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Sweet and Low: A Family Story Paperback – March 20, 2007
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Sweet and Low by Richard Cohen bills itself as "the unauthorized true story of one Brooklyn family." And what a family. Cohen, the disinherited grandson of the artificial sweetener Sweet 'n' Low's inventor, combines two parts Horatio Alger-memoir, one part cultural commentary and three parts personal criticism into a fascinating snapshot of American life, immigrant experience and a broad sermon on the perils of fortune. Cohen's maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, a mid-grade inventor and Brooklyn restaurateur concocts the idea of selling sugar in individual packets--a revolutionary concept in the age of crusty, unsanitary sugar dispensers. His idea stolen by the big sugar companies, Cohen squeaks out a post-war living selling his packets in their shadow until he and his son, Marvin, invent the formula for the saccharine sweetener and catch the first big wave of the American diet craze. Those little pink packets create a vast fortune soon tarnished by interfamily squabbles, Mafia influence, FDA edicts and, mostly, the baser aspects of human nature--greed, jealousy and pride. Cohen, a writer for Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, among other publications, weaves a compelling and often biting narrative about his mother's family. Using those pink packets as metaphor, he paints a dystopic portrait of the American Dream, that, in his family's case, was as devoid of nourishment as any artificial sweetener.--Jeremy Pugh --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Disinherited from the family fortune built by his maternal grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, who invented the artificial sweetener Sweet'N Low, Cohen mines a wealth of family history in this funny, angry, digressive memoir. Ben worked as a short-order cook during the Depression and conceived of but failed to patent the sugar packet before he and his son Marvin hit pay dirt in the 1950s with the saccharin formula for Sweet'N Low. Today a distant third to Equal and Splenda, Sweet'N Low is run by Marvin's son Jeff, who took over after Marvin and several other chief officers were charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy in 1993. This story of the family-owned, Brooklyn-based company is, at its heart, a tale of immigrant strife and Cohen's fractious Jewish clan, including his grandmother Betty, for whom "love is finite," and his hypochondriac, housebound Aunt Gladys ("a tongue probing a sore"), who connived to eliminate her sister (Cohen's mother) from Betty's will. Though Cohen often dollies back in a self-conscious if breezy effort to pad his memoir with big ideas—the history of artificial sweeteners, the post-WWII weight-watching craze, etc.—the real grace of his writing (seen in Tough Jews) lies in the merciless, comic characterizations of his relatives. Photos. (Apr. 11)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Rich is a grand storyteller and this is the story of his family. It's a colorful family that Rich traces from the Patriarch's childhood through his death. Rich paints a picture of each person's peculiarities as seen from various family members yet stays focused on the life of the business and sad life of how various family conflicts were managed and tore them apart. The author's mother was excluded from inheriting her share of the business or any family assets. How could this happen? How could a family with hundreds of millions in assets decide not to give one nickel to one of the upstanding and successful children? This is where Rich begins the story and as he writes in the end of the introduction "To be disinherited is to be set free." (p. xii)
Through reading this manuscript, you will find yourself swept into the culture of this immigrant roots of the patriarch's family who was born in New York in 1906. You will learn the character of the family members and be taken through the critical decisions both in the business and the family up to the present day.
Perhaps what's most interesting is the author's description of family dynamics. For example he writes "Betty (the wife of the patriarch) can marry well, support her mother and father, fill the world with children, and it's still not enough." He explains that as a child no matter what Betty in her family, it was not enough to raise the depression of the family circumstances and how this may have impacted her character.
Shortly after Marvin, the oldest son began working in the factory, he was given half the shares of the company. But of course there are two kinds of stock (Class A - voting stock which is where the control and power is and Class B - non-voting or common stock). Of course Marvin was given non-voting stock that way Ben (the patriarch) could give without giving. "This distribution mimics the dynamics of the family. Map the stock and you map the love." (p. 78). Was this related to what happened in 1993 where Marvin was arrested and charged with tax evasion and criminal conspiracy?
As a student and coach of family businesses for now close to twenty years. I can only say Halleluyah for an absolutely illuminating story of how families sometimes interact in business and how us professionals can help save or be a bridge for a healthy family and business.
A lively account of an interesting family. Ultimately, the determinedly irreverent, self-consciously smart-aleck tone of the narrator begins to pall. Anyone so determined to be clever, and to draw attention to their cleverness, runs a high risk of exhausting the reader's sympathy: about two thirds of the way through this book, I had the strong sensation of being seated next to someone in a plane whose anecdotes, though amusing, are nowhere near as amusing as their author seems to think.
The abuse of footnotes makes David Foster Wallace look like a model of restraint. Dude - do you have any idea how unintelligible and irritating those nested footnotes spanning several pages are?
The prevailing obsession with his own cleverness prevented me from giving it a fourth star; nonetheless, it's a pretty decent read.