The Extraordinary Ricky Jay

Chess Automaton in 1783 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Ricky Jay is gone. He left this earth two days ago. Those who knew him, who witnessed his performances, who read his books are the poorer, suspended in disbelief.

This time there’s no resolution. There’s no final illusion like the one that captivated audiences when “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” hit Broadway. There’s nothing like those up-close, unbelievable sleights of hand. Ricky will not be conjuring his way back to us. YouTube will have to suffice.

Ricky revived and breathed life into rare illusions. He also collected posters, diaries, rare books and artifacts having to do with the history of unusual performances. He deeply larded his acts with the past and, convincingly claimed he could travel through time. His commitment to the history of his art and craft led to books (including Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women), lectures (“Splendors of Decaying Celluloid”), documentaries (“Deceptive Practice”) and keynotes (“Illusion as Truth”). He founded the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts.

I was lucky to meet Ricky in the 1980s during his book buying trips to Philadelphia. At Bookbinder’s (on 15th Street in Center City), Ricky, whose hands were never idle, would make oyster crackers, one after the other, disappear from the large carafe. Conversation at the table entirely stopped, not that he meant it to draw attention to himself. We’d ask for more (illusions, not oyster crackers) and he’d pause, then conjure up the precise content of Clarence Wolf’s jacket pocket, somehow “reading” the type on 3-by-5 cards through the tweed. Always practicing, always learning, yet (somehow) never showing off, Ricky would share a newly-acquired illusion. He’d say: “This was a favorite one of the king of Persia in the 8th century.” Of course, you believed him. Why wouldn’t you? And more than that. You believed in him. Ricky commanded attention in ways that required you to suspend mere logic. You always wanted more from Ricky. Because you knew it was the real thing. And that you’d be more surprised than you ever thought possible. When ”Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” returned to Broadway, the venerable New York Times welcomed him back with an editorial: “Ricky Jay Is Back in Town” praising his show. “The impossible is made to happen repeatedly” and yet “the viewer’s sense of impossibility” was somehow still protected.

Ruins of the Chinese Museum, northeast corner of 9th and Samson Streets, 1854. (The Athenaeum of Philadelphia)

Expecting a polite decline, I asked Ricky if he would consider contributing to the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual, published by The Library Company of Philadelphia in late 1993. Much to my delight, he agreed and turned in a scholarly, entertaining, and, of course, esoteric essay. Here is “The Turkish Automaton’s Final Act” by Ricky Jay:

To please the Empress Maria Theresa, the Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, constructed a chess-playing pseudo-automaton in 1769. It appeared as a lifelike, elaborately costumed Turkish mannequin holding a long pipe seated behind a cabinet whose doors were opened to reveal an impressive display of wheels and gears. In performance, the apparatus was wound up, and the Turk commenced to play chess against all comers. He compiled an impressive record of victory, defeating many of the best players in Europe, and clearly articulating the word “échec” as his opponent’s doom seemed inevitable. Attempted explanations and exposes of the mechanism (in truth: a secret, hidden chess expert/operator) did little to deflate its popularity, which was enhanced by matches against such worthies as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.

Von Kempelen occasionally exhibited the machine, always slightly embarrassed at the attention it garnered. Although his system of concealment was exceedingly clever, he felt the hidden human agent belittled his achievements as a serious inventor. After the Baron’s death, musician, inventor, and itinerant showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel purchased the machine. In 1826, Maelzel brought his automaton to America, exhibiting in New York and Boston before making Philadelphia his base of operations.

Although the Turk was a resounding success in its initial Philadelphia appearances, over the years its popularity waned due to a combination of factors. Too often the machine concealed inferior players. Too frequently its secret was revealed (once by a young Edgar Allan Poe). Knock-off versions and over-exposure of the original diminished its novelty.

After Maelzel’s death in 1838, the Turk was stored in a warehouse at the Lombard Street wharf. Two years later, with the machine in a horrible state of disrepair, a group of Philadelphia investors headed by the well-known physician John Kearsley Mitchell (Poe’s personal physician) came forward to purchase it. Mitchell restored the automaton and exhibited it privately. One of the Turk’s hidden directors was Lloyd P. Smith, a young businessman who later became librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Foundations for the Continental Hotel in 1859 on the site of the Chinese Museum, northeast from 9th and Sansom Streets ( Library Company of Philadelphia)

In 1840, the Turk was exhibited at the Franklin Institute (now the building of the Philadelphia History Museum) and thereafter at the Chinese Museum at Ninth near Sansom Streets. Its active career may have been only a few days, but it remained in the museum until July 5, 1854, when a fire that started at the nearby National Theater claimed several adjacent buildings, including the museum that housed the 85-year-old Turk. John Kearsley Mitchell’s son, the dapper novelist and physician S. Weir Mitchell, entered the building before the conflagration made access completely impossible, possibly to rescue a few essential parts of the device, and witnessed a scene that he later delivered as the Turk’s epitaph:

Already the fire was about him. Death found him tranquil. He who had seen Moscow perish knew no fear of fire. We listened with painful anxiety. It might have been a sound from the crackling woodwork or the breaking window-panes, but, certain it is, that we thought we heard, through the struggling flames, and above the din of outside thousands, the last words of our dear departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, ”Échec! Échec!”

[Sources: Mark Singer, “Secrets of the Magus,” The New Yorker, April 5, 1993; Bradley Ewart, Chess: Man versus Machine (A.S. Barnes and Tantivy Press, 1980); George Allen, Proceedings of the First Annual Chess Conference (Philadelphia, 1859); Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual for 1994, edited by Kenneth Finkel (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1993)]

2 replies on “The Extraordinary Ricky Jay”

Right up there with Randi as the greatest magician of our time. He had a supporting role in Boogie nights that was unrelated to magic. He could throw a playing card into a watermelon as if it were a knife, from 25 feet away. RIP to a great one.

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