Samuel Zemurray was born in Bessarabia, Russia, as Samuel Zmurri and came from a Jewish immigrant family. In 1892 his family moved to the United States and settled in Selina, Alabama. After their arrival, young Samuel worked for an aged pack-peddler who bartered tinware for pigs, earning a dollar a week. In 1899 he went to Mobile, Alabama, to enter the fruit business, buying second-hand bananas in carload lots and disposing of them to nearby dealers. He used a railroad car for his pushcart in his first banana venture, buying about $150 worth of bananas in Mobile and shipping them inland by Railway Express, telegraphing grocers along the route to come to the railroad sidings for ripe bananas. He made about $35 on his first investment. After a few years Zemurray moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he contracted with the United Fruit Company to sell to small dealers and peddlers bananas which had ripened aboard ship and had to be disposed of quickly. At this time Ashbell Hubbard had the United Fruit Company contract in Mobile, and in 1900 he and Zemurray joined forces, purchased two tramp steamers, and began buying cargoes from independent plantations in Honduras and selling them in Mobile and New Orleans. He and Hubbard borrowed $2,000 and purchased 5,000 acres of plantation land in Honduras in 1910, forming the Cuyamel Fruit Company, of which Zemurray became president. The firm owned their land in the tiny port of Omoa, where Zemurray built railroads over which to move his bananas, as well as shops and a small, screened sanitary town.
Zemurray's operations in Honduras conflicted with the US Secretary of State policy. In those years the US and the Central American republics often reached agreements for the payment of debt to European countries. According to some of these agreements the US Morgan Bank would pay these countries foreign debts, and they would re-pay the Morgan Bank by allowing its agents to sit in the customs houses of both countries (US and the Central American republic) and collect revenues from exports and imports. Zemurray wanted to reach his own agreement on custom taxes with the Honduras Government and side-step with the Morgan Bank, but he was warned by Secretary of State Philander Knox to not continue. Zemurray told Knox that he would continue with his plan regardless of the Morgan Bank and the Secretary of State plans. Knox, thinking that Zemurray had some plan in mind, dispatched Secret Service agents to monitor his activities.
Zemurray contacted two mercenaries, Guy "Machine Gun"Molony and Lee Christmas, plus his friend Manuel Bonilla, a former President of Honduras. The three of them planned a secret operation in Honduras with Zemurray's money. One night they made the Secret Service agents believe that they were going to late night party at a New Orleans brothel. They managed to leave the brothel without notice and took a small boat to a larger ocean yatch. The ship sailed from New Orleans and made its slow voyage to the Honduran coast. Molony and Christmas had brought rifles, amunition, and a powerful machine-gun, a novelty in those times, with which they swiftly defeated the Honduran resistance. The local government was overthrown after six weeks. After the attack, the Honduras President stepped down, a new election was held, and Bonilla was elected president. Once with Bonilla in power, the Honduras Congress approved a concession that guaranteed Zemurray a large tract of land and waived his obligations to pay taxes for the next 25 years.
For a time Zemurray's business continued to operate and expand up the Honduras coast, out of the way of powerful United Fruit. However, as Cuyamel Fruit grew, the competition between the two companies grew as well. To improve the size and quality of his bananas, Zemurray built a very expensive irrigation system, and in 1922 acquired the Bluefields Fruit and Steamship Company. By 1929 Cuyamel Fruit Company had thirteen steamships running between ports of Honduras and Nicaragua and New Orleans. It also had a sugar plantation and refinery, and in 1929, Cuyamel's stock rose while United Fruit's fell. The two companies went into a fierce price war, until United Fruit decided that the best option was to acquire Cuyamel. In 1930 Zemurray sold Cuyamel to United Fruit for 300,000 shares of the latter's stock, making him United Fruit's largest shareholder. He was also given a seat on the board of directors.
