Today, Americans take bananas for granted. They're cheap, they're ripe, they're everywhere. But take a moment and consider: How did a pale, fragile tropical fruit become so commonplace in America? Immigrants arriving at the South Ferry terminal, where the Ellis Island ferry landed, were once handed bananas and told, "Welcome to America."
The man who made the banana an exotic emblem of affluence for mass consumption was himself a poor immigrant. Samuel Zemurray came to America as a teenager, amassed a fortune to rival the Rockefellers and built great cultural institutions. But Zemurray would also help foment coups, rip up countrysides and impose his will, wiles and schemes all over Central America. Zemurray is the subject of Rich Cohen's new book, The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King.
Zemurray was a Jewish immigrant who grew up on a wheat farm in western Russia and was sent to the U.S. alone in his early teens. "Unlike a lot of his compatriots, he was a giant man," Cohen tells NPR's Scott Simon. "At the time he was like 6 feet 3 inches and he was a big, tough guy."
Zemurray saw his first banana in Selma, Ala. He paid a visit to Mobile, where the big fruit ships came in, and saw piles of bananas thrown aside at the Boston Fruit Company. When he asked what happened to the bananas in those piles, he was shocked to learn they were garbage.
"The rule was, if a banana had one freckle it was called 'a turning' and if it had two freckles it was called 'a ripe,' and they said you could never get it to the market in time. It would rot," Cohen explains. Zemurray bought the rotting bananas for next to nothing. "If you want to talk about something that'll make you a good salesman, it's a banana that you have six hours to sell before it rots."
Zemurray took those "turning" and "ripe" bananas and rented space on an Illinois Central Railroad train. The train moved so slowly that the bananas began rotting along the way. But he worked out a deal with the railroad conductors and the telegraph guys: They would wire the grocery store owners, who would come and meet the train.
"He sold the bananas right out of the boxcars," Cohen says. "The New York Times said he used boxcars like a guy on the Lower East Side uses a pushcart."
By the late 1890s, Zemurray was 18 years old — and had made $100,000.
When Zemurray went to Central America he saw possibility in the tangled, overgrown jungles. Those forests had once been considered "diseased" and "to be avoided," Cohen says, but American investors saw opportunity — there was a huge U.S. market for the fruit. They bought the land in Central America for "almost nothing," Cohen says. "It was like buying swampland in Florida. It's the kind of deal where you sign the papers and they laugh when you walk out of the room. But then they brought in all this machinery and they started to drain it and build these plantations and build the great wealth of those countries."
But the banana industry didn't just build in Central America — it destroyed as well. Businessman Minor Keith and the United Fruit Company built a railroad across Costa Rica — "I think 4,000 people died in laying the first 20 miles of that railroad," Cohen says.
Zemurray didn't just sit on the porch and watch. He was actively involved in the burgeoning business in Central America. "He went down to Honduras and basically he made a deal with all the local officials — they called them concessions, [but] they were bribes — to not pay taxes and do all kinds of things we'd be appalled by," Cohen explains.
It was a New York Times reporter who called Zemurray "the fish that swallowed the whale." It was a reference to the way his little upstart banana company, Cuyamel Fruit, took over one of the biggest players in the business. Zemurray started out with some old, decrepit steamships carrying fruit from Honduras — and grew into a major contender in the market.
"It was this tough little company and it came into conflict with United Fruit," Cohen says. "And ultimately the end result of that was Zemurray took over and swallowed United Fruit."
Zemurray became incredibly wealthy and was philanthropic with his money. He made generous donations to Tulane University and helped Jewish refugees after the war. It's hard, Cohen says, to balance the good he did and the harm he caused.
"He's like the American dream in the shape of a single life," Cohen says. "Here was a guy that didn't set out to do bad things; he set out to do good things. I think he genuinely had good intentions and was a good person, but he got caught up in the game and he wound up doing a lot of bad things indirectly."
The great tragedy, Cohen believes, is that Zemurray realized this himself. "I think he realized it at the end of his life and that's why he started giving his money away in Central America," Cohen says. "And it was sort of too late to wash that entire record out — and he acknowledged it. He's like a Shakespeare character at the end of the play. You can't go back."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Chances are a banana might be nearby this morning. Hold it up for a moment and consider how did something so pale and fragile become so commonplace in American life? Immigrants arriving at the South Ferry terminal, where the Ellis Island ferry landed, were once handed bananas and told, welcome to America.
The man who made the banana an exotic emblem of affluence for mass consumption was himself a poor immigrant who came to America as an adolescent, amassed a fortune to rival the Rockefellers and built great cultural institutions. But Samuel Zemurray would also help foment coups, rip up countrysides and impose his will, wiles and schemes all over Central America.
