Reports say that Sam “the Banana Man” Zemurray bit into his first banana in 1893, although no one actually saw him peel it. But safe to say the simple culinary event changed his life — and the course of history.
Here at last was the perfect fruit, a ready-to-eat slice of tropical heaven — easy to grow and easy to transport. Zemurray, then the teenage son of Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Deep South, saw opportunity in what was, until then, a relatively unknown oddity in the fruit world. His mouth watered at the possibilities.
Over the next seven decades, Zemurray would establish himself as the world’s Banana King and one of America’s most important industrialists, an entrepreneur unafraid to take on whoever stood in his way, even if it meant taking up arms. Indeed, before he died, Zemurray would have a hand in overthrowing at least two Central American regimes. No less iconic figures than Che Guevara and Huey Long considered him their enemy. Each viewed Zemurray as the personification of the wealth-absorbed capitalist, the evil rich guy who needed to be stopped at all costs.
Zemurray was rich, all right, but was more complicated than that, as we learn in Rich Cohen’s eminently readable The Fish That Ate the Whale. Zemurray could be ruthless, yes, but he left a legacy as a philanthropist as well, having quietly supported charities all his life, particularly in New Orleans, where he spent much of his time. Though not particularly religious, he was a key financial banker of the exodus of Jews out of Europe after World War II and the founding of the sovereign state of Israel. Part banana cowboy, part corporate raider, by any measure he lived a successful life in a colorful period of American history, the tail end of Manifest Destiny. Central America in particular would never be the same.
Zemurray spent much of his early years on the docks of Mobile, Ala., where bananas from Jamaica were unloaded by hand onto waiting rail cars. The green bananas were packed for the long trip north, but the freckled, spotted bananas, considered too ripe for travel, were simply discarded. Zemurray bought the “ripes” for a bargain price, then raced them to regional markets in Selma and New Orleans and sold them at a hefty profit. A niche business was born. By the time he was 21 years old, Zemurray had $100,000 in the bank — a fortune back then — and a signed contract with the world’s largest banana supplier, United Fruit.
Not content to be a simple fruit peddler, however, Zemurray set his sights on being a land baron. In Honduras, he voraciously acquired thousands of acres and turned jungles into banana farms, taking advantage of cheap labor from the local residents. When Washington threatened to impose a treaty that would squeeze his profit margins, Zemurray simply put together an army of hired guns and overtook the American-supported sitting president, installing a puppet regime in his place.
The whale in Cohen’s tale is United Fruit, which in the early part of the 1900s dominated agriculture the way Henry Ford dominated the auto industry. In 1930, Zemurray, never timid, decided to confront United Fruit over disputed territory on the isthmus. They battled to a draw, but having two American companies shooting it out in foreign lands made the State Department squirm, and rightly so. Called back to Washington, the two sides were forced into a compromise that saw Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Co. absorbed into United Fruit and left Zemurray relegated to the sidelines as little more than a shareholder. But not for long.