Ricky Jay, the extraordinary magician who died in late November, was not just a master of illusion, but also a scholar, historian and investigator of all manner of prestidigitation, the author of several books on the subject — some specialized, others popular entertainment — including “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” a bizarre history of sword-swallowers and mind-readers, and a biography of Matthias Buchinger, a 29-inch-tall performer from Nuremberg who, among other things, fathered 14 children. In professional circles, Jay was best known for his close-up work: magic done at a table, across from a single observer.
I had experienced a modified version of this in 1994, at the play “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants,” an Off-Broadway show during which he did two hours of astounding card tricks while seated at a table in a very small theater. I met him 15 years later at a book party for a mutual friend. We chatted about his acting work with the director Paul Thomas Anderson in both “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” Jay liked P.T., but not as much as he liked David Mamet, who had directed him in the play I had seen, as well as the film “State and Main.” Then I asked Jay about “The Prestige,” which had come out three years before the party. It’s my favorite Christopher Nolan film, an intimate and intricately plotted story about a pair of dueling magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christopher Bale), both initially apprenticed to an older magician (Jay, who taught the two some basic tricks), but who become arch competitors after a horrible mishap, always trying to publicly debunk each other’s illusions, with the Jackman character ultimately turning to Nikola Tesla (wonderfully played by the late David Bowie) to help create a magic prop of epic, and ethically dubious, proportion.
Jay explained that The Prestige is the payoff, the third act of any magic trick. First comes The Pledge: The magician shows you something relatively ordinary, like a dove. Second is The Turn: The magician takes the dove and makes it do something extraordinary, like disappear. Finally, there’s The Prestige: The magician tops that disappearance and makes the dove reappear.
“Magic is all about structure,” Jay said. “You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding.”
At the mention of astounding, I recounted to Jay a close-up trick performed in 1984 by the late magician Doug Henning, at the time sitting across from me at a table in Los Angeles’ Magic Castle, a private club for magicians. Both Jay and Henning had studied with Dai Vernon, the magician who founded the club. I was working on a profile of Henning for The Washington Post just as he was about to open a magic show on Broadway. He had encouraged me to meet him in a small parlor at the Castle to show me a trick he said he’d been perfecting for many years, albeit one that wouldn’t work at all on stage.
Sitting on the table were a knitting needle, a small bowl, an egg, a knife, a lemon, an orange and a grapefruit. The Pledge: Henning took a small red kerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. While I was examining that very ordinary piece of cloth, he punctured both ends of the egg with the needle and blew its contents into the bowl. Then he took the kerchief from me and used the knitting needle to stuff it into the eggshell. He put the egg down on the table, cut an X into one end of the lemon and inserted the egg into the lemon — something in itself impressive. He put the lemon down, cut an X into one end of the orange and inserted the lemon into the orange. You know where this is going: He put the orange down, cut an X into one side of the grapefruit and inserted the orange into the grapefruit.
The Turn: Henning handed me the grapefruit, which now appeared intact. This seemed extraordinary to my neophyte eyes, even forgetting that the kerchief, the egg, the lemon and the orange had all disappeared. But, of course, there had to be a third act: Henning handed me the knife and asked me to slice open the grapefruit.
The Prestige: When I halved the grapefruit, two butterflies flew out, holding the red kerchief between them! He had certainly gone from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the truly astounding.
“There’s no way you could have seen that trick,” Jay said with certainty, now wearing his scholar’s cap.
“But I absolutely did,” I replied. “I made notes. I wrote about it at the time. Are you telling me that trick was impossible to perform?”
“Not quite,” said Jay. “That happens to be the most famous illusion ever created by Harry Houdini. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how he did it. I know Doug spent a lot of time studying Houdini, even wrote a book about him, and he certainly perfected the Water Torture Escape,” in which the magician is lowered headfirst into what is essentially a gigantic fish tank, with his ankles manacled, and then gets out — a routine that triggers a tragic and important plot point in “The Prestige.” But, said Jay, “if Doug had figured out the Houdini Butterfly Illusion, every serious magician would have known he had done that.”
“I’m absolutely sure I saw that trick,” I repeated to Jay.
“I’m sure you believe that,” Jay said. “There’s something wonderfully odd about magic. It’s the most misremembered of phenomena. I know, because I’ve studied this particular anomaly quite seriously.”
“But how would I even have known about the trick?” I asked. “I’m certainly not a student of magic. All I know about Houdini is that he died on Halloween.”
“If I had to guess,” Jay said, “I’d probably postulate that Doug either told you about the illusion or possibly suggested to you that you had seen him perform it.”
As I realized Jay didn’t believe I had seen what I, in fact, believed I had seen, I tried to temper my humiliation: “Give me a break,” I said.
“These are illusions,” Jay said. “How can you be certain you saw an illusion?”