With a fortune of over $30 million, Zemurray went into retirement in New Orleans, but with United Fruit's stock continuing to fall, he could not stay out of business entirely. The company's stock which had been selling for $158 in 1929 was worth only $10 in 1932. Zemurray's fortune had dwindled to two million dollars in shares. At this point Zemurray stormed into to the board of directors meeting. The company had long been a preserve of the Boston elite and Daniel G. Wing, chairman of the First National Bank of Boston, displayed his disdain by replying to Zemurray that he could not understand his Russian accent ("Unfortunately, Mr. Zemurray, I can't understand a word of what you say" -Wing said while smiling thinly). Zemurray was infuriated and quickly and he went out and gathered up proxies, allowing him to take control of the company. He famously remarked: "You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out." After this, he was elected to the newly created post of managing director in charge of operations. He continued in this post until 1938, when he became president.
Upon taking control of United Fruit, Zemurray made dramatic and drastic changes in the company, firing and replacing many employees, especially in the tropical divisions. The market reacted positively and the company's stock rose. He was now the world's largest grower, shipper, and seller of bananas. A few months after he took office, the Congress of Costa Rica approved a contract with United Fruit that allowed the development of the banana industry along its Pacific coast. This contract included 3,000 acresof land and the construction of railroads, wharves, and other facilities. The project was completed in 1942 and cost nearly $15 million. Zemurray also expanded the company's operations to include the production, transportation, and sale of cacao, and other tropical products. It operated a fleet of steamships called the Great White Fleet, the largest private fleet in the world. The Great White Fleet carried passengers, freight, and mail between the US and the West Indies, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa. At the end of 1940 the company owned 61 ships and chartered 11 more, and a British affiliate owned 23 ships. At the start of the Second World War, the fleets were taken over by the American and British governments. By 1946 the company had 83,000 employees and owned 116,214 acres for the cultivation of bananas, 95,755 for sugar cane, and 48,260 for cacao.
Zemurray stepped down as president of United Fruit for a year in 1948 to attend to private business matters, then became president again until his retirement in 1951. In the banana belt of the Caribbean he was first known as "Sam, the Banana Man," and then later as "the fish that swallowed the whale." Zemurray was also widely known in Central America for his philantropic works. He created the Escuela Agrícola Panamericana in Honduras, which was a higher education institution, financed by United Fruit, that awarded scholarships to Latin American outstanding students willing to study disciplines related to agriculture. The school did not accept United Fruit employees,and was intent on improving agricultural knowledge independent of the company. Zemurray was also behind the projects that protected Maya ruins in lands close to the company's plantations. He established a center for the study of Mayan art and Central American research at Tulane University, and he created the Lancitilla Botanical Gardens in Honduras.He also gave considerable donations in charity in the United States as well. Other achievements were numerous: he gave the gift that permitted the opening of the New Orleans Child Guidance Clinic; he helped to finance the liberal magazine The Nation; and he underwrote a chair in Radcliffe's English Department for women only. Finally, he was also an advisor of the Board of Economic Welfare during World War II, in which he helped develop new sources of hemp, quinine, and rubber.
After Zemurray retired in 1951, he remained as chairman of the executive committee of United Fruit. In that position it has been said that he had an important role in engineering the overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 1954, after the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz began expropriating the company's plantations in order to follow his agrarian reform project. Zemurray led a campaign that portraied Arbenz as a dangerous Communist in the American media. Working together with an advertisement company he distributed alarmist propaganda among the press and Congressmen in which he showed Guatemala as a foothold of the Soviet Union in the Western Hemisphere. This campaign was eventually successful, since the CIA sponsored a military coup against Arbenz, in which the rebels used United Fruit boats to transport troops and ammunition. The colonel who led the coup, Carlos Castllo, set back Arbenz labor and agrarian reforms and harshly repressed the opposition. In 1961, United Fruit also provided two ships for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Zemurray married Sarah Weinberger in 1904 and had a daughter and a son. His son was killed during World War II while serving in the Air Force.
Bibliography: INGHAM, John N. (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983); MCCANN, Thomas, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit (New York: Crown, 1976); SCHLESSINGER, Stephen & Stephen KINZER, Bitter Fruit (New York: Anchor, 1983).
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