Like bananas? Meet the New Orleans businessman responsible for that.
Around 1895, hardscrabble Russian immigrant Sam Zemurray got an idea. Noticing that tons of slightly overripe — but still perfectly good — bananas were being discarded after coming into port in Mobile, Ala., the 18-year-old Zemurray figured, correctly, that he could buy them for a song. Over the following decades, he would amass a small fortune by selling those bananas on the streets and out of train boxcars first in Mobile and then in New Orleans by the turn of the 20th century. He parlayed that bootstrap success into his status as one of the most powerful businessmen in the world, first as founder of the Cuyamel Fruit Company in New Orleans, then as president of the United Fruit Company. Revolutionizing the biology of the banana and playing hardball with Central American politics from his home in the Crescent City, Zemurray became respected, beloved and feared, earning the legendary sobriquet Sam the Banana Man.
From a business standpoint, few traces of Zemurray’s onetime empire can be found in New Orleans, as Chiquita Brands — the corporate offspring of United Fruit — moved its headquarters in 1985 to Charlotte, N.C. His charitable involvements, however — which earned him The Times-Picayune’s Loving Cup in 1938 — can been seen in any number of local institutions that benefited from his generosity, including Touro Infirmary and Tulane University. In addition, tangible remnants of his empire can be seen, for example, in the old, ornate United Fruit doorway on the Fidelity Homestead Building at 321 St. Charles Avenue. In addition, Zemurray’s former mansion at the corner of Audubon Place and St. Charles Avenue was donated to Tulane after his death and has for the last 50 years served as the residence of the university’s president.
- Zemurray was born Schmuel Zmurri on Jan. 18, 1877, into a poor Jewish family headed by his father, David (or Davis), in what is now Moldova but what at the time was ruled by the Russian Empire. Young Sam immigrated to the United States in 1892, after leaving Bremen, Germany, in June of that year. He and family members settled in Selma, Ala.
- By the time he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1904, Zemurray was already living and working in New Orleans, first on Common Street, then on Nashville Street, according to city directories.
- While Zemurray was establishing himself as an entrepreneurial kingpin in Central America during the first three decades of the 20th century, he founded his first important business in New Orleans — the Hubbard-Zemurray Steam Ship Company, which shuttled bananas and labor between his burgeoning plantations in Latin America and New Orleans.
- Hubbard-Zemurray soon morphed into the Cuyamel Fruit Co., with headquarters at 410-412 Camp Street. In November 1929, Zemurray sold Cuyamel to United Fruit Co. and accepted a position on United’s board of directors. Between 1932 and 1938, Zemurray gradually seized control of the company that, just a decade or two earlier, had been his most bitter rival. In mid-1932, his fellow United board members placed him in charge of company operations, and in 1938 he stepped out from behind the curtain to formally become United Fruit president.
- Zemurray was not friends with another near-mythical figure from 20th-century Louisiana — Gov. Huey Long. According to a February 1951 article in Life, the two Pelican State titans frequently clashed over politics and principles. The article asserted that “he fought the Huey Long machine from its inception with money and influence.”
- Zemurray’s businesses enhanced the city’s famed cultural and social mélange by attracting thousands of Central American immigrants eager to find a new life in the United States. For example, United Fruit employees in Central America were able to send their children to New Orleans to receive an education at local schools Annunciation, Ursuline, and Holy Cross in New Orleans. “Many of these individuals also chose to remain in the city rather than return to their country of origin. Thus, a strong social pipeline was created between the two places,” wrote Denese Neu, a community and sustainability consultant who received a doctorate in urban studies from UNO.
- The azalea-filled Zemurray Gardens at his former summer home in the Tangipahoa Parish town of Loranger was for years open for public tours until taking on heavy damage in 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
- Sam Zemurray died of Parkinson’s disease in New Orleans on Nov. 30, 1961. He was 84. He is buried alongside his longtime wife Sarah in Metairie Cemetery.
Zemurray’s lasting legacy is decidedly mixed. His businesses and charitable giving were an undeniable boon to New Orleans. At the same time, Honduras and other Central American countries continue to deal with the political, economic and social scars carved by the strong-arming, back-room methods of Zemurray and other fruit barons, leading to the labeling of Honduras and other Central American countries as “banana republics.” Upon his 1961 death, The Times-Picayune wrote that how “the late Samuel Zemurray … should be remembered by the public, it is hard to say.” The paper added: “He was a fable in his times; and one certain fact is that he will be well remembered.”