Authors: Rich Cohen
Sam “the Banana Man” Zemurray and the fruits of his labor
To my sister, Sharon, for thirty-five years of New Orleans
Power is based on perception. If you think you got it, you got it, even if you don't got it.
You Can Negotiate Anything
In my beginning is my end.
T. S. Eliot
, “East Coker”
There's always a guy.
, in conversation
Bay of Pigs
Samuel Zemurray, who led the United Fruit Company for roughly twenty-five years, from the early 1930s to the mid-'50s, was an emblematic figure of the American Centuryâthose decades that saw the United States grow from a regional power into an empire. In Sam the Banana Man, as Zemurray was known to friends and enemies alike, the story of the age is collapsed to the scale of a single life: the ascent from humble origins, the promise and ambition, the sudden, dazzling, disorienting wealth, the corruption, brutality, propaganda, wars, and overreachâand the grinding late-day melancholy.
When he arrived in America in 1891 at age fourteen, Zemurray was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. In between, he worked as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, a dockside hustler, and the owner of plantations on the Central American isthmus. He battled and conquered United Fruit, which was one of the first truly global corporations. United Fruit, in its day, was as ubiquitous as Google and as feared as Halliburton. More than a business, it was the spirit of the nation abroad, akin to the Dutch East India Company, its policies backed by the threat of U.S. gunboats. As the president of United Fruit, Zemurray became the most important man in Central Americaâhe could change the course of history with a phone callâa symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the Ugly American, the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures. In South America, when people shouted “Yankee, go home!” it was men like Samuel Zemurray they had in mind.
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I first learned about Zemurray as a sophomore at Tulane University. The Banana Man had been a generous donor to Tulane, and many of the buildings on campus are named for him or members of his family; the university president lives in the mansion on St. Charles Avenue where Zemurray spent some of his best years. I was transfixed by the story the moment I heard it in a seminar taught by Joseph Cohen, a relation to me in spirit alone. Unlike lectures in other classes, this was an epic, gaudy in character and incident, filled with mercenary soldiers and dirty wars, financial battles and the sort of political shenanigans familiar from the smoky back rooms of my hometown, Chicago.
Zemurray's life is a parable of the American dreamânot history as recorded in textbooks, but the authentic cask-strength version, a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works. This story can shock and infuriate us, and it does. But I found it invigorating, too. It told me that the life of the nation was written not only by speech-making grandees in funny hats but also by street-corner boys, immigrant strivers, crazed and driven, some with one good idea, some with thousands, willing to go to the ends of the earth to make their vision real. It meant anyone could write a chapter in that book, be part of the story, vanish into the jungle and reemerge as a figure of lore. Of course, you would not make the mistakes Zemurray made. You would harm no one, and disturb nothing, and never pay off, and never kick back, and never compromise or lose your bearings. You would do it in a new sin-free way, win-win, which of course is also part of the American character, perhaps the most defining part: the notion that, if we were only given one more chance, we could finally get it right.
It's what people mean when they speak of American exceptionalism: unlike the Europeans, we do not yet know you can't be both powerful and righteous. So we set out again and again, convinced that this time we'll avoid the mistakes of the previous generations. It's this kind of confidence that gives a people the strength to rule abroad; the moment that confidence goes, the empire is doomed. When Zemurray was young, he seemed to believe he was different. He would make an honest fortune in a way that benefited the impoverished people of the South. His tragedy was not that he was worse than other businessmen, but that, despite all his brilliance and good intentions, he was no better.
In the end, what I took from Zemurray's story, and what made it redeeming, was not the evils and excesses of United Fruit but the optimism that characterized his life, the belief that he could indeed be both triumphant and loved. It's this infuriating faith that made him such a quintessentially American figure. If you want to understand the spirit of our nation, the good and bad, you can enroll in college, sign up for classes, take notes and pay tuition, or you can study the life of Sam the Banana Man.
Sam Zemurray spoke with no accent, except when he swore, which was all the time. He was a big man, six foot three, rangy, nothing but muscle and bone, with the wingspan of a condor, hooded eyes, and a crisp, no-nonsense manner. If you saw him in the French Quarter, walking fast, you got out of the way. He lived uptown. If he was down here, it meant he was working.
It was a brisk night in the winter of 1910. Zemurray stood under the clock in front of the D. H. Holmes department store taking in the cheap twinkle of Canal Street. He wore a dark overcoat. At thirty-three years old, he was already a colorful figure. People passed around Sam Zemurray stories as if they were snapshots: in this one, you saw the town he left in Russia; in that one, the ship that brought him to America; in this one, the train that carried him to Alabama; in that one, the first bananas he purchased on the wharf in Mobile; in this one, the Central American isthmus where he cleared the jungle and made his fortune. After ten years in the South, he was known by a variety of nicknames: Z, the Russian, Sam the Banana Man, El Amigo, the Gringo.
He'd arrived on the docks at the start of the last century with nothing. In the early years, he'd had to make his way in the lowest precincts of the fruit business, peddling ripes, bananas other traders dumped into the sea. He worked like a dog and defied the most powerful people in the country. By 1905, he owned steamships, side-wheelers that crossed the Gulf of Mexico, heading south empty, returning with bananas. It was said he had traveled the breadth of Honduras, from Puerto CortÃ©s to Tegucigalpa, on a mule. Because he wanted to know the terrain, get his hands in the black soil.
A few minutes before midnight, three men came around the corner. The obvious leaderâyou could tell by the happy flash in his eyesâwas Lee Christmas of Livingston Parish, a onetime railroad engineer who had gone wild on the isthmus. It was Christmas, the most famous mercenary in the Americas, who turned “revolution” into a verb. As in,
Let's go revolutin'! The New York Times
called him a real-life Dumas hero. Wherever he went, he was followed: by hit men, by police, by foreign agents trying to fathom his next move. Why, look here! Two such men lurk in the shadows across Bourbon Streetâmembers of the United States Secret Service, with shiny shoes and flat faces, with lumps where their pistols dig into the fabric of their government coats. When Zemurray needed an army, he went to Christmas and Christmas did the rest, gathering a crew of exiles and adventure seekers in the dives of the French Quarter.
Christmas was in the company of two friends, key players in what was a conspiracy: Guy “Machine Gun” Molony, a veteran of the Boer War and a former New Orleans cop who could assemble a Vickers repeating rifle in under three minutes, hence the nickname, and General Manuel Bonilla, a tiny man, as brown as a bean, with a hawk nose and black eyes.
Zemurray was in the process of overthrowing a foreign governmentâhe had been warned by Philander Knox, the U.S. secretary of state, who ordered federal agents to tail him and his cohorts in New Orleans, but didn't care. If Sam failed, he faced ruin. But if he succeeded, he would become a king in banana land. General Bonilla had been president of Honduras. With the right kind of help, he would be president again.
Zemurray studied the Secret Service agents across the street. Pulling a bankroll from his pocket, snapping off tens and twenties, he told Christmas, “You've got to lose them.”