Sam Zemurray is the subject of Rich Cohen's new book, "The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King." Rich Cohen, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and the author of "Tough Jews" and "Sweet and Low," joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
RICH COHEN: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: And give us a picture of Sam Zemurray when he was just 14 or 15 and just arriving in America.
COHEN: Well, he came to this country alone from western Russia. He grew up on a wheat farm in Bessarabia and he was a Jewish immigrant and he was, unlike a lot of his compatriots, I guess, he was a giant man. At the time he was like 6 foot 3 and he was a big, tough guy. And he came into Selma, Alabama and he saw his first banana.
And he went down to Mobile when he was just 16 or 17 - Mobile, Alabama, where the big fruit ships came in - and he found out that the companies took a lot of bananas and threw them in a big pile; Boston Fruit and the big fruit companies. And he said, what are those bananas? And they said, those are garbage. Those are going in the trash. And he said, why? He said, those are ripes. And, basically, the rule was if a banana had one freckle it was called a turning, and if it had two freckles it was called a ripe. And they said you could never get it to the market in time to sell. It would rot. And he bought for almost nothing, the rotting bananas. And if you want to talk about something that'll make you a good salesman, it's a banana that you have six hours to sell before it rots. And by the time he was 18 he'd made $100,000, which this was in the 1890s.
SIMON: What did he figure out to do with the ripes that had escaped everybody else?
COHEN: He rented space on the Illinois Central Railroad train. And he took the train back to Selma and they started to rot along the way because the train went so slow. And he figured out a deal with the railroad conductors and the guys who did the telegraph to wire all the grocery store guys. And they came out and met the train. And he sold the bananas right out of the boxcars. And actually, The New York Times said that he used boxcars like a guy on the Lower East Side uses a pushcart.
SIMON: When Sam Zemurray first went to Central America, did he see possibilities in these tangled, overgrown jungles that even the locals - or maybe even especially the locals - had overlooked?
COHEN: What they saw was that with modern technology they could go to the jungles, which had always been considered diseased and waste places and to be avoided, and they could grow bananas there. This started with a guy named Minor Keith, who started United Fruit, who built a railroad across Costa Rica. I think 4,000 people died in laying the first 20 miles of that railroad.
And what he started doing is planting bananas along the side. And he discovered there was a huge American market for these things. So they went to this land that they picked up for almost nothing because it was like buying swamp land in Florida. It's the kind of deal you sign the papers and they laugh when you walk out of the room. But then they brought in all this machinery and they started to drain it and build these plantations and build the great wealth of those countries.
SIMON: And we should explain. Sam Zemurray didn't just sit on the porch and watch, did he?
COHEN: No. That was a huge thing about Zemurray, which is he went down to Honduras. Basically, he made a deal with all the local officials - they called them concessions, they were bribes - to not pay taxes and do all kinds of things that we would be appalled by.
And a new government was coming in. And he went down there. And the new government, backed by J.P. Morgan and the U.S. secretary of state. J.P. Morgan himself, the old man, was going to overturn all these deals Zemurray set up.
And he went and he hired a group of mercenary soldiers in the dives in the French Quarter of New Orleans. And they went down to Honduras and they overthrew the government and put Sam's guys in power. And this was a thing that Huey Long, who became Zemurray's great enemy, used to always say. You know, a certain Sam Zemurray when he didn't like the government, he just changed the government. And he did that in Honduras and he did it - later was involved in it in Guatemala.
SIMON: And so why did a reporter call him the fish that swallowed the whale?
COHEN: Because he started with this little upstart banana company, Cuyamel Fruit. It was basically - he bought an old bankrupt company, bought some old steamships that used to go from Liverpool to Argentina. That was their run. They were old and decrepit. And he started shipping bananas to the gulf ports from Honduras that he grew.
And it was this tough little company and it came into conflict with United Fruit. And ultimately the end result of that was Zemurray took over and swallowed United Fruit. And The New York Times called him the fish that swallowed the whale.
SIMON: And do you think his life has anything to say about America?
COHEN: Yeah, I think that he is - this American idea that we're always going to go out and do this thing sin-free; that you can have both power and innocence. That's a really American idea. The Europeans sort of have been through enough history that they believe, or maybe they know, that you can't both be strong and pure.
And the lesson of his life that he learned is that basically once you have power, then you're going to have sin.
SIMON: Rich Cohen, his new book, "The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King." Thanks so much.
COHEN: Thank you.
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