“Ana Ana bo bana Banana Fana fo fana fi fi mo mana–Ana” —The Name Game, Shirley Ellis
The author Rich Cohen has a gift for mining the personal histories of his family and his culture. In “Tough Jews,” Cohen recounts the world of his father, who, along with childhood pal, Larry King, grew up amidst a “Jewish Mafia” commanded by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Amazon.com describes it as painting a “densely anecdotal and gruesomely funny history of muscle, moxie, and money,” as far removed from today’s Jewish experience as is Tevye’s Anatevka.
In “Sweet and Low,” Cohen hits closer to home, recounting in wry and bitter prose his own family’s story, centered around the ersatz sweetener Sweet N’ Low, which his grandfather invented and then built into a massive empire of wealth that eventually nourished the venal human emotions of pride, envy, and greed that destroyed family bonds even as Sweet N’ Low replaced calorie-packed sugar with the no-cal cloying sweetness that newly diet-conscious American’s craved in the 5o’s and 60’s.
His latest book, out next week, is called “The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.” It’s the story of Samuel Zemurray, a Jewish immigrant who saw the potential in piles of rotting bananas on the wharves of Mobile, Alabama, and then went on to corner the market on the yellow fruit with the slippery peel, going so far as to foment revolutions in Central America to install friendly rulers that allowed him to corner the market.
In all three books, Cohen demonstrates a knack for stories that reveal the complexities of friendship, family, and business. He also knows a thing or two about the value of Intellectual Property, especially the immeasurable value of a good brand name.
In Sweet and Low, Cohen describes how his grandfather invented the sugar packet but neglected to patent it. When Domino Sugar took his idea, Cohen’s grandpop regrouped. Sensing that America’s diet craze that began in the 1950’s could pad his coffers as it reduced waistlines, Cohen’s patriarch hit on the idea of putting ordinary saccharine into the same type of packets that Domino was using. Even though anyone else could have done the same thing, Cohen’s grandfather did something that made his product stand out–he gave it a memorable name–Sweet N’ Low. He also designed the unforgettable pink packet with the treble cleft logo. For decades, until Equal blue packets hit the market, Sweet N’ Low was the only tune dieters called for when it came to sugar substitutes.
Writing about his new book in the Wall Street Journal, Cohen recounts an episode when Sam Zemurray allowed his biggest rival, United Fruits, to use Sam’s ships to break a blockade of Nicaragua’s rivers by striking banana workers. Zemurray’s ships did the job. But his name and logo were painted on the side, making his name anathema in Nicaragua. Channeling one of trademark law’s core principles, Cohen writes: “A person who doesn’t control his own name and image has nothing . . . a lost reputation is gone forever.”
Not even the world of Tough Jews was immune to the lure of a good brand name. Individuals adopted nicknames–like Bugsy and Kid Twist-to make them more fearsome. And it didn’t hurt business when a minyan of thugs, brutes, and killers who’d stop at nothing to get their way, but wouldn’t conduct a hit on the Sabbath, branded themselves as “Murder Inc.”
What Rich Cohen says in today’s article about his latest book applies to all of his historical writing, “Studying [these] adventures, you come away with a few basic lessons.” One of them is don’t forget to patent your ideas. And another, even more fundamental lesson is this–you can’t go wrong with the right name.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” – Groucho Marx