Unpeeling the life of Jewish ‘banana king’

Unpeeling the life of Jewish ‘banana king’

There might not have been a State of Israel if a Jewish Russian immigrant boy hadn’t found a banana in a back alley by his uncle’s dry goods store in Selma, Ala.

That young boy, Sam Zemurray, “fell in love” with the exotic and expensive fruit — they were sold after being cut up at 10 cents per piece in 1876 — and became determined to make bananas widely available to the public. Through determination, business acumen, and ruthlessness, Zemurray did just that, in the process controlling armies and governments in Central America and taking over competitors in the United States.

His company? Chiquita Banana.

“He was the personification of the Jewish American dream,” said author Rich Cohen during a March 10 program at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. “He was an anomaly.”

Cohen’s latest book, The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, details the colorful life of Zemurray. It recounts his battles with WASP business leaders who looked down on the upstart with the heavy Yiddish accent, the brutal form of colonialism that helped spread his market share, and his generosity to numerous charities.

Zemurray was also a staunch supporter of the future State of Israel, providing arms and ships to the Irgun as it joined the fight for Jewish statehood and using his influence to sway the United Nations’ vote for establishment of the state.

“He was one of the guys who put up the money for the Exodus,” said Cohen. Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, “in his memoir devoted 20 pages to Zemurray.”

Cohen, the author of seven books, said he first became intrigued with Zemurray while a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. Every building seemed to have his name on it, and the president lived in the “Banana King’s” former mansion.

Swaying the vote


As a teenager Zemurray, who had arrived in America in 1895, observed ships unloading the fruit, said Cohen. While the green bananas were placed on trains, the “perfectly ripe” bananas were tossed into the sea because they couldn’t reach markets before becoming rotten.

“In his immigrant mind, he saw value where others saw trash,” said Cohen. Zemurray offered to buy the ripe bananas at a rock-bottom price and resold them out of a train boxcar. “Peddlers would come right up to the train with their pushcarts and he would sell to them very cheap.”

Zemurray moved to New Orleans and established his own company. By 18 he was rich and successful and expanded by borrowing from New York banks and the New Orleans mob.

He exerted his influence throughout Latin America through bribery and force, according to Cohen and other accounts. In 1910, when the president of Honduras objected to his policies, Zemurray hired mercenaries to orchestrate a revolution and overthrow him.

In Guatemala, his Cayumel Fruit Company fought a “banana war” with its main competitor, United Fruit Company of Boston, with each side wielding the large arsenal of ships, guns, and soldiers each had amassed.

In 1929 Zemurray sold out to his rival for 300,000 shares of United Fruit stock and retired to New Orleans. But, with the Depression wreaking havoc on that company, he wrested control through proxy shares, installing himself as CEO in 1933 and guiding it into the black.

Zemurray used much the same tactics when it came to his Zionist ideals.

“There were actually two votes for partition,” said Cohen, who also wrote the 2009 book Israel Is Real. “It’s true; Google it. The first vote failed.”

The first vote was so close, another was scheduled 22 hours later. Weizmann contacted his “good friend” Zemurray. “All the countries that changed their votes were the countries where the Banana King had control and influence,” said Cohen.

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