Jul 5 2012

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen

Rachel Nolan

web exclusive

The Fish That Ate the Whale:

The Life and Times of America's Banana King

by Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$27.00 List Price

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The year was 1911 and Sam Zemurray, a penniless Russian immigrant, was on his way to becoming an American business mogul. Zemurray had gained a modest foothold in the fruit business by selling "ripes"—bananas that arrived in the US too bruised and brown for the United Fruit Company to sell. Investing his profits, he bought a slice of land along the Cuyamel River in Honduras where he planned to grow and export his own fruit. After bribing his way to tax-free exports and exemption from import duties on equipment, Zemurray was poised to strike it rich, but he had a problem: the Honduran government was threatening to take it all away. To pay down a staggering national debt, Honduras had proposed a tax on bananas, which would seriously reduce Zemurray's profits. What was a would-be banana king to do? Over the protests of the US State Department, Zemurray bought a Navy warship, enlisted a Honduran general, hired mercenaries, and bundled them onto the ship in New Orleans, sending them to overthrow Honduras's government.

Central America in the early twentieth century was a fairly lawless place. Honduras had no extradition agreement with the US and so Puerto CortÚs, a "low-slung cinder block town on the sea" became a hideout for American outlaws like "Cashier" Brown and Lee Christmas, who Zemurray hired to help plan his coup. William Sidney Porter (aka O. Henry) fled to Puerto CortÚs after he was accused of embezzling funds in the US and coined the term "banana republic" in a book about his year there. Zemurray was not the worst of the foreign cowboys and thieves knocking around Honduras, but he was the most powerful.

In some ways, Zemurray's story seems tailor-made for Rich Cohen. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a prolific non-fiction writer on disparate topics: the blues, Israel, time travel, as well as an extremely fun memoir called Sweet and Low: A Family Story, about the fallout from his grandfather's invention of the sugar substitute. His themes, roughly, are Jews, food, men of action, and the American dream. His biography of Zemurray is admiring, and Cohen seems drawn both to the improbable story of how Cohen became rich, and to the exotic locale from which he managed to extract his wealth. The book maintains the breezy tone of an extended magazine piece, which—given some of the material—can come off oddly. For instance, he quotes Uncle Ben from Death of a Salesman, who laughs as he says "why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by god I was rich!" Cohen's book often adopts this sort of jolly tone, even when what happened in the jungle wasn't funny or pretty at all.

Zemurray brought the same can-do attitude to the running of his fledgling business as he had towards Honduran politics. He outmaneuvered his larger competitor, the United Fruit Company at every turn, and gained the respect of some Hondurans by crossing the country by mule at a time when United Fruit executives ran their business from cool offices in Boston. According to Cohen, Zemurray paid ten times the going rate to Hondurans who worked on his banana plantations, though he was by no means a benevolent boss. In the mid-’30s, a fungus attacked bananas all over the world, threatening to wipe them out entirely. To stop it from killing his plants, Zemurray ordered a blue-colored poison to be sprayed on his fields, and required his employees to walk through them during spraying to ensure even dispersal. After a month, these workers lost their ability to smell and taste. After another month, they lost weight, turned the color of the poison, and many died. These blue men were called "los pericos" (the parakeets), and Cohen likens them to "the isthmus as a whole, simultaneously enriched and destroyed."

It is difficult to imagine how these men were "enriched," and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that in the long term, Honduras wasn’t either. Cohen's approach allows him to exult over Zemurray's success while glossing over the more serious business of how he achieved it. For example, Cohen conveys Zemurray's thinking about the coup as if he were writing dialogue for a mobster movie: "A deal is a deal. Paid for is owned. But if a bribed official refuses to deliver, or if a bought politician suddenly becomes unbought, how can a man do business? This is the other kind of corruption, the corrupt kind, and it leads to bankruptcy and ruin. It's not a question of right versus wrong, it's a question of ethics. If you buy a man, you have a right to expect him to stay bought." To be sure, Cohen is channeling Zemurray here, but the book too often suffers from style without including a reckoning with his actions.

And although Cohen acknowledges that "in South America, when people shouted 'Yankee, go home!' it was men like Samuel Zemurray they had in mind," he still romanticizes Zemurray's life as "a parable of the American dream—not history as it is recorded in textbooks, but the authentic, cask-strength version, a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works." In his account, Latin American exigencies and matters of sovereignty are seen as nasty little inconveniences. So readers can either approach the book as Cohen intends, as a parable of the American dream—messy but necessary—or they can read it as a parable of the Latin American nightmare.

Even so, the book contain fascinating asides about the banana business, some colorful descriptions—of Secretary of State Philander Knox he writes "his girlish chin staged rearguard action against the bulk of his neck"—and a wealth of interesting factoids. Did you know that bananas don't grow on trees, but on oversized herb fronds, and that the fruit is properly classified as a berry? Or that the only kind of banana available in US supermarkets until the ’50s, the Big Mike (Gros Michel), was nearly wiped out by the fungus that los pericos didn't manage to kill with Zemurray's pesticides?

In the end, Zemurray's banana war went well for him, and Cohen gets to give that chapter a happy ending. The coup cost Zemurray only the price of a secondhand warship and gained him a fortune. After he installed his pet Honduran general, Manuel Bonilla, as prime minister, Bonilla reinstated all of Zemurray's sweetheart deals and then some, granting him free land and no taxes or duties for the next twenty-five years. With his investments secure in Honduras, Zemurray went on to take over the United Fruit Company, and for more than two decades he headed the company known as "el pulpo" for its octopus-like grasp on land, money, and politicians. Northern Honduras essentially became a fruit company fiefdom, and for decades Honduran politics was driven by rumors of which politician the banana men supported.

As Cohen's book illustrates, the 1911 adventure also turned out to be a rehearsal for the more consequential 1953 coup in Guatemala, where United Fruit was the single largest landowner. In 1911, the US government weakly yelped that Zemurray was breaking the law. In 1953, it played ball, enlisting the CIA to paint Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz as a crypto-Communist. This later coup followed the same pattern as many US interventions in Central America, but what distinguished Zemurray's 1911 coup is how openly it was conducted by and for a private company. As with most interventions, the gringos got what they wanted. And, as Zemurray would say, why not?: Otherwise, "how can a man do business?"

Rachel Nolan is a former staff member of The New York Times Magazine.