Interview with Ron Decker by Alma Puissegur
The real treasure at The United States Playing Card Company Museum is Ron Decker,
a brilliant and very funny man whose mind must contain far too many overflowing file
drawers of information, but who continues to observe, study and absorb insights about
many interests--tarot, art, people, and life.
I went to meet Ron Decker (the author, with Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett, of A Wicked Pack of Cards) to talk about his book and see what tarot cards and history the museum might contain. The museum is a scant 20 minute drive from my home, but I was directed to go there by a man who lives thousands of miles from Cincinnati, K. Frank Jensen, the editor of Manteia.
The Museum is located within the Playing Card compound, which is comprised of several matching blond brick buildings located in the inner suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio and is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. One large, plain room is furnished with some large tables and several chairs. There is also one smaller storage room, which contains a desk and chair and rows of metal shelves stacked with plastic bins stuffed with cards. The larger room is the display and study area and its walls are hung with mounted decks, pasted and framed, as many as space allows. From time to time, the displays are rotated with pieces from storage.
Almost all of the museum’s collection are playing cards - 2,000 European decks of value and 2,000 American and other decks of value. There are, in addition, well over 4,000 decks which are not particularly valuable, but were acquired just so the holdings would be complete. United States Playing Card's collection began about one hundred years ago and they are the only playing-card manufacturer that still contains such a collection; other companies imitated USPC in beginning collections, but have since transferred their holdings to museums and other public agencies.
Many of the cards on display are glued to the backings, now considered a disappointing way to display and store old paper. There are now devices that permit impermanent mounting for displays which cause no damage, and permit the cards to be taken down and returned for stacking and storage. I asked how the Museum stores its cards for preservation, since they are in the process of re-cataloguing the cards and renovating the storage area. USPC is going to invest in sturdy metal industrial shelving, which they will run lengthwise down the storage room. The current plastic drawer units will be replaced with sturdier, but similar, units. These are not archival but they are searching for archivally-sound “plastic bags” to slip over each individual deck which will then be stacked in the new plastic drawers.
Ron is still trying to build up tarot in the collection, as curators of the collection had previously neglected fortune telling decks. Now, with the understanding that tarot was once played as a card game, he is able to add to these decks. The theme of the collection has always been “playing cards”.
There are some valuable tarot artifacts at the museum however. Hanging on the wall is the Tarot De Besancon that J. Jerger produced in the early 1800s - Juno is the Papess and Jupiter is the Pope.
The most valuable tarot artifact is contained in a book made of thick paper containing manuscripts entirely handwritten in Latin. One of the owners
of the book wrote his own error-free and perfectly aligned index in the front of the
book, also in Latin. The tarot artifact is contained in the book from the collection
of Robert Steele (died 1893) and it the first known written reference to the tarot trumps by name, which is
contained in a sermon written by a Franciscan monk in the 1500's who probably lived
near Ferrara, Italy.
Ron pointed out and read the passage to me, noting that the monk was scolding his congregation about the way they were wasting time. The monk notes that the dots on a pair of die total 21, continuing his harangue about tarot and other gambling games by saying that “the name of the game is the name of a demon so when you announce the game you call up the demon who is bent on destruction.” After specifically naming each of the triumphs, the monk says they are “21 rungs of a symbolic ladder leading straight to hell”.
In addition to A Wicked Pack of Cards (WPC), Ron Decker and Michael Dummett have written a new book, The Tarot Mystique, due out sometime in 2001. The topic is tarot as it evolved and was involved in occult circles in the English-speaking world from 1870-1970. Ron insisted on these dates because, after 1970, the amount of information becomes overwhelming. Since Thierry Depaulis' specialty and contribution to the first volume is his extensive knowledge about the tarot in France, he is not involved in the second volume.
Decker related that Michael Dummett, now Sir Michael, received his knighthood for his work with immigrants and racial equality in England. "Getting a knighthood is no longer kneeling before the queen and getting whacked across the shoulders with a mighty sword," Ron told me; instead, "you get called up to a stage with numerous others and handed your documents; not so romantic," Decker concluded.
As a math-philosopher, Michael Dummett is an exacting partner and the relationship challenged both he and Decker. They corresponded and exchanged drafts, wrote, and re-wrote, according to Ron. Dummett, who is a speedy worker, wanted a daily email on Ron’s progress. At one point, Ron asked Dummett if he wanted Ron to write the book or write email about writing the book. The process was evidently cumbersome and was made more so by the long distances between them.
