Strange Fruit

‘Tough Guy’ author Rich Cohen finds another quintessentially American character in United Fruit Company’s Samuel Zemurray.

06/05/2012
Staff Writer
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The author Rich Cohen first heard about Samuel Zemurray in the late-1980s. Cohen was sitting in a sophomore class on American Jewish fiction at Tulane, and the professor gave a lecture about Zemurray, the longtime president of the United Fruit Company, and, in the early 20th century, one of the richest men in America.

“You wouldn’t think that a course on the novel would talk about Zemurray,” Cohen said — after all, Zemurray was real. Cohen, now 43 and his memory a bit foggy, forgets exactly why the professor used Zemurray. But he thinks it probably was because “Zemurray’s the perfect type of character [Saul] Bellow would invent” — ambitious, pushy, capable, bold.

Cohen also added that his professor at Tulane, in New Orleans, where Zemurray lived, “was also a bit of a Zemurray nut — and there’s a lot of people like that.”

Cohen now considers himself one as well. His new book, “The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King,” tells the story of Samuel Zemurray, a poor Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in America broke, in 1891, and went on to become one of its wealthiest and most powerful citizens. 

Zemurray not only amassed a fortune when he sold his own banana company to United Fruit in 1930 — then took over United during the Great Depression, and ran it through the ‘50s. He also wielded immense power in Washington, Latin America and Israel. 

He financed the coup of the Honduran government in 1910, and got the U.S. government to help overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1954 — both of which had disastrous consequences for each country. The Guatemalan coup alone resulted in three-decades-long civil war that resulted in 200,000 deaths.

“Good people often end up doing bad things,” Cohen said. Fully aware of the notorious record American companies — perhaps above all, United Fruit — have had in Latin American, Cohen doesn’t absolve Zemurray of abetting needless death. But he’s measured in his judgments: “You can’t exercise power without f---ing up the lives of a lot of people. And in the context of where he was, he was better than a lot of” other rich and powerful men.

But Zemurray also used his power to save thousands of lives — especially Jewish ones. He convinced the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo to allow in some 5,000 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Europe. He paid for dozens of ships to help Jews in D.P. camps after the war break the British blockade, which barred Jews from entering Palestine. And when the initial vote to create the Jewish state failed at the United Nations in 1948 — but was close enough to allow for a re-vote within 72 hours — Zemurray went to work.

From his mansion in New Orleans (later donated to Tulane, and now the university president’s house), he called several Latin American leaders and got enough of them to switch their votes. “Knowing about the work of Zemurray,” Cohen writes in his book, “certain yes votes that might otherwise seem mysterious — Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama — suddenly makes perfect sense. Behind them, behind the creation of the Jewish state, was the Gringo pushing his cart piled high with stinking bananas.”

Cohen tells this tale in a casual style, stuffed with titillating asides. There are run-ins with J.P. Morgan, the Gilded Age financier whose power Zemurray challenged in Honduras, as well as Huey P. Long, the populist Louisiana governor who viciously attacked the banana-man millionaire.

When it comes to Israel, there’s plenty of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president — “whenever he came to the States, he always visited [Zemurray],” Cohen said. And there’s even a lengthy coda about Che Guevara, whose early career was made supporting the Guatemalan leader, Jacobo Arbenz, who Zemurray — with the CIA’s backing — helped overthrow.

“Zemurray’s life spans two eras, from the Gilded Age to the Cold War,” Cohen said, adding that his story was not only cinematic in sweep but also relatively unknown; Zemurray intentionally kept few personal records, fearing unwanted publicity.

In many ways, Zemurray also typified aspects of American Jewish history, as well as the American Dream. Like many turn-of-the- 20th-century-Jewish immigrants, America offered nothing if not a chance to escape their Jewish pasts: “It was the freedom to stop being Jewish, to be blunt about it,” Cohen said. 

But Cohen explained that that was only outwardly so — ever since Zemurray started making big money, he began donating to Jewish causes, especially Israel, as early as the 1920s. “Being Jewish was at the core of who he was. He could never escape it.”

