WHAT did you have for breakfast this morning? Perhaps you just grabbed cereal and milk, and added some banana.
If you are a lover of that yellow breakfast fruit, then you should know that it took quite a bit of doing -– like overthrowing Central American governments –- before the banana was a staple of American or European diets.
And a shadowy Irish American mercenary/police chief from New Orleans played a key role in the international intrigue which eventually brought that banana to your breakfast table.
The only trouble is, for all of his prominence in New Orleans and dabbling in international intrigue, not much is known about the mysterious soldier of fortune known as “Machine Gun” Molony. (And by the way, if this story of bananas and Irish mercenaries all sounds a bit, well, fruity, you should know that another character in this saga has the festive last name of Christmas.)
Guy “Machine Gun” Kelly was featured in not one but two books which came out earlier this year, and which told the tangled political and social history of the beloved yellow breakfast fruit.
“United Fruit’s business was bananas,” Peter Chapman writes in Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Chan-ged the World (Canongate). “From bananas it had built an empire.”
Chapman’s book, as well as Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (Hudson Street Press), explored how, at the turn of the 20th century, United Fruit (with help from the U.S. government) set up cozy relationships with Central American officials to build themselves into corporate giants.
But they were challenged by the likes of “Machine Gun” Molony.
He was born in New Orleans in the 1880s. At a young age, he left the fledgling port city and fought with the British in the Boer War (which is where he apparently picked up his gangsterish nickname).
Molony returned to New Orleans and “became a police officer but found the work uninteresting; not enough action,” Koeppel writes in his book.
He went off to Honduras, where plenty of action would find him, as well as his partner in mercenary adventure, a man named Lee Christmas. Christmas was a hired gun who sided with Honduran rebels who were looking to overthrow United Fruit, or at least get a piece their action.
Molony and Christmas were hired by Sam Zemurray, an ambitious Russian immigrant who wanted to build his own fruit empire in Honduras, much to the dismay of United Fruit as well as their pals in Washington. They told Molony, Zemurray and Christmas to stay out of the Honduran fruit game.
The Irishman, the Russian and the guy named after the holiday would not listen. While planning their next move in New Orleans, the trio was actually tracked by Secret Service agents. They ducked into a brothel, lost the government agent, then boated to Honduras, where they led an insurrection which eventually overthrew the Honduran government favorable to United Fruit.
During an extended era of U.S. involvement in various Central American proxy wars, author Koeppel refers to the invasion led by Zemurray, Christmas and Molony as “one of the most audacious escapades of the era.”
What did Molony do afterwards?
By 1920, he was named superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, whose leadership was an Irish mafia if ever there was one. Men named Boyle, Mooney, Reynolds and Healy held leadership positions before, during and after Molony’s reign (which, according to one history of the New Orleans Police Department, was described as one of the most successful in the city’s history).
But Molony remained active in Central American affairs and U.S. politics, hobnobbing with Vice President Richard Nixon in one photograph. In 1972, he finally died (in the words of author Lucius Shepard) “at the age of 89 prosperous, fat and unrepentant, after a lifetime of violent accomplishment.”
Think about that next time you peel a banana for breakfast.
(Contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org)