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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin Fall 2015

Book Reviews Robert R. Kracke BANANAS, NUTS ... AND BOLTS The Fish That Ate The Whale The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 2012 This is a biography of Samuel Zemurray. The name probably doesn’t mean much to you unless you are a graduate of Tulane, where there are several buildings named after him and his daughter, a woman named Stone. Sam Zemurray was a Russian immigrant who came to the United States as an early teenager, who was “tall, gangly and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans 69 years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world.” The present day official residence of the President of Tulane University is the home that Sam Zemurray lived in until his death. This biography could just as well be a history of the banana. It passes on to the reader such tidbits as: A. The term “Banana Republic” was coined by O. Henry. B. The banana is not a tree, it is an herb, the world’s tallest grass. C. The banana is not necessarily a plant, but it is “properly classed as a berry.” Cohen, the author, who has a humorous journalistic style of writing also points out that “various attempts to farm bananas commercially in the continental United States - California, Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Florida - have failed.” He goes on to tell us that the banana was not technically commercially available in the United States (and for a while only in Boston) until about 1875. Sam Zemurray’s first venture into importing bananas was to buy a boat, go to Honduras, buy 160 bunches of bananas at $.24 a bunch, bring them to the U.S. and sell them for $2.00 a bunch. Basically, he would have had a time limit of approximately 3 weeks to get the bananas from Honduras to the East Coast of the United States or they would rot and be worthless. All bananas are harvested green, they cannot be eaten until they ripen off the tree (or bush, it should be said). Interestingly, the banana has never been an easy fruit to advertise because of its shape. Enough said there. As the author puts it, bananas “stacked in piles, look obscene.” However, this reviewer’s fond memories of a breakfast of cornflakes with bananas as a child in the 1940s was also seen in almost every home in America, and all of those bananas were imported. Think about it. When one goes to the grocery store to buy groceries, pound for pound the banana is the cheapest purchase one makes. Back to the biography: Zemurray worked so hard that he did not get married until he was 31 years old, albeit he was successful but alone. He finally met Sarah Weinberger and they were married in May, 1908. They moved into a home near the new campus of Tulane. The marriage produced a daughter and a son. Zemurray became so powerful that he was almost a banana republic in and of himself. At one point, he was commanded to report to the office of the United States Secretary of State and “here he was embroiled at the highest levels of national affairs.” There he tried to negotiate with the Secretary of State and was told that you don’t negotiate with the Secretary of State. Zemurray was not to be daunted by mere statesmanship. He began to import the bananas using less than ordinary methods. This reviewer will not bore you with the shady details under which he 18 Birmingham Bar Association


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin Fall 2015
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