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."