The American Jewish magician Ricky Jay, who died on November 24 at age 72, achieved an unusual conjuring trick while still in his teens; he managed to make his parents disappear from his life. Born Richard Jay Potash in Brooklyn and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jay had parents ill-suited to the sort of obsessive, imaginative, erudite, and talented performer and writer he would grow up to be. He stated in the biographical documentary film “Deceptive Practice” (2012) that the “only kind memory” he retained of his parents, Samuel Potash and Shirley Katz, were from the time of his bar mitzvah. They asked what entertainment he would prefer for his bar mitzvah party. He requested Al Flosso, a Jewish magician born Albert Levinson, who headlined at Grossinger’s and other Catskills resorts.
Jay’s parents generally discouraged all of their son’s obsessive enthusiasms, whether for magic, playing the accordion, or practicing basketball. Undaunted, he developed skills in sleight of hand early on, as he would tell the “Los Angeles Times” in 1994. Around the time of his bar mitzvah, Jay had an opportunity to audition for the Ed Sullivan Show, a leading TV variety program. Noting that the show appeared to prefer South American performers over Jewish boys from Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jay decided to feign a Spanish accent and ask for an interpreter. His parents rejected this strategy and he never auditioned. It is unclear whether they disapproved of his planned denial of identity or just missed the point that magic, like most entertainment, is rooted in deception.
Fortunately, Jay found an ally in Max Katz, his maternal grandfather, an accountant and devoted amateur magician. Jay told “The New Yorker” in 1993 that his grandfather was also an “amateur acquisitor of skill and knowledge… He was interested in a lot of things—pool, chess, checkers, calligraphy, cryptography, origami, magic.” Katz introduced Jay to magicians whom he knew personally, including Al Flosso, and set a pattern for the young man to seek instruction from living legends in the field. Even magicians whom he could not meet, some of them Jewish, were sources of inspiration, including Nate Leipzig (1873-1939) born Nathan Leipziger, and Max Malini (born Max Katz Breit; 1873-1942)
His grandfather’s exuberance and bonhomie may have likewise motivated comic patter in his act years later, delivered in orotund phrases like those of the comedian W.C. Fields. With a husky frame and long hair evoking Jewish rockers of the 1970s, Jay would throw playing cards with surprising vehemence and velocity, noting that “old people” who “like to play gin rummy” might use his technique as a form of self-defense. Whether these oldsters might include Jewish retirees in Florida was left to the audience’s imagination. Jay would wryly refer to a deck of cards as “how I defend myself,” implying a certain personal vulnerability. For Jay, mastery in sleight of hand may have disarmed potential hostility from onlookers.
His disheveled 70s rocker gone-to-seed appearance in his early years was more than coincidental. For years, Jay served as opening act for such groups as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and long maintained an interest in popular music. In 2001, he appeared in the music video for Bob Dylan’s song “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” from the album “Love and Theft.” He performed on two compilation CDs of sea shanties and in 2007 compiled a box set of songs by others about the game of poker.
Jay also indulged a scholarly inclination left unsatisfied by previous university-level studies, which he finally abandoned without earning a bachelor’s degree. He would eventually produce nearly a dozen books stirred by his intense bibliophilia. They included studies on dice and posters announcing unusual spectacles from his own vast collection, His historical interests were not limited to magicians. They extended to odd performers of many different kinds, described in such books as “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” (1986); and “Celebrations of Curious Characters” (2011), as well as “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies” (2001).
His most erudite book was one of his last, accompanying an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2016 honoring Matthias Buchinger, a disabled dwarf who lived three centuries ago. Buchinger managed to create tiny illustrations despite having been born without hands or feet. With unlimited admiration for those who conquer physical challenges, Jay devoted vast amounts of time, even years, to perfecting an illusion. Beyond digital ability honed by practice sessions, Jay added an appetite for erudition and a predilection for ornate speechifying. A Shakespeare buff, Jay appeared in a staging of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1982, produced by Joseph Papp for The New York Shakespeare Festival. Incarnating Philostrate, master of revels, Jay stole the show with card tricks and intentionally awkward juggling.
Jay also had a reputation among friends and colleagues as a fierce idealist who suffered fools not at all. “Ricky Jay Trapped in an Elevator with Two Stupid Girls,” a sketch for the comedy website Funny or Die from 2010, expresses this aspect of his personality, with more than a hint of misogyny. Two young women insist that he perform a trick to entertain them, and he repeatedly replies, “I would prefer not to,” echoing the mysterious retort of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. When they persist, he finally makes them disappear, indicating a sort of punitive wrath latent, if rarely seen, in some magic displays.
Jay’s capacity for projecting ominous vibes was exploited when he was cast as a villain in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” He played Henry Gupta, an American “techno-terrorist” working for a psychopathic media mogul. In David Mamet’s film “Homicide,” (1991) Jay also portrayed a character billed as “Aaron, an Israeli terrorist.” Mamet, who would praise Jay for his devotion to study and practice, also hired him to appear in other films he wrote and directed, notably “House of Games,” in which he was a menacing professional gambler. Despite these and other baddie roles, Ricky Jay leaves a legacy of widespread affection from those who admired and appreciated his unique combination of abilities. Ultimately, his nay-saying parents might have been proud of Richard Jay Potash.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.