The Fish That Ate the Whale

The Life and Times of America's Banana King

Rich Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1

Selma
 
 
Sam Zemurray saw his first banana in 1893. In the lore, this is presented as a moment of clarity, wherein the future was revealed. In some versions, the original banana is presented as a platonic ideal, an archetype circling the young man’s head. It is seen from a great distance, then very close, each freckle magnified. As it was his first banana, I imagine it situated on a velvet pillow, in a display alongside Adam’s rib and Robert Johnson’s guitar. There is much variation in the telling of this story, meaning each expert has written his or her own history; meaning the story has gone from reportage to mythology; meaning Sam the Banana Man is Paul Bunyan and the first banana is Babe the Blue Ox. In some versions, Sam sees the banana in the gutter in Selma, Alabama, where it’s fallen from a pushcart; in some, he sees it in the window of a grocery and is smitten. He rushes inside, grabs the owner by the lapel, and makes him tell everything he knows. In some, he sees it amid a pile of bananas on the deck of a ship plying the Alabama River on a lazy summer afternoon.

The most likely version has Sam seeing that first banana in the wares of a peddler in the alley behind his uncle’s store in Selma. The American banana trade had begun twenty years before, but it was still embryonic. Few people had ever seen a banana. If they were spoken of at all, it was as an oddity, the way a person might speak of an African cucumber today. In this version, Sam peppers the salesman with questions: What is it? Where did you get it? How much does it cost? How fast do they sell? What do you do with the peel? What kind of money can you make? But none of the stories mentions a crucial detail: did Zemurray taste that first banana? I like to imagine him peeling it, eating the fruit in three bites, then tossing the skin into the street the way people did back then. Tossing it and saying, “Wonderful.” In future years, Zemurray always spoke of his product the way people speak of things they truly love, as something fantastical, in part because it’s not entirely necessary. When he mentioned the nutritional value of bananas in interviews, he added, “And of course it’s delicious.” Putting us at a further remove from Zemurray is the fact that the kind of banana he saw in Selma in 1893, the banana that made his fortune, the variety known as the Big Mike, went extinct in the 1960s.

Sam Zemurray was born in 1877, in the region of western Russia once known as Bessarabia. It’s Moldavia today. He grew up on a wheat farm, in a flat country ringed by hills. His father died young, leaving the family bereft, without prospects. Sam traveled to America with his aunt in 1892. He was to establish himself and send for the others—mother, siblings. He landed in New York, then continued to Selma, Alabama, where his uncle owned a store.

He was fourteen or fifteen, but you would guess him much older. The immigrants of that era could not afford to be children. They had to struggle every minute of every day. By sixteen, he was as hardened as the men in Walker Evans’s photos, a tough operator, a dead-end kid, coolly figuring angles: Where’s the play? What’s in it for me? His humor was black, his explanations few. He was driven by the same raw energy that has always attracted the most ambitious to America, then pushed them to the head of the crowd. Grasper, climber—nasty ways of describing this kid, who wants what you take for granted. From his first months in America, he was scheming, looking for a way to get ahead. You did not need to be a Rockefeller to know the basics of the dream: Start at the bottom, fight your way to the top.
Over time, Sam would develop a philosophy best expressed in a handful of phrases: You’re there, we’re here; Go see for yourself; Don’t trust the report.

Though immensely complicated, he was, in a fundamental way, simple, earthy. He believed in staying close to the action—in the fields with the workers, in the dives with the banana cowboys. You drink with a man, you learn what he knows. (“There is no problem you can’t solve if you understand your business from A to Z,” he said later.) In a famous exchange, when challenged by a rival who claimed he could not understand Zemurray’s accent, Zemurray said, “You’re fired. Can you understand that?”

Selma, Alabama, was the perfect spot for a kid like Sam: an incubator, a starter town, picturesque yet faded, grand but still small enough to memorize. A manufacturing center in the time of the Confederacy, it had since been allowed to dilapidate. There was a main street, a fruit market, a butcher shop, a candy store, a theater with plush seats, a city hall, churches. There were brick houses with curtains in the windows and swings on the porches—the white side of town. There were shotgun shacks, blue and yellow and red, fronted by weedy yards—the Negro side of town. There were taverns and houses of worship where Christian gospel was mixed with African voodoo. There were banks, savings and loans, fraternal orders. There was a commercial district, where every store was filled with unduly optimistic businessmen.

