“I made an unusual ‘find’ in New Orleans, where lived a very remarkable person in American Jewry—Samuel Zemurray, the banana king,” Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s founding president, wrote in the 1920s. Zemurray was indeed a very remarkable man, and in The Fish That Ate the Whale, Rich Cohen offers up the first full-length biography of Sam Zemurray. The founder of what became a leading Central American fruit producer, Zemurray eventually rose to lead the massive United Fruit Company in the mid-20th century. Along the way, he developed a reputation for international derring-do (including, not least, sponsoring a 1911 coup in Honduras).
Zemurray was also an energetic philanthropist. In a review for Commentary’s latest issue, I address Zemurray’s involvement in the formation and preservation of the State of Israel:
. . . After a 1922 meeting with Chaim Weizmann, in which the future Israeli president convinced him of the importance of the Zionist cause, he donated more than a million dollars to Jewish settlement and infrastructure in Palestine. In 1945, Zemurray was spurred to further action by the death of his son, Sam Jr., in World War II and the revelation of the extent of the Shoah. But as the head of the United Fruit Company, he would have to make his international scheming against the British in Palestine even more clandestine. “I cannot help you. Not openly,” he told a Zionist operative. “Nearly half of United Fruit’s ships fly the British flag and much of our business is done there. A British company cannot run the British blockade. But I will send you to a man who will help.” Strings were pulled, ships purchased, money made available, and papers issued. Zemurray made possible the exodus of 37,000 European Jews to Palestine between 1946 and 1948.
But Zemurray was also active in philanthropy in this hemisphere, throughout his career—although you might not get that impression from The Fish That Ate the Whale. I’m reluctant to blame Cohen for compressing most of Zemurray’s philanthropy into a small section in the middle of the book, during the interlude from 1929 to 1932, however. In the former year, the dominant United Fruit Company bought out Zemurray’s Cuyamel, its fierce competitor, for $30 million. Sam retired, wealthy, to his opulent mansion at 2 Audubon Place in New Orleans and to his working plantation in Hammond, Louisiana. For a writer seeking to condense a big life into a single volume, this compression makes sense—and Zemurray surely devoted more time to philanthropy in those years than before or after. And Cohen never suggests, as less charitable chroniclers have, that Zemurray’s gifts were in some way meant as atonement for wrongdoing in Central America.
But by structuring his narrative as he does, Cohen neglects that Zemurray was a creative philanthropist for as long as he was a wealthy entrepreneur. It was in 1912 that Zemurray donated $25,000 (measured as wealth, the equivalent of nearly $10 million today) to Tulane University to create the nation’s first school of public health and tropical medicine—a pertinent concern in a part of the country still ravaged by yellow fever. From then on, Zemurray became Tulane’s preeminent benefactor. He gave residence halls and a gymnasium. He created the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane, which now bears the name of his son-in-law, Roger Thayer Stone. (The institute started off with a collection of ancient Mayan artifacts for which Zemurray paid his workers when they found them in the banana fields.) At his death, he left his mansion to Tulane as the president’s residence. He was “determined to turn [Tulane] into one of the world’s great universities,” Cohen reports.
Zemurray had fallen in love with Central Americans, and he founded the School of Pan-American Agriculture near Tegucigalpa for natives of the isthmus. The tuition-free school discouraged graduates from taking jobs in the banana industry; Zemurray wanted to broaden opportunities. As one-time United Fruit PR man Charles Morrow Wilson puts it in his charming 1947 history, Empire in Green and Gold, Zemurray wanted to “help young native farmers of Central America qualify for leadership in the inevitable new era of tropical agriculture.”
The Banana Man also got involved in politics, supporting FDR’s New Deal but fiercely opposing Louisiana governor Huey Long’s soak-the-rich populism. He supported The Nation, the struggling liberal journal. Zemurray funded New Orleans’ first hospital for black women, established a clinic for troubled children, worked to preserve Mayan ruins found in his banana lands, and endowed a chair at Harvard. But as with his funding for the creation of Israel, Zemurray did most of his giving anonymously—we will never know the extent of his philanthropy. He avoided putting his name on the projects he funded; Cohen writes of the buildings on Tulane’s campus named for his family that “most of the titles were affixed after the Banana Man died. I think he would have hated it.”
Here Cohen makes a curious error, referring to Zemurray House and the two residences named for daughter Doris Zemurray Stone, a distinguished scholar of Central American history, in the present tense. They were torn down years ago when I was a student at Tulane. Today, no Tulane building bears Zemurray’s name—as he would likely have preferred.
Nonetheless, The Fish That Ate the Whale is a glorious slice of Americana. It is to Cohen’s credit that he elevates Zemurray to the prominence he did not want but indeed deserves.
Evan Sparks is managing editor of Philanthropy.