Decker and Dummett disagree on symbolism in the tarot cards. Ron believes that the Renaissance holds the key to the symbolism and Dummett’s earlier stance was that there was no deliberate Renaissance symbolism. Dummett also argued that as a deck of cards the tarot had no coherent unified symbolism; Ron Decker disagrees and also believes that there is an occult significance to the cards historically. Dummett is ever the mathematician and believes only what can be logically deduced. But Decker has gotten Dummett to agree that there are secret messages in the physical design and structure of cathedrals and in manuscripts, so why would they not exist in cards?
Ron wanted to make reasonable hypotheses but Michael Dummett wanted everything proven to the last detail. The final product, Ron Decker believes, will be well-refined and of high quality.
And Ron Decker told me that Michael Dummett created the book's title (The Tarot Mystique). Ron said that, to his amazement, Michael Dummett, “the most rational man in the universe immersed in logic and linguistics,” came up with the title after a conversation the two had about the direction and purpose of the book, and the proposed approach to research. According to Decker, "Dummett relaxed his early insistence on clear proof and admitted we will never know what we find till we find it”
I asked Ron to tell me about interesting people the two authors had spoken to in preparing and writing the book. He immediately mentioned Eden Gray, the late author of three books that Ron considers the standard tarot books read in the 1960's. Ron was determined to give her due credit in The Tarot Mystique. He believes that she almost single-handedly kept the topic alive among the hippies, who then did a lot to increase the popularity of tarot in the United States.
Her publisher claimed not to know her whereabouts, so Decker used “First Search” on the web, finding her name in conjunction with the process of marbling fabric (a type of painting/manipulation). He wasn’t sure if it was the Eden Gray of Tarot fame. He later learned that it was the Eden Gray, collaborating with her grandson, Daniel Cohen, and his wife, Paula. Eden Gray had taught them the process, and they all had written a book about it.
Ron Decker wrote to her son’s publisher. The Cohens were very helpful and called him, and he soon learned that Eden Gray was “very much alive in Vero Beach, Florida.” At the time, she was 93 years old.
When Ron called, she told him the only thing to be done was for him to come to Florida and interview her. She graciously invited him to stay at her home, which he did for four days. According to Decker, "She talked nonstop. She was very levelheaded and no-nonsense and spoke without affectation."
Decker did feel, however, that she had almost rehearsed what she had to say and had been
waiting for her opportunity to tell her story.
At one point, she brought out her cards, handed them to him and asked him to read her fortune. She wanted to know if she would live to be 100. Decker remembered the cards as all being negative, primarily swords and including the nine of that suit. Gray dismissed the reading and blamed it diplomatically on the reaction to a frivolous question. But her question had not been frivolous--she died before reaching her centennial.
Decker sent the final draft to Gray (and to
other contributors for
their corrections and approval). Most authors with whom Ron Decker talked or corresponded were
helpful, he said, allowing him to communicate with most them directly. In some cases,
the author of a primary source was dead, but their heirs or friends would try to help validate information
and facts. Among the people with whom he was able to talk or correspond were Robert
Gilbert, an historian of Freemasonry and the early Golden Dawn; Dr. Dorothy Wissler,
an officer of the Church of Light; J. Augustus Knapp’s granddaughter, Marjorie
Hall’s widow; Dr. Stephan Hoeller, a close friend of Manly Hall; Reverend Helen Blighton,
wife of Reverend Earl Blighton, who promoted her “Science of Man” Church after the virtual
collapse of “Holy Order of MANS”; Professor Phillip Lucas, who wrote a history of the Holy
Order of MANS; Linda Falorio, who designed the Shadow Tarot; and Paul
Huson, author of The Devil’s Picturebook; Robert Word, an archivist of The
August Order of the Mystic Rose; Professor Moshe Idel, a foremost historian of Cabala;
K. Frank Jensen, editor of Manteia; and Kenneth Grant, a disciple of Aleister Crowley.
I asked Decker how he and Michael Dummett met. The story is rather droll. Decker told me that they both belonged to the International Playing Card Society, founded by Sylvia Mann, who inherited an enormous collection of cards and wanted to found a organization dedicated to the promotion and study of cards as a serious part of social history. Ron wrote (and writes) for the Society's journal; Dummett despised Decker's pieces and would respond with scathing arguments that were published in the following issue.
