other was to write a New Yorker article. And he did both!

One of my favorite quotes from the session came when Jay discussed the tension between the secrecy inherent to magic and the openness required to attract new practitioners. Jay has always been more about spreading the word, to the consternation of one of his mentors, Dai Vernon, who asked him, "Professor, why give animals tools?"

Jay is one of the most informed people in the world on magicians of the past; as his working partner Michael Weber once observed, "Ricky remembers nothing after 1900." In that spirit, I turn over the rest of this post to the masters mentioned during the session. I'll just put the bare information; after all, the Internet is available for further exploration. I think Jay would appreciate the gesture, even if it involves no digital (in the sense of "fingers") trickery.

The first magician on record was "Dedi," who lived in ancient Egypt under King Cheops. Among other things he did the Cups and Balls trick and one involving the apparent substitution of a goose's head from one body to another. (Attention ASPCA: I don't think the geese survived this trick.)

Daniel Wildman, the "equestrian apiarist"—what an amazing turn of phrase.

Bartholomeo Bosco, 19th-century master of the "cups and balls" trick.

Chung Ling Soo, whose death while attempting the tricky maneuver of catching a bullet in his teeth was ruled "death by misadventure." Oh my.

Toby the Sapient Pig, also known as the "Philosopher of the Swinish Race."

Rabbi Hirsch Dänemark, who could watch as an audience volunteer poked a pin through the first few pages of the Talmud—and then not only identify which words the pin had pierced but extemporize a sermon using those words!

Chabert the Human Salamander, who would enter an oven with a raw steak in his hand. Jay: "He emerged tartare, the steak was cooked to perfection."

Matthias Buchinger, who became a world-class practitioner of magic and calligraphy despite having no arms or legs and attaining a stature of 29 inches tall. This fellow sounds like one of the most fascinating people of all time—a sentiment Jay was quick to express.

Jay's evident love for these crazy characters was something to behold. It was very touching to hear him talk about the quixotic task of researching these men without easy access to sources; in the meantime, his efforts have been supplemented by countless others, and much of it is available on the Internet.

Thus does the scholar, bringer of light, trump the magician, exploiter of darkness.

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