As for the American Dream, Zemurray was another Horatio Alger, a classic rags-to-riches story. Cohen never turns a blind eye to the destruction his work created, in lost lives above all. But he points out that Zemurray was unlike other American tycoons with hands in foreign countries.

First, he was not a racist, Cohen says, unlike many corporate types who felt their companies had a mission to civilize the native population. And second, “there was no imperialist mentality about him. He stayed down there and lived there,” he continued, noting that Zemurray would spend half the year when he owned his own company in Honduras, and often worked alongside his men.

There was a personal side to Zemurray’s life that Cohen gravitated towards as well. Ever since his first book, “Tough Jews” (1998), about Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, Cohen has been drawn to Jewish figures who seem to defy the post-war American Jewish stereotype. 

“They don’t match the type of Jews I grew up with,” Cohen said, noting that he grew up in a comfortable Chicago suburb, the son of a lawyer.

But in his writing, he’s not interested in those comfortable middle-class Jews, the ones like himself, who were raised in the suburbs and think the world of American privilege — Ivy Leagues and professional degrees, a lawn and a Lexus — are par for the course. “There’s this idea that if you’re Jewish, that’s your destiny — that always bugged me,” he said.

He likes the Jews who had to earn what they got: the strivers, pariahs and fighters, the ones who were kicked and bullied but never took no for answer.

“The progenitors of the suburban Jews are the tough Jews,” said Jonathan Galassi, Cohen’s longtime editor and the publisher and president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is publishing “The Fish that Ate the Whale.” “He’s interested in people that break the mold in some way.”

Nearly all of Cohen’s six previous books feature that type: “The Avengers” (2000) was about Jews who survived the Holocaust and went back to Europe to kill former Nazis; “Record Men” (2005) followed Leonard Chess, a Jewish immigrant to Chicago, who founded the million-dollar record label that discovered Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly and Chuck Berry; and “Sweet and Low” was about his mother’s family, whose patriarch, another poor Jewish immigrant, created the billion-dollar calorie-free sweetener.

But “The Fish that Ate the Whale” grew most directly out of his last book, “Israel Is Real” (2010). It was not a single biography but something of a group portrait of Jews involved with Israel. Epic in sweep, it began with the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 A.D., and followed the evolution of the idea of Zion — a Jewish homeland — from then until now. One chapter focused on Zemurray, a somewhat forgotten figure in the creation of modern Israel, but one who Cohen insists deserves attention.

The reasons — from his early funding of state projects, like building a power plant in Palestine in the 1920s, to escorting Jews in D.P. camps to Israel and getting those Latin American votes — were told (and now re-told, in his new book) in “Israel is Real.” But Cohen felt Zemurray’s story begged for a fuller treatment: “He just jumped out of that book; he was the best thing in it.”

But researching Zemurray’s story was no easy task. He left few personal records, conducting most his business — political, personal and private — over the phone or in person. That in part explains his relative obscurity today, though Cohen was convinced of his importance given all the information he was able to find in other sources. 

When he sold his company to United Fruit, it was on page 1 of The New York Times, heralded as one of the biggest corporate mergers of the time. (It was also The Times that gave Cohen the idea for his book’s title, once describing Zemurray’s relationship to United Fruit as “the fish that ate the whale.”) Everyone from Huey P. Long, Presidents Eisenhower and Truman seemed to have something to say about him. And for the Israel parts, he relied mainly on the published memoirs of former Israeli leaders.

Yet perhaps the richest trove was New Orleans. Cohen made a few trips back to the city and his alma mater, Tulane, talking to older city dwellers who remembered Zemurray. Before he died in 1961, at 84 and with a net worth estimated at $30 million, he left many gifts to the city. He not only built one of the first hospitals for black women in the city, but he also gave millions to Tulane. His house is now the president’s, and several buildings bare his name: “The dorm right next time mine,” Cohen said, “it’s named Zemurray Hall.” 

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