In 1977, Ron was invited to Hove, England, to talk to the International Playing Card Society convention. People thought there would be an explosion when Dummett and he finally met face-to-face. Michael Dummett approached him at lunch while the entire room held its breath; the men realized that everyone there was staring at them. But Dummett and Ron Decker had a congenial lunch together and agreed to talk over their differences.
That morning, Ron Decker had talked about the tarot as a "Soul Journey." After lunch, he talked about the tarot and astrological connections. Michael Dummett began to allow that there “might be something in it.” Following that meeting, the two began to correspond about card and tarot history.
Michael Dummett had begun to write a book with Michael Laycock who died long before it was completed. When asked, Ron Decker agreed to take his place, as long as the symbolism of the cards was included. That topic is notably absent from the final version of WPC. Thierry Depaulis' involvement came about because he had studied the manuscripts in France. Decker noted that Depaulis "really fleshed out" the French resource material.
Ron Decker’s serious interest is in the history of the symbology of the tarot, a topic that is not included in either of the two books he has authored so far. The decision to not include this topic was made, very reluctantly on Decker's part, because of a concern that any discussion of it “will get lost in the world of occultism”. Ron believes that almost all of the occult beliefs about the tarot are correct, but skewed. He says that, with this assertion, he will offend the historians who think tarot is nothing but a game.
Decker believes the following: the intuition of non-historians is correct: numbers mean something, astrological symbols and indicators mean something on the psychological level--the psyche moving through growth through vices and virtues--and also on the alchemical level. Decker is particularly interested in finding the particular written mystical texts he thinks the decks are illustrating.
He doesn’t believe the cards themselves go back to Egypt, but that the actual theories that the cards illustrate do come from there. Decker doesn't think that the Cabala is part of the original design, but says the ideas are quite similar: "There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet that were considered mystical. Christians knew this was important to the Jews and just that limited knowledge was enough to contribute to the number of triumphs."
He thinks the designer of the “original deck” was trying to create the idea of Egyptian hieroglyphs because it was believed that the hieroglyphics were more than mere language, and that they also had hidden truths and double meanings. One meaning was contained in everyday language and words that the ordinary reader could understand, and then the second, hidden meaning existed that was only known to the "initiated" reader.
Ron went on to explain that theologians once were able to interpret certain biblical passages on four levels: historical, moral, spiritual, and mystical. "If the Bible can clearly be read that way, why not another medium? Why not the tarot cards?"
Ron is also an artist by education and ongoing practice. He received a
BS in liberal
arts at the State University of New York, College at Buffalo (1965), and
certificate and an MA in painting at the University of Cincinnati
(1967), where he
assisted the chairman of the art history department. Ron subsequently
paintings and taught studio art, art education, and art history.
In 1970, Ron encounted the Tarot de Marseille and, became so fascinated with the truth behind its origins and imagery that he, with his wife, Charlotte, consulted major collections of cards in New York, New Haven, London, Paris, Milan, Venice, and Vitoria, Spain. Ron intends to write a book on the Tarot de Marseille; he believes that the original symbolism remains to be reconstructed with due respect for the historical evidence and the traditions of Western mysticism.
We have a wonderful opportunity to meet Ron Decker and hear him present his lecture on the Knapp/Hall Tarot at the International Tarot Society 2001 Congress in Chicago in September. Ron has chosen to discuss "The New Art Tarot," as it was called when it was designed and executed in 1929, by J. Augustus Knapp at the age of 76. Knapp was advised by Manly P. Hall, the founder and president of The Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. Hall generally receives greater credit for the design of the tarot, but Knapp himself was quite familiar with the ideas upon which the artwork is based and he wrote the booklet that accompanies the deck. Ron is increasingly convinced that all of the creativity and work was done by Knapp. Until now, no one has explained this deck's symbols or underlying themes, which Ron traces to Pythagoreanism, Cabalism, and Theosophy as published by Christian, Falconnier, Papus, and Wirth. Ron will discuss Knapp’s models, the meanings of his major arcana, and his surprising debt to certain American mystics.
Ron Decker can be reached by email. He loves to talk about tarot; to my shock, he told me I was the first person to walk into the Museum and raise the topic with him.
According to our last notice from Ron, The Tarot Mystique will probably appear under another title as yet to be determined by his editor.
Click here to read in length about Augustus Knapp and the differing versions of the Knapp-Hall deck.
Interview © 2001 Alma Puissegur
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes