The Fish That Ate the Whale:
The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
By Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 288 pages
The banana tycoon Samuel Zemurray is an attractive and difficult subject for biography. Attractive, because his life is a biographer’s playground: He ran the United Fruit Company for two decades, from 1933 to 1954, was an irrepressible meddler in world affairs, and came to be numbered among the American South’s most notable philanthropists. Difficult, because there are few clear accounts of Zemurray’s adventures, as he meticulously cultivated his privacy, as Rich Cohen writes in The Fish That Ate the Whale. And yet in this, the first full-length biography of Zemurray, Cohen builds a remarkable story from a life half lived in the shadows.
Schmuel Zmurri was born in 1877 in Bessarabia, modern-day Moldova, and emigrated to the United States at age 14. In 1893, he visited Mobile, Alabama, where the teenager spied his first opportunity in the banana trade. Watching the big ships of the Boston Fruit Company deliver banana shipments from the Caribbean islands, Zemurray noted that ripened stems, some 15 percent of a ship’s cargo, were discarded upon arrival. He invested his savings of $150 on several thousand “ripes” and reserved space on a boxcar headed north. Telegraphing ahead to towns along the way, Zemurray sold his bananas straight from the door and in six days netted $35. By age 21, he had made $100,000, selling over a million bananas a year. Zemurray expanded his trade to unripe bananas (“greens”), bought a plot of land in Honduras, and acquired a small steamship company.
Starting in 1910, Zemurray focused his efforts on growing bananas abroad. He spent most of each year working his plantations in Honduras, speaking a Russian-inflected “Dog Spanish.” “He was deep in the muck, sweat-covered, swinging a blade,” Cohen writes of Zemurray’s hands-on approach to entrepreneurialism. “He helped map the plantations, plant the rhizomes, clear the weeds, lay the track.”
Zemurray operated his Cuyamel Fruit Company with few government encumbrances, having negotiated directly with Honduran President Miguel Dávila. But global events soon threatened the viability of the enterprise. Honduras carried a heavy foreign-debt burden, and U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox feared European powers would interfere in the Americas under the pretense of collection. Knox brokered a deal with J.P. Morgan to buy and refinance Honduras’s debt; Morgan’s men were stationed in Honduran customs houses to collect import duties.
For Zemurray, this was a disaster, for complex reasons, and he launched a lobbying campaign in Washington. When Knox found out about it he summoned the 32-year-old immigrant, told him not to interfere, and put a Secret Service tail on him in New Orleans. So Zemurray did what he felt the situation demanded: He sponsored a coup in Latin America.
Those who complain of the disproportionate influence of today’s capitalists on world affairs might gain some perspective from reading about Zemurray. Teaming up with former Honduran President Manuel Bonilla and American mercenary Lee Christmas, he assembled a ragtag gang of armed men and stockpiled supplies. On December 29, 1910, the makeshift naval force took the coastal Honduran island of Roatan. A month later, Christmas led a daring raid on the coastal city of La Ceiba. Soon, Zemurray’s men controlled all chief ports. Railing in anger at the “substitute president” who was “an agent of an American fruit trust,” Dávila surrendered on February 9, 1911.
The coup born of unalloyed and reckless self-interest proved to be an unexpected step forward for democracy. Bonilla insisted on being properly elected. Hondurans had hated the Dávila-Morgan treaty, and so the revolution was unexpectedly popular. Zemurray’s company continued to grow, and, in 1930, the United Fruit Company bought the Cuyamel company for $30 million. Zemurray’s retirement lasted about three years. United Fruit’s profits had fallen by more than 80 percent; its stock price had lost 90 percent of its value; and as the company’s largest stockholder, Zemurray was eating those losses. He traveled to Central America and found management in total disarray. When the company’s board ignored his assessment, he traveled the country, meeting with stockholders and secretly obtaining the proxy votes he needed to take the reins from United Fruit. At a board meeting in 1933, Zemurray dumped out his bag full of proxy vote documents and announced: “You gentlemen have been f—king up this business long enough. I’m going to straighten it out.” It was one of the great takeovers in U.S. corporate history. The man who had spent decades competing with United Fruit now ran it. “Though Zemurray would stay at the helm for another 20 years, United Fruit was saved in his first 60 days,” Cohen writes.
Cohen never suggests, as others have, that Zemurray’s devotion to charitable and political causes were in some way meant as atonement for the early-career coup in Central America. He gave quietly but generously to Tulane University and to other institutions in New Orleans and Central America, and he took a particular charitable interest in Israel, which Cohen explores in depth. After a 1922 meeting with Chaim Weizmann, in which the future Israeli president convinced him of the importance of the Zionist cause, he donated more than a million dollars to Jewish settlement and infrastructure in Palestine. In 1945, Zemurray was spurred to further action by the death of his son, Sam Jr., in World War II and the revelation of the extent of the Shoah. But as the head of the United Fruit Company, he would have to make his international scheming against the British in Palestine even more clandestine. “I cannot help you. Not openly,” he told a Zionist operative. “Nearly half of United Fruit’s ships fly the British flag and much of our business is done there. A British company cannot run the British blockade. But I will send you to a man who will help.” Strings were pulled, ships purchased, money made available, and papers issued. Zemurray made possible the exodus of 37,000 European Jews to Palestine between 1946 and 1948.
In 1947, as a second, decisive UN General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine loomed, Zemurray worked his phone, wheeling and dealing with Latin American countries where he did business, securing otherwise mysterious “yes” votes from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua. “Behind the creation of the Jewish state,” Cohen writes, “was the Gringo pushing his cart piled high with stinking ripes.” And when the Arab states greeted Israel’s independence six months later with an invasion, Zemurray sent shipments of weapons and materiel to Tel Aviv hidden in boxes marked “Food” and shielded by strategic bribes.
Zemurray retired for good in 1951. The world had changed, and El Pulpo’s reputation in Central America was dismal. United Fruit lost market share, falling to second place behind Standard Fruit (now Dole) by the time Zemurray died in 1961. Repeatedly sold and acquired in the 1960s and 70s, and renamed Chiquita after its best-known brand, United Fruit never regained the prominence that Zemurray gave it. Perhaps that’s because it was a prominence the man did not expend energy seeking for himself. Rich Cohen has given us a terrific slice of Americana—and in so doing has conferred upon Zemurray a measure of the renown from which he hid.