Gold Fingers: Rich Cohen Unpeels the Tale of Banana Man Samuel Zemurray

Sometimes a banana is just a banana. But The Fish That Ate the Whale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Rich Cohen’s

Samuel Zemurray (Getty Images)

Sometimes a banana is just a banana.

But The Fish That Ate the Whale (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Rich Cohen’s absorbing, nimble and unapologetically affectionate account of the life of Sam Zemurray, the so-called Banana Man, who began his astonishing tropical-fruit odyssey as a penniless teenage Russian-Jewish immigrant, peddling “ripes” in the deep south, and eventually became the uncontested kingpin of the international banana trade, is not one of those times. For Mr. Cohen, a banana is much more. It’s the Platonic ideal of a food—sweet and salutary, complete with its own easy-open wrapping—so perfect that it emerged as a ubiquitous dietary staple despite being impossible to grow in this country. (Mr. Cohen has tried.)

And it’s a kind of treasure, not gold but close to it, the subject of brutal conflicts that soaked the rich soil of the Central American isthmus with blood, prompted a coup in Honduras—a regime change engineered by Zemurray himself—and another in Guatemala, providing the template for many of the CIA’s most famous misadventures.

It’s a sort of organic timepiece, inexorably ripening, dieing, from the moment it’s cut from the plant, turning relentlessly from green to yellow to spotted and finally to mush as men like Zemurray race the clock to bring it to market. “As a salesman of a perishable product,” Mr. Cohen writes, “[Zemurray] was a kind of existentialist, skirting the line between wealth and oblivion, health and rot, a rider of railroads, a chaser of time, crossing the country in a boxcar filled with reeking produce.”

And finally, though he doesn’t say it (he doesn’t have to), a banana is, of course, a phallic proxy, a symbol of male potency. In Zemurray’s case, crucially, this means Jewish male potency.

Like so many of Mr. Cohen’s subjects—the Lower East Side racketeers of Tough Jews, the Lithuanian-Jewish resistance fighters of The Avengers, the hard-headed Zionists of Israel Is Real—Zemurray was a badass of the Hebrew persuasion, a yid with an id, a child of Abraham and a sonofabitch, who built from cast-off produce an empire that eventually employed 100,000 people and commanded the world’s largest private navy.

Zemurray arrived in Selma, Alabama, in 1892, “a tough operator, a dead-end kid, cooly figuring angles.” Soon enough he found one in the piles of ripe bananas he saw being dumped into the sea by the large importers at the Port of New Orleans—not worth the effort of trying to transport to market. Or maybe they were? Zemurray bought them cheap, hustled, turned a profit, and did it again.

Before long he’d built up a small fortune and made the trip to Honduras, where he began buying land, 5,000 acres to start, and hiring peasants to clear it and farm it. Mr. Cohen is a wonderfully visceral storyteller—he wants to feel the book while he’s writing it. In one delirious passage he tries to evoke for the reader, and for himself, “the heat and the fear, the snakes in the brush that have to be killed with a single blow, the sting of the poison that makes you want to lie down, just for a minute, in the shade of the ceiba tree…the way the world appears when you have forgotten to drink enough water, a tiny image seen through the wrong end of a telescope.”

Apparently unique among his peers in the trade, Zemurray enjoyed working alongside his men, swinging a machete, laying railroad track, twisting the chunks of rhizome into the dirt. Which might explain why, when the American government made a deal with the president of Honduras that would have ended the preferential tax-free status Zemurray had negotiated, he fought back with such resolve. He recruited a mercenary army, tapped a friendly replacement for the president, planted some favorable news articles, procured a warship, and in 1911 engineered a “revolution.”

That engagement was nothing, though, compared to the so-called Banana War that pitted Zemurray’s company, Cuyamel Fruit, against its much larger rival, United Fruit Co. (also known as El Pulpo, “The Octopus”) in a brutal contest over a few thousand acres of forbidding jungle. The dispute nearly drew the armies of Honduras and Guatemala into a regional conflict before the U.S. Government stepped in to keep the peace, engineering a solution that merged the rival companies and made Zemurray a major shareholder in the combined entity, while simultaneously requiring his retirement from the banana business altogether.

The story of the Banana Man’s subsequent comeback made for one of the greatest corporate dramas of the industrial era. As the Depression took hold, Zemurray watched helplessly as the chieftains of United Fruit—pedigreed WASP brahmins, to a man—gradually ran the business right into the ground. Finally, Zemurray engineered a putsch. Though his contract stipulated that he could never again run a competing banana company, it failed to deal with the possibility of his running United Fruit itself. After traveling the country, secretly winning the proxy votes of top shareholders, he stood in the company’s boardroom in Boston and explained his ideas for turning things around. When the directors turned him down, he promptly fired the chairman and took his place, explaining, “You gentlemen have been fucking this business up long enough. I’m going to straighten it out.”

It’s an irresistible scene—the Jewish immigrant and former “fruit jobber” turning the pinstriped elites out into the street—and all the more so it seems for Mr. Cohen, whose many works of nonfiction seem to share a secondary purpose, mounting a sort of rolling reclamation project for the beleaguered Jewish masculine ideal, or at least grappling honestly with the challenge. The image of the Jewish male was among the many casualties of the Holocaust, to say nothing of the centuries of pogroms, persecution and slavery that preceded it, and Mr. Cohen has worked, one book at a time, to overturn the nebbish stereotype—from the Alvy Singers of the world to the more alarming image of Jewish passivity amid the race’s near-annihilation. As Mr. Cohen writes in Tough Jews, for a kid raised in 1970s Chicago with the notion of Jews as cerebral and pampered suburbanites, his father’s tales of growing up on the rough streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, in proximity to the Hebrew gangsters of the era (Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Louis Lepke) were a revelation. “The very fact that Jewish kids were once running in gangs, fighting, shooting, changed everything…. People could no longer judge me on the stereotype because the stereotype was wrong.”

The notion is woven throughout Israel Is Real, Mr. Cohen’s marvelous, impressionistic 2009 study of the mythology and the reality of the Jewish nation. In it, he pegs the familiar stereotypes to the centuries spent in the ghettos of Europe. “Every adjective that people came to associate with Jews (submissive, cunning, neurotic, sneaky, weak) derives from life behind the walls,” he writes.

None of which could be said of Sam Zemurray—with the possible exception of cunning.

There’s much more to the story: Zemurray’s friendship with Zionist leader Chaim Weitzmann and efforts to funnel guns and refugees past the British-imposed blockade and into Palestine. His employment of pioneering PR man Edward Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud), who helped to build a market for bananas and later lobbied assiduously for the overthrow of Guatemala’s reformist president Jacobo Arbenz, who dared take on United Fruit in the early 1950s. Rather than confront Arbenz directly, the winning strategy was to tar him, falsely, as a Communist and let the CIA do the rest. (The myriad connections between the intelligence services and United Fruit have fueled decades of conspiracy theories, most of them true.) The inevitable decline of United Fruit, and its devastating vilification by everyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda to Che Guevara, who found himself radicalized by his encounters with El Pulpo in Guatemala, is a fittingly downbeat coda.

In all, it’s a magnificent, crazy story, engagingly told. In the book’s second half, Mr. Cohen’s writing takes on a pleasantly frantic quality, as if he’s sprinting toward the end. It’s a sensation Zemurray himself would have recognized—the feeling of sitting in a stifling boxcar with a bounty of saleable fruit, so much product to unload, watching the freckles swell and darken as history keeps spinning past. Gold Fingers: Rich Cohen Unpeels the Tale of Banana Man Samuel Zemurray