The Birth of America’s Banana King
An excerpt from Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale.
Sam grew fixated on ripes, recognizing a product where others saw only trash. He was the son of a Russian farmer, for whom food had once been scarce enough to make even a freckled banana seem precious.
Photograph by Rich Cohen.
After the ship had been unloaded, after the trains had carried off the green bananas, after the merchants and peddlers had taken away the turnings, Sam walked down to the pier to talk to the company agent. They spoke as the sun went down, the man with the Ivy League elocution and the kid with the Russian accent, who rolled his Rs and spit his vowels. Zemurray had $150. That was his stake. He figured it would go further if he spent it on ripes. He was no fool. He knew what this meant—that he would have to move fast, that he was entering a race with the clock. Three days, five at the most. After that, he would be left with a pile of glue. But he believed he could make it. As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston Fruit and similar firms were too slow-footed to cover ground. It was a calculation based on arrogance. I can be fast where others have been slow. I can hustle where others are satisfied with the easy pickings of the trade.
Zemurray’s first cargo consisted of a few thousand bananas. He did not spend all his money but retained a small balance, which he used to rent part of a boxcar on the Illinois Central. The trip to Selma was scheduled to take three days, meaning he would have just enough time to get the fruit to market before the sun did its worst. In most cases, a fruit hauler would spend a few dollars extra for a bed in the caboose, but since the freight charge used the last of his money, Zemurray traveled in the boxcar with his bananas, the door open, the country drifting by.
The train left on a Tuesday morning, say, the sun fiery above the smoky freight yard dawn, the clank of wheels over switches, the ocean drifting away. Color and country: blue in the morning, green at midday, red in the evening. Zemurray sat in the boxcar doorway. The train traveled maddeningly, infuriatingly, exceedingly slow. In the country, it went the speed of a trotting mule. In the towns, it was no faster than a man walking. In the cities, it stopped altogether, sometimes for hours, waiting for cargo and crew. Zemurray paced the railroad bed, hands on his hips, muttering.
Stop lights. Temporary holds. What was supposed to be three days was turning into five, six. With each hour, the bananas became more pungent. He spoke to the conductor, who commiserated, saying, “What a terrible shame.”
In a Mississippi train yard, where the redbrick buildings, feed stores and tinsmiths crowded close to the tracks, a brakeman, hearing Sam’s story, said, “You’ve got good product there. If you could just get word ahead to the towns along the line, I’m sure the grocery owners would meet you at the platforms and buy the bananas right off the boxcars.”
During the next delay, Zemurray went into a Western Union office and spoke to a telegraph operator. Having no money, Sam offered a deal: If the man radioed every operator ahead, asking each of them to spread the word to local merchants—dirt cheap bananas coming through for merchants and peddlers—Sam would share a percentage of his sales. When the Illinois Central arrived in the next town, the customers were waiting. Zemurray talked terms through the boxcar door, a tower of ripes at his back. Ten for eight. Thirteen for ten. He broke off a bunch, handed it over, put the money in his pocket. The whistle blew, the train rolled on. He sold the last banana in Selma, then went home in the dark. When he tallied his money, it came to $190. His first real success: After accounting for expenses, Sam had earned $40 in six days.
Zemurray had stumbled on a niche: ripes, overlooked at the bottom of the trade. It was logistics. Could he move the product faster than the product was ruined by time? This work was nothing but stress, the margins ridiculously small (like counterfeiting dollar bills), but it was a way in. Whereas the big fruit companies monopolized the upper precincts of the industry—you needed capital, railroads, and ships to operate in greens—the world of ripes was wide open. Within a few weeks of his return to Selma, Zemurray set out again, then again, then again. It was in these months, on train platforms and in small towns, that Zemurray first came to be known as Sam the Banana man.
Historians later described the young Zemurray as a fruit peddler, no different from other poor Jews who pushed carts through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, except instead of a wagon, Sam worked out of a boxcar. (He was “Sam the Banana Man,” according to Life, “who once used railroads as pushcarts.”) It made sense, but only in a shallow way. In truth, Sam Zemurray was more interesting and unique—as a salesman of a perishable product, he was a kind of existentialist, skirting the line between wealth and oblivion, health and rot, a rider of railroads, a chaser of time. It was life: Move the fruit now or you’re ruined forever. He became a gambler by necessity—a risk-taker, a salesman, a brawler. “The little fellow,” as the big wheels in Boston called him, but the little fellow would build a kingdom from ripes.
Sam eventually went into turnings, yellows, even greens. By 1912, he was living in the jungle in Honduras, where, working with mercenaries, banana cowboys, he had overthrown the government, empowering a president more friendly to Cuyamel, the company Sam led to victory against United Fruit. In the end, he would live in the grandest house in New Orleans, the mansion on St. Charles that is now the official residence of the Tulane president. He continued to wield tremendous influence into the mid-’50s, a powerful old man who threatened, cajoled, explained, a mysterious Citizen Kane-like figure to people in his city. When he died in 1961, the New York Times called him, “The Fish That Swallowed the Whale.” But part of him would always remain that big kid peddling ripes from a boxcar on the Illinois Central.