Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), a Russian-born U.S. fruit importer, in a classic "rags to riches" career built the United Fruit Company into a powerful international corporation. The economic power of his banana companies dwarfed the Central American states where they operated and allowed him to play a major economic and political role there in the mid-20th century.
Samuel Zemurray was born in Kishinev, Bessarabia, Russia, on January 18, 1877, to poor Jewish parents, David and Sarah (Blausman) Zmuri. In 1892 he emigrated to Selma, Alabama, and worked at several low-paying jobs that enabled him to help the rest of his family come to Alabama by the time he was 19. In 1895 he entered the banana business, buying carloads of "ripes" in Mobile and peddling them to small-town grocers along the railway. He expanded this trade to New Orleans, getting a contract from the United Fruit Company (UFCO) to sell to small dealers and peddlers bananas too ripe to ship into the interior. Grocers called him "Sam the Banana Man," a name that stuck throughout his career. Within three years he had $100,000 in the bank.
In 1905 he and a partner, Ashbel Hubbard of Mobile, bought a bankrupt steamship line with UFCO supplying 60 percent of the capital. Zemurray went to Honduras to purchase bananas along the Cuyamel River. Although heavily in debt, he developed a profitable business. UFCO sold its interest in 1907, and in 1910 Zemurray became president of Cuyamel Fruit Company. He then financed a revolution by Manuel Bonilla who, upon becoming president of Honduras in 1912, rewarded Zemurray with concessions that were highly important to Cuyamel's success and to stopping UFCO's bid for monopoly. Zemurray acquired land for banana plantations, built railroads, and began extensive irrigation, pest control, and agricultural research. By 1916 he was out of debt and prospering. Fiercely competitive with the giant UFCO, Zemurray expanded into other parts of Central America and in 1922 acquired the Bluefields Fruit & Steamship Company in Nicaragua from his father-in-law, Jake Weinberger of New Orleans.
The energetic Zemurray developed a deep affection and understanding for the people of Central America that gave him a distinct advantage over UFCO. He became involved in Honduran politics in order to achieve favorable business concessions. He earned a reputation for direct, bold, and decisive actions. Unlike UFCO executives, who stayed in their Boston offices, Zemurray worked actively in the mosquito-infested Central American lowlands, learned Spanish, and personally supervised Cuyamel's tropical production. His methods included the hiring of soldiers-of-fortune such as Lee Christmas and Guy "Machine Gun" Molony to support revolutionary factions favorable to Zemurray interests, exploiting border disputes among the Central American states, and aiding political parties that promised friendly treatment.
Zemurray retired from active management of the banana industry in 1929 when he sold Cuyamel to UFCO for 300,000 shares of the latter, making him the largest stockholder. He became a director of UFCO, but for the moment devoted himself primarily to affairs in Louisiana, including actively opposing Huey Long with his money and influence. During the Depression UFCO's stock dropped by 90 percent, so in 1932 Zemurray went to Boston and took over the company. As "the fish who swallowed the whale," he became managing director of operations and rapidly reversed UFCO's declining fortunes by providing aggressive leadership in its tropical operations and bringing into the company's management seasoned veterans of Cuyamel. President of the company from 1938 to 1948, he stepped down briefly to attend to private interests in Louisiana, but resumed the UFCO presidency from 1948 to 1951 and continued as chairman of the executive committee and as a director of UFCO until his retirement in 1957. Although flamboyant, he was at the same time modest and shy in his personal relationships and was more comfortable with the ordinary "banana cowboys" in the company's tropical operations than with the aristocratic company directors in Boston.
Under Zemurray's leadership the United Fruit Company expanded to other parts of the world, but it was in Central America that the company's role was most dominant. He faced and overcame with research and bold experimentation a near-disastrous epidemic of sigatoka and other tropical diseases. UFCO had a near monopoly on steamship and rail transportation, radio communications, and the export of bananas and other tropical crops. Zemurray's close relationships with the leaders of these states caused some to regard them as lackeys of "Yankee imperialism" and engendered resentment from nationalists. Critics considered Zemurray to be the most powerful man in Central America. Zemurray began to address the problem of UFCO's unfavorable image in Central America. He launched major public relations efforts to emphasize the company's development of the tropical lowlands, crop diversification, research toward eradicating human and plant diseases, and the higher wages and educational and health benefits received by its employees. He also engaged in major philanthropic enterprises to develop educational, human, and cultural resources in Central America and in the United States. This included restoration of Mayan ruins, major donations to Central American and tropical medicine research at Tulane University, and development of botanical gardens and the School of Pan-American Agriculture in Honduras. His personal philanthropy extended over a much wider range of projects.
A strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Zemurray helped frame the Agricultural Adjustment Administration industry codes, and during World War II, as an adviser to the Board of Economic Welfare, he cooperated closely with the war effort. UFCO chartered ships to the government and concentrated on production of rubber, hemp, quinine, rotenone, soybeans, and other strategic tropical crops in Central America. Zemurray was still influential within UFCO during the company's involvement with the CIA-backed 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government. He was a leading figure in the campaign to alarm the U.S. government and public of the "communist" threat in Guatemala, although he was never publicly identified with the CIA plot.
Without Zemurray's active leadership UFCO was in serious decline by the mid-1950s. Recognizing this, and seriously ill from Parkinson's disease, Zemurray divested himself of all UFCO stock. He died in New Orleans on November 30, 1961.
A detailed biographical article on Zemurray is Stephen Whitfield, "Strange Fruit: The Career of Samuel Zemurray," American Jewish History 73 (March 1984). Favorable accounts of his contribution to United Fruit are also found in Charles Wilson, Empire in Green and Gold (1947); Stacy May and Galo Plaza, The United Fruit Company in Latin America (1958); and Thomas McCann, An American Company, the Tragedy of United Fruit (1976). More critical is Charles Kepner, Jr. and Jay Soothill, The Banana Empire (1935). Useful for his descriptions of Zemurray's relationships with others in the industry is Thomas Karnes, Tropical Enterprise, The Standard Fruit and Steamship Company in Latin America (1978). Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit (1982) provides detail on Zemurray and the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government.