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Ricky Jay's slight of tongue
Or, the wit between the tricks
Next week, you have the rare opportunity to get your hands on a complete guide to the base practices of highwaymen, sharpers, swindlers, money-droppers, duffers, setters, mock-auctions, quacks, bawds, jilts, etc. in eighteenth-century London.
That text is part of The Ricky Jay Collection, perhaps the world’s greatest assemblage of books on magic, deception, and trickery. As detailed in this enjoyable New York Times report, the Sotheby’s sale is a cornucopia of oddities from the late conjurer.
What’s really for sale — beyond the Houdini posters, guides to card tricks, and beautiful landscapes painted by armless entertainers — is the source material for Ricky Jay’s storytelling.
Jay (1946-2018) was, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest practitioners of legerdemain, a word that literally translates as light of hand. In other words, he did card tricks. But not just any card tricks: His 1977 book Cards As Weapons (available for free here!) begins with a letter to the Secretary of Defense explaining just how valuable his skills might be.
“Drawing on techniques developed hundreds of years ago by ‘ninja’ assassins, I have developed my own system of self-defence based solely on a pack of cards,” he wrote. “I believe I have discovered a viable method of reducing the defence budget while keeping a few steps ahead of the Russkies.”
And Jay could indeed pierce the skin of a watermelon with a playing card from across a room. But when you came right down to what he did with his 52 assistants, the man was famous for moving pieces of waxed paper around on a table. The gulf between collating stationery and “the theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law” was filled by his deep knowledge and ready wit.
One of his signature tricks was The Four Queens, in which the waxed rectangles with the Qs in their corners are blended into the pack and need to be reunited. Or as Jay framed it, “I have taken advantage of these tenderly nurtured and unsophisticated young ladies by placing them in positions extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities.”
You can really see the storytelling taking shape here in his Sword of Vengeance trick. What do shogun assassins have to do with cards? That’s exactly what you forget to ask until it’s too late:
Jay’s ability to unspool a story was clearly infectious, as his profilers couldn’t resist taking flights of erudition.
“He’s like someone carving scrimshaw while surrounded by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day dirigibles,” wrote Tom Carson in Grantland.
“His patter was voluble, embroidered with orotund, baroque locutions; he would describe the watermelon rind, for instance, as the ‘thick pachydermatous outer melon layer’,” wrote Mark Singer in The New Yorker.
To include him in the pantheon of Great Wits is to recognize why he amassed The Ricky Jay Collection and what he learned from it. The shaggy dog story, as previously detailed in GWQ #101, is a psychological non-sequitur: You follow it at great length to eventually learn it goes nowhere. But in Ricky Jay’s dexterous hands, the story was an ideal way to distract you from his dexterous hands. His words were how he could really transport the audience into a world of wonders. It’s as if he harnessed the shaggy dogs and mushed them through the Iditarod.
Quick quips; lightning
“I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness and consolidates society.”
— Samuel Johnson
“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
— Eden Phillpots, specifically referring to the splendour of the buckbean.
“The Human Frog sat down on his own head, but with the air of one who took no pleasure in it.”
— Robertson Davies, in the one sentence from Fifth Business permanently lodged in my cranium
The greatest trick ever played during lockdown
What’s that hiding behind your left ear? Why, it’s GWQ No. 120, a weekly newsletter that may safely be hurled at melons of all types. Should we laugh or cry at the fact that Bicycle now makes Dark Mode playing cards? Stay a few steps ahead of the Russkies, duffers, and jilts by reading Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Please do shuffle down to tap the ace of ❤️ below.