The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - by Rich Cohen

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.)

He was the solitary sort, a late-night walker and party avoider. He liked to make decisions on his own--better to ask forgiveness than permission.

No matter how long he lived in the South, Zemurray could never rise above street Spanish overlaid by his American accent, overlaid by his Russian accent. He was all overlay--identity stacked on identity, life stacked on life.

There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.

If asked to sum up Sam in these early days, when he was building his first plantation, I would use the word "drive": it was drive, ambition, moxie, guts, or whatever you want to call it that pushed him from Selma to New Orleans, then on to the jungle towns of the isthmus, where the genie was loosed and the man went wild. Drive to make money, leave a mark, climb the pyramid, beat the bastards who gave him the high hat. Why bananas? Because it was the nearest product at hand. The Southern markets reeked of them. If he had settled in Chicago, it would have been beef; if Pittsburgh, steel; if L.A., movies. In the end, it does not matter what you're stocking--selling is the thing.

He believed in the transcendent power of physical labor--that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body. A life in an office, deskbound, was for the feeble and weak who cut themselves off from the actual.

A businessman can live with a certain amount of corruption. Maybe he prefers it. If he's paying off an official, kicking a percentage back to a bureaucrat who landed him a concession, at least he knows where he stands. In New York, they call it honest graft. In Chicago, they call it the Machine. A deal is a deal. Paid for is owned. But if a bribed official refuses to deliver, or if a bought politician suddenly becomes unbought, how can a man do business? This is the other kind of corruption, the corrupt kind, and it leads to bankruptcy and ruin. It's not a question of right versus wrong, it's a question of ethics. If you buy a man, you have a right to expect him to stay bought.

A corporation ages like a person. As the years go by and the founders die off, making way for the bureaucrats of the second and third generations, the ecstatic, risk-taking, just-for-the-hell-of-it spirit that built the company gives way to a comfortable middle age. Where the firm had been forward looking and creative, it becomes self-conscious in the way of a man, pestering itself with dozens of questions before it can act. How will it look? What will they say? If the business is wealthy and strong, the executives who come to power in these later generations will be characterized by the worst kind of self-confidence: they think the money will always by there because it always has been.

From the outside, the Banana War seems unfathomable. Zemurray had taken on an enemy of superior resources and size over a few thousand acres that could add only marginally to his wealth. Why did he do it? Why didn't he strike a deal? To understand this, you have to understand Zemurray's personality--personality and style being the great unaccounted factors in history. Strength, charisma, shrewdness, power--his defining characteristics were the sort not recorded in photos or articles, which can make him seem mysterious, strange. What drove him? Didn't he know you can't take it with you in the end? (Yes, but this is not the end.) To colleagues like Frank Brogan who knew Zemurray, his motivation was clear: he wanted to win. And would do whatever it took. Here was a self-made man, filled with the most dangerous kind of confidence: he had done it before and believed he could do it again. This gave him the air of a berserker, who says, If you're going to fight me, you better kill me. If you've ever known such a person, you will recognize the type at once. If he does not say much, it's because he considers small talk a weakness. Wars are not won by running your mouth. I'm describing a once essential American type that has largely vanished. Think of him as a gambler in the midst of a run, whose mind is fixed on the one thing. If he does not look up, it's not because he is shallow or stupid. It's because he knows the moment he looks up, the spell is broken and the game is lost.

According to friends, Sam was a sharp trader who knew the prize goes to he who does not lose his head or open his mouth too soon. What cannot be accomplished by threats can often be achieved by composure. Sit and stare and let your opponent fill the silence with his own demons.

Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.

Among the highest forms of tzedakah is to give anonymously, in a way that does not disgrace the person in need. Whenever possible, Sam gave without affixing his signature: neither press conference nor public announcement nor strings attached. A private man who shunned publicity, he believed charity was sacred but that those things that often surround it--newspaper pomp, ribbon cutting--were tawdry. I don't know whether Zemurray read the Bible or knew the code, only that he'd clearly been affected by the folk wisdom, what his father told his mother over the dinner table in Russia: that giving with display is not giving, but trading. I give you money, you give me prestige. Philanthropy that does not degrade is done so quietly not even the rescued learns the name of his rescuer.

The greatness of Zemurray lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation. Bad things happened to him as bad things happen to everyone, but unlike so many he was never tempted by failure. He never felt powerless or trapped. He was, as I said, an optimist. He stood in constant defiance. When the secretary of state teamed up with J. P. Morgan and the Honduran government in a way contrary to Zemurray's interests, he simply changed the Honduran government. When United Fruit drew a line at the Utila River and said, "You shall not cross," he crossed anyway. When he was forbidden to build a bridge, he built a bridge but called it something else. For every move, there is a countermove. For every disaster, there is a recovery. He never lost faith in his own agency.

There is the substance of what you do, then there is the style, the subtext of your story told not in words but in how you go about your business. Unlike other incoming chiefs--here I'm thinking of CEOs who take over bureaucracy-heavy companies in trouble--Zemurray did not begin his work at company headquarters. He did not spend his first days with accountants, nor coop himself up with reports, nor shout his head off at meetings. He went out on the road, announcing straightaway that he would begin his tenure with a six-week tour of the banana lands. He wanted to visit every country where United Fruit owned plantations, ports, railroads. He wanted to talk to the men in the fields. He wanted to see for himself.

Zemurray's most important hire was Edward Bernays, the man who invented modern public relations. Bernays approached the age of mass media like a scientist in search of general principles, which he recorded in articles and books: Crystallizing Public Opinion, Propaganda, The Engineering of Consent. He had two basic insights from which everything else followed: First: modern society, with its millions, is essentially ungovernable. The public must instead be controlled by manipulation. The men who do this manipulating, in government or not, are the true leaders, philosopher-kings. They need not manipulate all the people, only the few thousand who set the agenda. The drivers of history are not the people, in other words, nor the elite who influence the people, but the PR men who influence the elite who influence the people. "Those who manipulate [the] unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power," wrote Bernays. "We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of." Second: the people can be made to behave as you want them to behave via the subconscious of the public mind--no one else believed such a thing existed--which can be directed with symbols and signs. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind," asked Bernays, "is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?"

"In almost every act of our daily lives," wrote Bernays, "whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world."

Both sides took the same lesson from the war: compassion is weakness, mercy a disease. You must be willing to go all the way.

A corporation is a product of a particular place and a particular time. U.S. Steel was Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Microsoft was Seattle in the 1980s. It's where and when their sense of the world was fixed. The company brain is hardwired. Which is why a corporation, though conceivably immortal, tends to have a life span, tends to age and die. Unless remade by a new generation of pioneers--in which case it's a different company--most corporations do not outlive the era of their first success. When the ideas and assumptions prevalent at the time of their founding go out of fashion, the company fades.