In “The Fish That Ate the Whale’’ Rich Cohen sketches a lively and entertaining portrait of Samuel Zemurray, a banana importer and entrepreneur who rose from immigrant roots to take the helm of the storied United Fruit Co., among other accomplishments. Cohen’s biography also explores the uneasy relationship between American expansionism and capitalism in the first half of the 20th century, tracing decades of US foreign policy gone awry in Central America and the American tycoons who influenced that policy.
Born in 1877 in Moldavia, Zemurray arrived in America in 1892 and went to work in his uncle’s dry goods store in Selma, Ala. The South was a relatively hospitable environment for Jews then, and many immigrants set up businesses in cities like Mobile, Ala., New Orleans, and Atlanta.
Zemurray was a peddler who moved everything from hogs to fruit, ultimately attaching his destiny to the banana. A couple of years after his arrival he arranged to meet the fruit boats coming into the Gulf of Mexico from Central America in Mobile to secure his own supply of bananas to sell in Selma.
Most of those boats belonged to the Boston Fruit Co., the world’s largest banana importer. The staid Federal Street firm was a precursor to the fabled and oft-despised United Fruit Co., established at the cusp of the 20th century. United, one of the first global business concerns, would become emblematic of American expansionist policies, fully supported in foreign ventures by the US military.
Zemurray’s early success stemmed from his business acumen and immigrant work ethic. He focused his business on the ripes — bananas thought to be past their expiration date and often dumped at port. Zemurray would buy the fruit at bargain prices, then coax Western Union operators at the Mobile train station to wire ahead to fruit peddlers down the line that ripe bananas would be passing through their towns at discounted prices.
By 1905, Zemurray followed the banana import action and moved to New Orleans where he established the Cayumel Fruit Co. He also forged a new model of the chief executive. Where the patrician officers of the United Fruit counted their earnings in Boston, Zemurray was on the ground in Latin America. He spent much of his time in Honduras finessing his image as the banana man who crossed the country by mule. In billowing khakis and a pith helmet, he cleared fields with a machete, drank with workers, planted banana trees, and brought innovations that improved yield and produced fatter fruit.
Zemurray also kept Central American dictators in his hip pocket. When the Honduran government tried to impose taxes on Cayumel’s land, Zemurray engineered a regime change in 1911 that shook up the State Department.
As the upstart company’s fortunes rose, United Fruit fixed its sights on Cayumel. The rivals jockeyed for power in the 1920s and the much smaller but better-run Cayumel locked in a “banana war’’ with United in Honduras. By 1928, “what began as a corporate rivalry had turned into a open conflict, with soldiers in the field and ships on the sea.’’ Both sides sought an end to the fight. Two months after the 1929 stock market crash, United Fruit and Cayumel merged, with the smaller firm becoming a unit of the larger parent. By 1933, with the company on the brink of financial disaster, Zemurray collected enough proxy votes from board members to install himself as the head of United Fruit, where he would remain until 1948.
But Zemurray’s story doesn’t end with this corporate coup. Cohen unfurls a rich, colorful history of a man who championed the establishment of the State of Israel by providing arms and ships to the Irgun, the nascent underground army. He gave muscle and capital to Eisenhower’s decision to stage Operation PBSuccess, a CIA coup against Jacobo Arbenz’s teetering democracy in Guatemala in 1954.
Sam Zemurray may have garnered his power as a vaquero, a cowboy, on the wild frontier of the isthmus, but how does he ultimately fit into history? Was he a conquistador, pirate, explorer, tycoon, or a man of the people? Cohen’s textured history shows that Zemurray played all of these roles, making him the ultimate Zelig-like character of the 20th century.Judy Bolton-Fasman blogs at www.thejudychronicles.com.