June 2012

Big banana business

By Rich Cohen
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According to author Rich Cohen, a corporation “tends to have a life span, tends to age and die.” Remember United Fruit, which at one point controlled 70 percent of America’s banana market? It was the U.S. Steel of easily bruised produce.

The man behind its success was Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who turned $150 worth of bananas into a $30 million fortune. He was one of the most powerful men in America, the embodiment of immigrant industriousness. Zemurray has since fallen into irrelevance, but in The Fish That Ate the Whale, Cohen resurrects the memory of America’s Banana King in a rollicking, colorful tale that proceeds with a spy novel’s pace. You swallow the prose in big, greedy gulps.

That partly has to do with Zemurray’s life, a mixture of hustle, power and philanthropy. His hands-on approach—he planted banana fields in Honduras, he loved the rhythms of the docks—helped turn his company into a model of efficiency.

When shifts in government policy in Honduras and Guatemala threatened United Fruit, Zemurray helped stage government overthrows. But he also donated to Tulane University, founded an agricultural school in Honduras and was instrumental in securing votes to partition Israel.

Cohen, displaying the rhythm and keen introspection that made his Sweet and Low so good, knows when to delve into Zemurray’s psyche. His stylistic touches enhance the story of a man propelled by “righteous anger.” Zemurray may be fading from the country’s entrepreneurial lore, but Cohen says America would be wise to follow his example: “As long as you’re breathing,” Cohen says, “the end remains to be written.”

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