Even when I was a kid, growing up in Brooklyn in the forties, I heard this little poem about Boston:
Here’s to dear old
Home of the bean and the
Where the Lowells speak
only to Cabots,
And the Cabots speak only
In those days I never dreamed I would ever get to see Boston, much less meet a Cabot. Why would a kid from Brownsville, Brooklyn, ever go to Boston? And why would I want to meet one of those people? Or more to the point, why would they want to meet me?
In the fifties I joined United Fruit Company, a banana company (Chiquita) founded in Boston in 1899. The company underwent a name change in the late sixties, but it was very well-known—infamous, in fact—for its tough dealings in Central America and its influence in Washington. The top bananas at the company certainly didn’t enjoy the negative publicity, but the fact is the company was responsible for the creation of the colorful phrase “banana republics.” Look up United Fruit on Wikipedia, but don’t believe everything you see there: The company never murdered anyone, for example, or worked people to death. Its negative influence was grossly overstated, and the good things it did were largely overlooked. There is no denying, however, that the company did have a hand or two (or three) in overthrowing Central American regimes which were “unfriendly,” as management used to say.
I got a job in the New York office, located on the piers in lower Manhattan (now Battery Park City). I started in about as entry level a position as one can get. I was paid $32.50 for a five-and-a-half-day work week; my title was office boy/messenger. I liked the company and saw career opportunities there, so over the next few years I learned as much as I could about the company, both in the tropics and in its international markets. I “majored in United Fruit,” according to one reporter who later wrote an article about me. My hard work paid off because a few years later, in 1960, I was invited to come to work in the company’s Boston headquarters. I was a vice president of that Fortune 500 company when I resigned in 1970.
In 1947, several years before I joined United Fruit, a Bostonian named Thomas Dudley Cabot was president of the company for a very brief period—only a few months.
A few years after I resigned to pursue another career, I wrote a book about the company and my experiences inside the organization (An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit, Crown, 1974). I devoted a couple of pages to Mr. Cabot’s tenure as president, including the fact that it was short lived and, frankly, undistinguished. I even told an unflattering story about him, which I thought made the point very well. At the time I wrote the book I had never met Mr. Cabot.
Within a week of the book’s publication I received a long letter from Thomas Cabot. I was getting a lot of letters (including some from lawyers) about the book and threatening phone calls from people who were unhappy about the way I had portrayed them. Tom Cabot didn’t contact his lawyers; he didn’t call me at home; he didn’t spread the word in Boston urging his business friends to shun me or stop doing business with me. Instead, he wrote me a friendly, thoughtful, generous letter. He said I was correct in my treatment and evaluation of most things I said about him. He said he enjoyed the book but went on to say, “I hope you will pardon me if I give you a new version of some of the anecdotes which you include. Please don’t allow the corrections to impair the delightful quality of the stories in case you tell them again.” He suggested that if the book went into subsequent printings, which it did, I might want to make one or two small changes just to set the record straight.
What Tom Cabot did not say, but which I knew instantly, was that the story I told made him look foolish, and he didn’t deserve that. But my biggest mistake by far was not that I told the story in the first edition of the book. It lay in my not telling the reader what Tom Cabot went on to do after he was fired from United Fruit. He built up the Cabot Corporation; served in important advisories to several United States presidents; made large contributions to higher education both in the United States and Latin America; was very generous with his enormous wealth; and was an ardent conservationist long before Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and before environmentalism became fashionable. [For more on his interest in conservation, see Beggar on Horseback: The Autobiography of Thomas D. Cabot, David R. Godine, 1979.]
I replied to Mr. Cabot’s letter, telling him that of all the letters I had received, and all the favorable reviews the book received, none had pleased me more that his, and, at the same time, none had dismayed me more. He called me a short time later, and we had lunch in his private dining room at the Cabot Corporation. He insisted that we get on a first-name basis, and we did despite the fact that he was almost forty years older and it was difficult for me to call him by his first name. He and I met on many other occasions in the years that followed. I got to know him over the course of twenty years—through lunches, dinners, phone conversations, events at his home. In all the times we saw each other, he was unfailingly courteous (although occasionally he would tweak me a little about how we had gotten to know each other). And he was always interested in my life, career, opinions, and family, particularly my wife, Joan, and our son, Peter. He liked to give advice to young people. He once told Peter, “Aim high, always aim high.” Another time he told a seventeen-year-old Peter, “It is not easy to be rich,” and proceeded to tell him why. Never at a loss for words, Peter said, “I’ll try to remember that, Mr. Cabot.”
Tom Cabot taught me a lesson I shall never forget. He easily could have decided I was a lifetime enemy, but he chose instead to treat me as a friend. Tom Cabot was 98 years old when he died in 1981. I still miss him, as do many others whose lives he touched.