The Gem of Coney Island: Ruby Jacobs
Ten-year-old Ruby Jacobs ran as fast as his feet would carry him along the surf at Coney Island Beach.
Running after him was a local cop who had busted Ruby for illegally selling 5-cent ice cream fudgie-wudgies. With a big smile on his face, Ruby ran and ran as the Coney Island breeze pounded against his face.
Eventually Ruby got tired, so he ran into the ocean. The cop stood on the beach and said, “I’ll get you when you come out of the water.” But Ruby knew better.
After all, everyone on the beach knew Ruby. He had grown up in the area, and everyone loved him. So when they saw him in trouble, they crowded around the cop, giving the ice cream felon ample time to escape.
“They must have formed a wall 40 deep around that cop,” said Ruby in a 1998 interview. “That cop was locked right in the middle. He was mad like a son of a bitch.”
Seven decades after the incident, Ruby’s love for the surf at Coney Island was as strong as ever. The kindly, generous old man still made time to go down to the beach every morning and feed the pigeons and sea gulls, winter, spring, summer and fall — right up until his death in 2000.
Ruby had retired a successful businessman; he had owned a camera shop in New York City and had run several bathhouses in Coney Island. In 1972, he bought the Hebrew National Deli and Bar on the boardwalk, which had opened in 1934, and turned it into Ruby’s Bar and Restaurant — a legendary Coney Island institution that is still run by his family.
And in that 1998 interview, he showed that his favorite pastime was still to talk about the good old days on the beach he called home.
“It’s an exciting place,” he said. “It was great to grow up in. Once you get the sand between your toes, you can never get it out.”
Ruby grew up in the Coney Island of the 1920s and 1930s, when the neighborhood was mostly Jewish and Italian. During his time at the beach, he got to know future stars, such as Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante. He fondly remembered the way he had met Archibald Leach.
“He used to walk on stilts with a sandwich sign that said ‘Nathan’s Hot Dogs.’ One day he was picked up by a Hollywood scout who renamed him Cary Grant.”
Ruby used to walk the one block from his home on West 25th Street to the beach every day, often beginning and ending his day on its sandy shores.
“My mother used to go to the beach every morning at 6, and I’d go with her,” he said. “Then our favorite pastime was to walk on the boardwalk at night. In those days, there were no problems whatsoever.”
(Did you know that Ruby’s is the only place in Coney Island where you can still walk under the boardwalk? Original boardwalk wood from the 1920s was used to make the tables, the bar, the walls and the ceiling!)
With the 1940s came World War II, and Ruby left Coney Island to take a job at the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Baltimore. He then decided to go to the Norfolk Navy Yard. One night while in transit from Baltimore to Norfolk, a black woman got on the bus. Always the gentleman, Ruby offered her his seat.
The bus came to a dead stop.
“The bus driver screamed at me to get off,” Ruby said. “He stopped this bus in the middle of nowhere and chased me off in the middle of nowhere. At that point, I said the hell with this. I’m going back to Coney Island.”
Ruby did return to Coney Island, but seven months later, in 1942, he was inducted into the Army.
Stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, Ruby, who had the best eyesight in his division, often led his men into battle. He was the high-speed radio operator in a seven-man commando team. When President Harry S. Truman dropped the atom bomb, he saved Ruby’s life, as Ruby would have been the first one on the beach in Osaka, Japan.
Ruby’s company once went on a 25-mile forced hike that had to be completed in six hours and 40 minutes. Of the 1,300 or so soldiers who had started the hike, about only 15 finished, and although Ruby had been carrying four rifles and a 60-pound radio, he finished first. When he got into camp, his colonel asked him how he had done so well.
“I got all my strength from running in the sand at Coney Island,” Ruby had told his commanding officer. “The police used to chase me for selling ice cream.”
Upon his release from the Army in 1946, Ruby returned to Coney Island and married his sweetheart, Sylvia. Four years later, they had their first child, Cindy, and several years after that another child, Melody.
In the late 1950s, Ruby assumed ownership of Claret’s Bathhouse. He also owned the Bushman Baths, Cook’s Bath and Stauch’s Bath, the last bathhouse in Coney Island. Two decades later, he bought the restaurant on the boardwalk that still bears his name.
Ruby’s entire life had been lived on the beach at Coney Island, and everyone at the beach knew “Ruby,” because Ruby was a Coney Island fixture.
“That beach is his life,” his daughter Cindy said in 1998. “It’s such a great place to rest, relax and hang out. Everyone is accepted. It’s the true melting pot.”
Ruby said his reason for spending his entire life at Coney Island was simple.
“Coney Island is the elixir of life. I was interviewed once, and the guy asked me what the best food at my restaurant was. I told him to turn around, face the ocean, take a deep breath. That’s the best food I have.”
— Written by former Ruby’s worker Seth Mates