The fruits of his labor

How Sam Zemurray made a fortune in the banana industry, helped Holocaust survivors and contributed to the creation of the State of Israel.

Banana plantations 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Banana plantations 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Rich Cohen’s universe, there seem to be only two types of Jewish men: the fearful and passive ones who are repeatedly trampled upon by a remorseless and anti-Semitic world, and the men who choose to fight back.
Cohen’s new biography, The Fish That Ate the Whale, studies the life and times of Sam Zemurray, known to most as “Sam the Banana Man,” who arrived penniless in 1891 at age 14 from what is known today as Moldova and died 69 years later one of the richest men in the world.
Cohen’s piercing portrait is not glossy; it is a gritty, behind-the-scenes look at how Zemurray was able to do what he did. Some of the most moving passages in this fine book are Cohen’s own meditations about Zemurray; it feels as if he is always trying to understand what drove him.
Zemurray grew up on a wheat farm and when his father died young, Sam decided to set sail for America. Cohen says that by 16 he was mature beyond his years, and imagines him “as hardened as the men in the Walker Evans photos, a tough operator, a dead-end kid, coolly figuring angles: Where’s the play? What’s in it for me? His humor was black, his explanations few. He was driven by the same raw energy that always attracted the most ambitious to America.”
But Sam’s most potent power was his ability to see value where others only saw trash.
Zemurray noticed that when the banana boats docked in Mobile, Alabama they left bananas too ripe for further shipment discarded carelessly on the boat. He offered to buy them. Zemurray loaded his haul on a train headed for his home in Selma, Alabama, where his uncle had a store. He hoped he could make it home in time to sell them. However, the train kept getting delayed and Sam feared his bananas would soon be rotten. A Western Union man suggested he wire the upcoming towns on their route and alert them that fresh, delicious bananas would be available for sale to the local merchants for dirt-cheap prices. It worked brilliantly.
Local sellers lined up and purchased Sam’s bananas right off the train. Sam began running the same train route and was soon selling more than a million bananas a year, making him wealthy by the time he entered his 20s. The owner of United Fruit, Richard Preston, who shipped more than half the bananas in the world, was so impressed with Sam’s ingenuity that he signed an exclusive contract with him, allocating all of his “ripes” to him for a set fee.
But Sam was just getting started.
COHEN IS a beautifully talented and vibrant writer who seems to effortlessly brings his pages to life. His narrative includes wonderful riffs on the history of bananas and how and where they are grown, the development of the banana trade in Latin America under its various corrupt governments, as well as the state of American politics and business during the early 1900s. Cohen is not an ideologue, and this serves him well as a writer and thinker. He is unafraid to share his gut response with the reader, as well as his uncertainties.
There is always the nagging sense that Cohen wishes he could get closer to Zemurray. His research uncovers that Sam was a loner who preferred his own company to idle chatter. He was unusually health-conscious and known to stand on his head for 15 minutes after eating, believing this to aid digestion. There were some who felt he had a chip on his shoulder and resented being excluded by the Protestants and Catholics in America due to his Jewish origin. Others felt he couldn’t care less. Cohen believes Zemurray “was less the sort of man who didn’t care than the sort of man who could make you believe he didn’t care.”
Zemurray quickly began to buy land to begin growing his own bananas. He began in Honduras and extended his reach to several other countries including Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica. He felt superior to his competitors who remained entrenched in New York or Boston and did not possess his hands-on experience.
He spent most of his year living on his plantations amidst his workers and managers and continually strove to create a better and more efficient business. If a government was unfriendly to him, he harnessed the means to replace those in charge with political leaders more accommodating to him. If he could not secure a bank loan, he went through illicit channels.
Cohen sometimes paints Zemurray in a romantic light, as a sort of Jewish cowboy in love with Central America, “where nostalgic Americans could live their dream of western wilderness.”
Soon enough, his company, Cuyamel, had 10,000 workers and was harvesting eight million bunches of bananas that everyone claimed were the tastiest, with the fattest fingers, ever seen. For Sam though, it was still not good enough.
Even the most charmed lives eventually crash against something they can’t manipulate. Sam lost his son, a fighter pilot, during the opening battles of the Second World War. It changed him. He became determined to help create the Israeli state and he used his incredible pull and power in Latin America to change votes that were crucial to the United Nations vote that established the Jewish state. He worked directly with Ze’ev Schind, who took command of the Mossad in 1947, by helping him secure the ships and visas Schind needed to smuggle almost 40,000 Holocaust survivors out of Europe and into Palestine.
He became more interested in building schools and hospitals in the countries where his banana plantations flourished, and offered substantial funds to his hometown Tulane University in New Orleans, where his wife and daughter still lived.
My father, long gone now, was a small manufacturer of ladies’ apparel in New York City’s garment center. He once told me with what sounded like disappointment that no man in America makes it really big without stepping over somebody else. It might just be a small illicit act; perhaps some sort of office sabotage, or something far more sinister.
His words always bothered me, because they rang with truth, and had within them the true story of capitalism and power and what it does to the men who embrace it. Cohen’s terrifically intuitive biographical portrait of Sam Zemurray allows us to take a very close look.

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