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.” . . .
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This review of The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen, originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Commentary.