Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Was he the original ugly American?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, commerce, politics

A stalk or stem of bananas might weigh 100 pounds or more (50+ kg), and hold 200-300 fruits. Technically they are berries. This stem is only half there; you can see the scar at the bottom of the image where half the stem was removed a few days earlier. (Image adapted from one at the Alabama blog)

One other interesting bit of natural history I learned from reading The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen: The old sight gag of slipping on a banana peel is rarely used any more because the Big Mike variety, which had a very moist and slippery peel, went extinct about 1966. Most bananas sold today are the Cavendish variety. Not quite as bit, not quite as sweet, and with a drier peel.

That means that the Mythbusters episode using a few hundred banana peels was not quite authentic. When the episode was filmed, they had to use Cavendish peels, which can be slippery, but they'd have had a much harder time standing up had Big Mike peels been available. When Adam and Jamie invent a time machine, they will have the chance to remake the episode.

The book is primarily about Sam Zemurray, "the banana man" as he was known all his adult life. His rags-to-riches story is inspiring, but would have a more salutary impact if he'd been a nicer guy. But a nice guy doesn't overthrow a government, as he did in Honduras in 1910 with a hundred or so mercenaries. A nicer guy might have spent more time with his family. Even after his son and daughter were born, he spent nearly half the year in Central America, and extended periods in New York and Boston, leaving his wife to raise the children. He could swear colorfully in four languages, a skill he frequently displayed.

The book's title refers to newspaper headlines that appeared when he came out of retirement to take over United Fruit in a proxy battle the board of directors was hardly aware was going on. He attended a board meeting and presented his case for improving the company's bottom line. It was the mid-1930s and the Depression was throttling trade everywhere. He was over 60 and still spoke with a heavy Russian accent. The Chairman said, patronizingly, "I can't understand what you are saying". Zemurray stepped out and returned with his bag of proxies, slapped them on the table and said, "You're fired. Can you understand that?"

From the 1890s to 1930 he had built a banana business, starting with the nearly-ripe fruits that nobody wanted to sell. He found a market for them. By the 1920s his company Cuyamel Fruit was bigger than all but United Fruit, but in 1930, in a reversal of antitrust policy, the government twisted his arm to sell out in a merger with UF. They—and the UF board—thought removing him would improve their image in Central America. They didn't realize that, while he was unpopular with the governments and some of the populace, his long-term residency there, mingling with the workers, made him very popular with them. He took better care of their concerns than the remote, elitist management of UF. Because of his unparalleled knowledge of banana production and distribution he was able to earn the trust of the largest UF shareholders and take control of the company.

The book chronicles the rise and fall of the "banana republics". Sam Zemurray was the most visible figure (in Central America, not in the US) and became the focus of anti-American sentiment stirred up by the Communists and other revolutionaries. Che Guevara worked briefly in the banana trade before he was a medical student, and was later a fierce opponent of UF with Zemurray at its helm.

UF is no more. Zemurray died in 1961, just before the Big Mike variety went extinct. His personal aura was the biggest factor in the company's success, and that of Cuyamel fruit before it. Without him, the management faltered and failed. The banana trade is carried on in quite a different way now.

The Cavendish variety is likely to go extinct in a decade or so. Breeders are trying to produce a more disease resistant hybrid that still tastes good. I learned elsewhere that "eating varieties" of banana are triploid hybrids, and thus are sterile. Banana planters propagate them by cutting a rhizome into chunks that each grow into the "tree", really a big stalk formed of large leaf stems. Breeding varieties are diploid and produce viable seeds.

We understand that everyone is a combination of good and bad. In some areas of his life, Sam Zemurray was good, almost great. In other areas, he was bad, nearly evil. Few indeed become rich enough to overthrow whole governments. Fewer still actually do so. The "Pac-Man" action of taking over UF made the Banana Man a legend, and he needed a unique mixture of his best and worst qualities to pull it off.

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