A Tough Banana

This review was first published in the September 24, 2012 issue of The Jerusalem Report. 

You’ll never be able to look at a banana in quite the same way after reading Rich Cohen’s new book. The Fish That Ate the Whale, a biography of Samuel Zemurray, president of the United Fruit Company from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, might also cause that banana to leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

You needed to be tough to achieve what Zemurray did, and he consequently left many victims in the wake of his hard-won ascent from penniless fruit peddler to leader of one of the first and most powerful multinational corporations of the modern era.

Cohen has made a name for himself profiling tough Jews. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and author of seven books, Cohen has written about violent Jewish gangsters in Tough Jews, vengeful World War II partisans in his 2000 work The Avengers, and, more recently, even his own difficult grandfather Ben Eisenstadt, inventor of the sugar packet and the sugar substitute Sweet’N Low, who disinherited Cohen’s mother and her children.

Zemurray, who immigrated to America in 1891 from what is now Moldova at age 14 and saw his first banana two years later among the wares of a peddler in the alley behind his uncle’s dry goods store in Selma, fits in well with Cohen’s gallery of hard-charging members of the tribe.

Cohen tells us that when this awkward yet hardworking and talented businessman with heavily accented English eventually “died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty- nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world.” United Fruit, which Zemurray first battled and later conquered, was at the time, “as ubiquitous as Google and as feared as Halliburton.”

As for the president of the company himself: “Zemurray became the most important man in Central America – he could change the course of history with a phone call — a symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the Ugly America, the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures.”

As a backdrop to Zemurray’s story, Cohen informs us, in his engaging narrative style, of the basics of how bananas are cultivated, harvested, exported. You’ll never again make the mistake of thinking that bananas are fruit that grow on trees. (Banana plants are technically herbs, grown from rhizomes rather than seeds, and the bananas themselves are, oddly enough, classified as berries.) He also explains how the banana business began before Zemurray discovered and became an integral part of it.

Once Zemurray does come on to the scene, the story involves everything from his initial ingenious risk-taking on ripe bananas, to his living and working on the Central American isthmus’s plantations for months and years at a time, to his engineering a takeover of United Fruit’s board. Along the way, Zemurray also uses mercenaries to stage a coup in Honduras and ultimately manipulates the CIA into effecting one in Guatemala (though some would argue that it was the US Government that was actually using United Fruit to achieve its own aims in Central America).

Author Rich Cohen (photo by Pascal Perich)

These adventures alone would hold the reader’s attention, but it is the fact that Zemurray’s path crossed a surprising number of the powerful and the prominent of his day that fascinates the most. There are many examples of this, such as Zemurray’s dealings with Edward Bernays, the inventor of modern public relations, and with key historical figures such as the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara.

But, for Jewish readers, the most astonishing revelation is Zemurray’s role in the establishment and survival of the nascent State of Israel. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that plenty of weapons were smuggled into Israel during the War of Independence in boxes marked “food” or “supplies” shipped from Central America.

Also, those hard-to-explain “yes” votes in favor of the UN Partition Plan in November 1947 by countries like Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador and Panama suddenly make sense once Cohen notes that Zemurray knew Chaim Weizmann personally, and that the statesman gave the businessman an appreciative mention in his memoirs. “Behind them,” Cohen writes of the votes, “behind the creation of the Jewish state, was the Gringo pushing his cart piled high with stinking ripes.”

Weizmann credited Zemurray with treating the peons who worked on his estates fairly. But towards the end of his life, at any rate, the banana king was more realistic, admitting, “I feel guilty about some of the things we did. All we cared about was dividends. Well, we can’t do business that way today.” He did help finance roads, water systems and hospitals later on, but admitted it was too little, too late.

In the end, Cohen takes stock of Zemurray’s legacy. It is a mixed one. He was a great success in the American business world, but “as a leader in Latin America, a man so powerful he became a political factor, his legacy is darker,” Cohen declares. “To me, Sam Zemurray’s life is the true story of the American dream – not only of the success but of the price paid for the ambition that led to that success. By the people of the isthmus, by the men who battled him in the Banana War, and by Zemurray himself… He scaled the heights, but lost so much in the process…”

Cohen suggests that one of the most precious things Zemurray lost in the process was his family’s Jewish identity. “If he had a regret, it might have been that he did not raise his children as Jews,” the author writes. Although not a religiously observant man, Zemurray married a Jewish woman, belonged to a synagogue, said kaddish for his dead relatives and was obviously a Zionist. “And yet he did not teach his children or grandchildren to be Jewish – to marry Jews, raise Jews, worship as Jews, fret as Jews. And none of them did.”

Tough Jews are ambitious, but ambition comes with a price. “Did Sam really think he could get away without paying?” Cohen asks rhetorically as he peels back his subject’s tough skin to expose and examine the bittersweet fruitfulness that lies beneath it.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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