Though the biography of Zemurray’s uncle has been forgotten, we can take him as a stand-in for the generation of poor grandfathers who came first, who worked and worked and got nothing but a place of honor in the family photo in return. Sometimes described as a grocery, sometimes as a general store, his shop was precisely the sort that Jewish immigrants had been establishing across the South for fifty years. Such concerns were usually operated by men who came to America because they were the youngest of many brothers, without property or plans. These people went south because, in the early days of the American republic, it was not inhospitable to Hebrews. Many began as peddlers, crossing the country with a mountain of merchandise strapped to their backs. You see them in ancient silver prints and daguerreotypes, weathered men humping half the world on their shoulders, pushing the other half in a cart—bags of grain, dinnerware, tinware, lamps, clothes, canvas for tents, chocolate, anything an isolated farmer might want but could not find in the sticks.

When they had saved some money, many of these men opened stores, which meant moving all that merchandise under a roof in a town along their route. Even now, as you drive across the South, you will see their remnants baked into the soil like fossils: an ancient veranda, a ghost sign blistered from years of rain—LAZARUS & SONS, HOME OF THE 2 PENNY BELT. These men were careful to open no more than one store per town, partly because who needs the competition, partly because they worried about attracting the wrong kind of attention. They stocked everything. What they did not stock, they could order. The most successful grew into great department stores: S. A. Shore in Winchester, Alabama, founded by Russian-born Solomon Shore, father of Dinah; E. Lewis & Son Dry Goods in Hendersonville, North Carolina, founded by Polish-born Edward Lewis; Capitol Department Store in Fayetteville, North Carolina, founded by the Russian Stein brothers. Others, having started by extending credit to customers, evolved into America’s first investment banks. Lehman Brothers, founded by Henry Lehman, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, began as a dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1844. Lazard Frères, founded by three Jewish brothers from France, began as a wholesale business in New Orleans in 1848. The store owned by Zemurray’s uncle was probably of this variety: having begun as a young man carrying merchandise, it grew into a neat grocery on Broad Street.

Selma closed early. By ten p.m., the bustling of the marketplace had given way to the swamp stink and cicadas, but there was always action for those who knew where to look: in the private clubs where merchants played faro and stud, in the juke joints that stayed open from can till can’t. According to those who knew him, Sam did not care for crowds and parties. He had a restless mind and a persistent need to get outdoors. He liked to be alone. You might see him wandering beneath the lamps of town, a tough, lean young man in an overcoat, hands buried deep in his pockets.

He stacked shelves and checked inventory in his uncle’s store. Now and then, he dealt with the salesmen who turned up with sample cases. He stood in the alley, amid the garbage cans and cats, asking about suppliers and costs. There was money to be made, but not here. He interrogated customers. He was looking for different work and would try anything, if only for experience. His early life was a series of adventures, with odd job leading to odd job. Much of the color that would later entertain magazine writers—Sam’s life had the dimensions of a fairy tale—were accumulated in his first few years in Selma.
He worked as a tin merchant. Well, that’s how it would be described in the press. “Young Sam Z. bartered iron for livestock, chickens and pigs.” According to newspaper and magazine accounts, he was in fact employed by a struggling old-timer who was less tin merchant than peddler, the last of a vanishing breed, the country cheapjack in a tattered coat, sharing a piece of chocolate with the boy. Now and then, he might offer some wisdom. Banks fail, women leave, but land lasts forever. He combed trash piles on the edge of Selma, searching for discarded scraps of sheet metal, the cast-off junk of the industrial age, which he piled on his cart and pushed from farm to farm, looking for trades—wire for a chicken coop in return for one of the razorbacks in the pen. After the particulars were agreed on, Sam was told to get moving, Catch and tie that animal, boy. It was Zemurray’s first real job: racing through the slop with a rope in his hand. “In those days,” he told a reporter from Life, “I could outrun any pig in Dixie.” Paid a dollar a week, he kept the job just long enough to know he would rather be the man who owned the hog than the man who collected the junk, and would rather be the man who discarded the sheet metal than the man who owned the hog.

A series of jobs followed, tried on and thrown off like thrift-store suits. He was a housecleaner and a delivery boy. He turned a lathe for a carpenter. By eighteen, he had saved enough to send for his brothers and sisters, half a dozen pale young Jews who turned up in Alabama in the last years of the nineteenth century.

But his real life began only when he saw that first banana. He devised a plan soon after: he would travel to Mobile, where the fruit boats arrived from Central America, purchase a supply of his own, carry them back to Selma, and go into business.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Rich Cohen