As part of my ongoing affiliation with PubShelf, I have been given the title ‘Honest Sid’ by Ronald Probstein to read and review for my blog.
‘Honest Sid’ is the memoir of Sid Probstein, a happy-go-lucky chancer in Depression-era New York, told through the eyes of his son, Ronald (now a professor at MIT). The book begins with the rather humorous scene of Sid, his wife Sally, and young Ronald having to scarper from their current home through an outside fire escape after failing to pay their rent.
And herein lies the basic premise for the book as we see the type of up and down existence that Sid subjected his loving wife and son to. From the way the author writes his view of his father, it is clear to see that Sid was both a loving husband and dedicated father but that his love of chasing dreams and the ‘next big thing’ often put his family and their quality of life in jeopardy.
Sid Probstein, born November 7th 1894 and one of twelve children, was, in his younger years, a promising baseball player. Although naturally intelligent, Sid dropped out of school at the age of seventeen in order to chase his dreams of having a career in baseball. A gifted pitcher, Sid had a weakness for gambling on horse races, so much so that during his stint playing baseball for a semi-pro team in Texas he got in so deep with loan sharks that he had been forced to throw a game in order to pay off his mounting debts.
Sid was soon found out and summarily fired from the team, thus ending his baseball career before it ever really started. Yet Sid maintained a love for the game, even when he returned to New York, and soon turned his hand to scalping tickets to the big games as well as booking acts for the booming vaudeville scene on Broadway.
For a time, things seem promising for Sid Probstein, making an honest living through ‘dishonest means’, scalping tickets and generating enough profit along the way to keep his small-time operation going. In 1917 Sid enlisted for the United States Army, playing his part in the victorious Allied defence of Europe, earning a reputation for himself as a good and honest man, although rather a card shark when it came to his military buddies.
Although Sid never tells Ronald much about his time in the Army, his son gets the impression that his father saw much more than he ever let on to those around him and instead hid the horrors behind his eternally cheerful disposition. Throughout the book, even when times are at their toughest, it seems to be Sid’s optimism and ability to always look at the brighter side of life that pulls him through many of the tribulations he endured.
In 1925 Sid meets Sally, a woman who captures his heart and who he marries in 1927, with their son Ronald being born the following year. Again, things go well for Sid and his family for a time until Wall Street crashes and the Depression descends on New York, killing off many of the avenues that Sid exploited in order to generate the money needed to support his wife and child.
The main theme running through this book is Sid’s repeated attempts to make a living for himself by some less than honest means. Ronald paints a picture of his father as a man who would never be happy in a ‘9 to 5’ kind of job and that he was happiest being his own boss and master of his own destiny. Yet that kind of vocational freedom came at a cost, when things went well and profits were high Sid and his family were able to live a comfortable life, but when things went wrong it was Sid who took the hits and subsequent losses which at times had far-reaching consequences for his family.
Honest Sid is the tale of a man who seemed to know anyone who was anyone in Depression-era New York, from boxers to bettors, gangsters and loan sharks. Many people knew Sid Probstein with few ever having a bad word to say about him. Sid was the original good looking charmer who used his affability and approachability to his advantage, knowing that he could charm his way in or out of most situations, never losing his cool even when things seemed bleak or hopeless.
I read this book quickly and that is a testament to how much I enjoyed it. Ronald Probstein paints the picture of a man who he clearly holds a great deal of affection and respect for, yet the book does not spill over into sentimentality about his father’s escapades. The author shows Sid to be a good man but not one without his faults.
Sid’s lifestyle was often at odds with the kind of life his wife Sally wanted for their family, causing numerous arguments between them, many of which Ronald was subjected to. The family also had to move home dozens of times when Ronald was growing up due to his father’s fluctuating successes when it came to making his living. One gets a sense that this constant changing of scenery and bearing witness to his parent’s constant arguing affected the young boy who was stuck in the middle of it all.
I confess that I probably enjoyed this book so much because I am a sucker for anything on the subject of New York; to learn more about the Depression and Prohibition era was a chance that I could not pass up. The author excels in creating an exciting and vibrant Broadway scene while peppering the book with mentions of some of the more colourful characters of the time.
That is perhaps how I would sum up this book: full of character. The book is packed with interesting stories, anecdotes, people and places, and the author takes full advantage of each of them, helping to take the reader on an enjoyable journey back in time, ensuring that the characters of such a formative era of New York City live on forever through this charming and engaging book.
Amazon Profile of Ronald Probstein:
One of America’s foremost engineering scientists, Ronald Probstein is Ford Professor of Engineering, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His undergraduate training was at New York University’s night school and his graduate work in aeronautical engineering and physics at Princeton. He has played a principal role in some of the most important scientific and technical achievements in the post World War II era, involving spacecraft and ballistic missile reentry physics, hypersonic flight theory, comet astrophysics, desalination, synthetic fuels, and the electrokinetic remediation of soil. For these achievements, he has been honored as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, International Academy of Astronautics, and awarded an honorary doctorate from Brown University. Author, editor, lecturer, inventor, Professor Probstein has ten critically acclaimed scientific and technical books to his credit. Born in New York City in 1928, he lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife, Irène. He has one son, Sidney, and three grandchildren.