Eli M. Black Born: April 9, 1921 (Poland) Died: February 3, 1975 (New York City, NY)
Black closed the door to his own office. He raised the Venetian blind. Then..the man who never raised his voice swung his attache case against a quarter-inch-thick plate glass window with enough force to shatter it. The police said he then removed some of the glass and jumped out. It was 8 a.m., Monday, Feb. 3. There was no note.The St. Petersburg Times, February 19, 1975
Eli M. Black was known by peers to be a controlled, unemotional man, and a fierce competitor on Wall Street. Born in Poland as Elihu Blachomitz, he moved to America while a young boy. He came from a long line of Rabbi’s, and during his early years he was determined to continue the ‘family business.’ He studied at Yeshiva University and served as a Rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue in Woodmere, Long Island for three years. He then decided to move into a more lucrative career, and his life on Wall Street began.1
Black started his business career working in investment banking for the Lehman Brothers. In 1954 he was named CEO of the milk cap makers American Seal-Kap Company. From there Black made his way into the world of conglomerate building. He primarily focused on food brands, and he struck deals to acquire companies such as A&W (Root Beer) and John Morrell (a meat-packing company). Yet, none of these deals held a candle to Black’s ultimate purchase, which set a new record for the largest single stock purchase up to that time. In 1968, Black’s firm paid $40 million to buy 733,000 shares (roughly 10%), of the United Fruit Company, which by then had established itself as ‘El Pulpo.’ After that, the conglomerate was renamed the United Brands Company and Black was named CEO.2
Unfortunately for Black, this momentous deal ended up doing more harm than good. Not only was United Fruit worth less than what Black originally thought, but in September of 1974 Hurricane Fifi struck Central America. Thousands of lives were lost and the hurricane destroyed thousands upon thousands of acres of United Fruit property and banana trees.3 This disaster threw United Brands into a financial crisis, and their banks were pressuring them to sell off stocks and holdings. The first sale came in the form of a subsidiary called Foster Grant. Black was incredibly reluctant to sell Foster Grant, but the sale was unavoidable. Family and friends stated that he fell into a period of depression while negotiations for Foster Grant were taking place, and reached out for psychiatric help. But his life came to a dramatic end on February 3, 1975, when Eli Black went up to his Pan Am Building office and threw himself out a window. The very next day, reports of Foster Grant’s sale for $70-million to a West German Chemical Company were announced4.
The story of Black’s suicide has since been consistently retold with the same disturbing details by reporters from all walks of life. The question remaining is, why? Black was a stoic man, never known for his theatrics, so what made him choose such a movie-like death? Some argue that it had to do with the Foster Grant sale and his subsequent depression, but there is another theory. A week before his death, company attorneys disclosed to the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission that United Brands had used a Swiss bank account to bribe the Economic Minister of Honduras $1.25-million to lower the country’s tax rates on the company’s property and products.5 It was revealed after his death that Black had overseen the deal. As a result, Black, who was known as a philanthropist, may not have been willing to face the humiliation of being branded as corrupt.6
Kilborne, Peter T. “Violent Death Contradicted Executive’s Quiet Life.” St. Petersburg Times, February 19, 1975.
Krajicek, David J. “Going Bananas: Pan Am Building Suicide in Chaquita Scandel.” Daily News, May 22, 2011. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/bananas-pan-building-suicide-chiquita-scandal-article-1.143195
1 Krajicek, “Going Bananas”
2 Krajicek, “Going Bananas”
3 Krajicek, “Going Bananas”
4 Kilborne, “Violent Death”
5 Krajicek, “Going Bananas”
6 Kilborne, “Violent Death”