Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sweet. And Low

A bittersweet history of a business and a family
The son and daughters of the inventor of SweetN' Low, the popular pink packeted sugar substitute nearly destroyed the company and each other.
By Richard Pachter

Sweet and Low. Rich Cohen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages.

In South Florida, Sweet'N Low enjoys iconic status. Back in the '80s, radio host Neil Rogers poked fun at senior citizens — in Hallandale, mainly — who surreptitiously slipped a few pink packets of the artificial sweetener into their pockets and purses during Early Bird visits to local eateries. Their shrieks of outrage equaled the knowing howls of younger listeners who'd endured the spectacle in silence and could now laugh along with Rogers' exhortations.

Who knew that the petty larceny paralleled that of the owners and producers of the coveted powder and packets?

Probably writer Rich Cohen, whose meticulous and highly readable chronicle of the family business of Sweet'N Low creator Ben Eisenstadt combines the histories of sugar, the fabled borough of Brooklyn, U.S. government regulation of food and drugs, America's dieting obsession and his own story as the ''issue,'' (child), of the Eisenstadt daughter disinherited by the family matriarch.

Cumberland Packing Co., the family business, also originated the concept of selling sugar in packets, an earlier Ben Eisenstadt brainstorm. But who knew from patents? He quickly learned about them when the Domino Sugar Co. copied the idea, according to his grandson.

The company did reasonably well selling its own sugar in packets, but the business really took off after Ben's son (and Rich's uncle) ''Marvelous'' Marvin Eisenstadt came aboard. But then there was the matter of alleged Mafia infiltration of the company, the subsequent indictments and the deleterious effects of sibling jealousies and other family politics.

About three-quarters of the way into the text, Cohen — the author of previous volumes on Jewish gangsters, Jewish record executives and Jewish resistance fighters during World War II — explains this book's odd inevitability.

He writes: 'I started researching this story shortly before my first son was born, but I have always known that I would write it. (I have been writing it in my head my entire life.) It tacked on my horizon like a yacht. I studied the old patents and the newspaper articles archived in the New York Public Library. I stared at the pictures of Ben and Marvin that ran with these stories. I examined photos in old family albums. I talked to defense lawyers and lobbyists and scientists and prosecutors. My mother gave me a copy of the will, family letters and legal correspondence. It is a personal story, a version of which exists in the head of every member of the family, yet in just a few months of research it generated a mountain of paper. I sent away to a federal record center in Georgiafor all the boxes and files on the Cumberland prosecution, which I examined over several days at a building in Manhattan. If I had been an anonymous reporter, I would have thought, 'Gold mine!' As it was, I felt like a stalker lurking in the weeds behind my uncle's house.''

Cohen is a terrific writer, and what more fertile ground can there be than one's own family whose business enriched it with a fortune that he was denied? But he obviously worked very hard to give each family member their due, even the ones who blew him off and wouldn't speak with him. A lesser writer's sour grapes would have rendered the text bilious and unreadable. But this is a fabulous book, a fantastic portrait of how family and business can become intertwined and destructive to both.

(I didn't realize until he mentioned it, almost 60 pages on, that the author's father is Herb Cohen, the author of several fine books on negotiation. Aha!)

Unless I read 10 books better than this one, Sweet and Low is a lock for my annual Best Business Books list.

published May 2006 in The Miami Herald

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