The Banana King: The Powerful Businessman Who Helped Rescue Jews and Launch Political Coups
Russian-born American business executive Sam 'The Banana Man', head of the United Fruit Company, stands in front of stacks of bananas, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1951. Source: (Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Unless you are from New Orleans, the name Samuel Zemurray is probably not a familiar one. But his life story is an interesting and diverse one. On one hand, it's the very model of the American Dream, on the other hand, it is a complex story of a powerful and wealthy businessman who uses his position to meddle in foreign affairs…with mixed results. Here is the story of Samuel Zemurray, otherwise known as the Banana King.
A Young, Penniless Immigrant
Samuel Zemurry, moved to the United States from Russia when he was just eleven years old. His family settled in Mobile, Alabama. Although his family was extremely poor, young Samuel had an enterprising spirit. He soon discovered that bananas from Honduras and other Central American countries were coming through the shipping docks at Mobile. Bananas that had ripened during the voyage were discarded because they would be too ripe after they were shipped by train to major cities. Zemurray struck a bargain with the dock workers. He would buy the ripe bananas for next to nothing and then he would sell them around town for immediate consumption, earning a hefty profit and the nickname The Banana King.
Zemurray Grew His Business Quickly
At the age of 15, Zemurray moved from the smaller city of Mobile to the larger city of New Orleans and set up his banana business there. By the time he was 20, he had saved enough money to purchase a 5,000-acre banana plantation in Honduras. That was the start of his Cuyamel Fruit Company. Zemurray’s company became the largest fruit company of its time and made Zemurray a very wealthy man.
The Banana King Used His Power to Influence Foreign Governments
In 1910, Samuel Zemurray supplied the financial support to a coup that overthrew the Honduran government. He then helped his close friend to claim the presidency of Honduras. The new president, as a personal favor to Zemurray, waived the Banana King’s Honduran taxes for the next 25 years. The coup resulted in the deaths of several hundred people, Zemurray seemed unaffected by that.
Zemurray Sold His Fruit Company Ahead of the Great Depression
Just prior to the collapse of the Stock Market and ensuing Great Depression, Samuel Zemurray sold Cuyamel Fruit Company to his biggest rival, United Fruit Company for a boatload of money. As part of the deal, Zemurray also got 300,000 shares of stock in United Fruit. When the depression hit and the value of the stocks decreased, Zemurray staged another coup, this time a corporate one, and took over the company. He maintained control until the 1950s. During his time as president of United Fruit, the company experienced a tremendous amount of growth and prosperity.
The Banana King Used His Influence to Save Jews During WWII
Zemurray, himself a Jew, again found himself involved in world affairs. Many countries did not open their doors to welcome Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Zemurry used his influence to convince Rafael Trujillo, the leader of the Dominican Republic, to admit more than 5,000 Jewish refugees into his country. Following World War II when Jewish leaders were trying to create the Jewish state of Israel, the initial United Nations vote went against the Jews. A re-vote was set for 72 hours later. Zemurray spent much of that time on the telephone imploring the leaders of many Central American and South American countries to change their vote. The second vote approved the creation of Israel. Zemurray also paid for dozens of ships to transport the Jewish refugees from the Dominican Republic to newly-formed Israel after the war ended.
Yet One More Coup
In 1953, two years after officially retiring from United Fruit, Zemurray was involved in yet another political coup. He led a propaganda campaign to convince the U.S. State Department and the American public that Colonel Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala planned to turn his country into a satellite extension of the Soviet government. In fact, what Arbenz was trying to do was to expropriate unused land that was owned by the United Fruit Company and transfer the ownership to peasants. This being the time of the Cold War, the news of a possible Soviet state so close to the U.S. was met with fear. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped to oust Arbenz from power and replace him with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a man who was more willing to work with American business interests in his country.
Zemurray’s Legacy is a Mixed One
The two political coups that were orchestrated by Samuel Zemurray resulted in the deaths of a few thousand people, yet the Jewish businessman is also credited with saving the lives of about 5,000 Jews after World War II. His business coup may have been viewed as a greedy power grab, but Zemurray has donated generously to charitable causes and was a major benefactor of Tulane University. No matter how you view Samuel Zemurry’s business decisions, one thing is clear. His life was a shining example of the American Dream rags to riches story.