Sweet and Low: A Family Story
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Sweet and Low: A Family Story

4.2 13
by Rich Cohen

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The invention. The fortune. The payoffs. The convictions. The family.


The invention. The fortune. The payoffs. The convictions. The family.

Editorial Reviews

One reader described this family biography concisely and accurately as "the history of the sweet tooth and the Machiavellian family that tamed it." The Machiavelli at its center is Ben Eisenstadt, the author's grandfather, who built a business empire based on saccharine and dextrose. After World War II, this former short-order cook invented first the sugar packet and then, with the help of his son Marvin, sugar substitute Sweet 'N Low. These discoveries brought immigrant Ben and his family a fortune but also provoked a fierce 40-year battle for control of the company. Now happily disinherited, Rick Cohen recapitulates the saga of his family's twisted American dream with a bittersweet mix of affection and regret.
Publishers Weekly
Cohen's grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, created the artificial sweetener saccharine and modified a tea-bagging machine to produce individual, sanitary packets of sugar substitute, calling it Sweet`N Low. Cohen expands the story beyond the family by incorporating truncated histories of Jews in New York, the saga of sugar alternatives and the rise and fall of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Nevertheless, internecine wars over the family fortune, ending with a legal battle over Grandma's will, dominates. Despite the abridgment, accounts of dead relatives tangentially connected to the story and FDA history are rambling and overlong. Fortunately, the tale is laced with enough humor and family shenanigans to keep the listener's attention. Cohen, the son of Eisenstadt's disinherited daughter, has a bit of an axe to grind. As reader, he keeps his voice even, perhaps too level, with the same monotonous emphasis on a noun or adjective in every sentence. A hint of smugness creeps in as Grandpa Ben and his son, Marvin, are convicted of misdeeds that are more low than sweet. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 13). (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The history of the artificial sweetener giant-its humble beginnings, its rise to prominence, and the high-profile criminal doings that got into the mix-would be interesting enough. When the saga is written by the (disinherited) grandson of the inventor, who combines the product's history with his personal quest for the truth and his considerable skills at crafting compelling tableaux, you have one sweet read. Cohen (contributing editor, Rolling Stone; Tough Jews) doesn't just rely on family anecdotes; he digs through court records, interviews relatives (some won't talk with him), and peruses library microfilm to reveal various layers of truth. Everything from the origins of the name Sweet and Low and its packet design to his family's involvement in organized crime is up for investigation. Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics-the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York-much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized. Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Jennifer Zarr, NYPL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the author's family invented Sweet'N Low, got rich, collapsed in scandal and set him free by disinheritance. The first and best section of this haphazard book by Cohen (Machers and Rockers, 2004, etc.) follows the rise of his grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, born in New York in 1906 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. Eisenstadt supplemented his slow-going law career by opening a diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It boomed with the war years, then went bust, so he opened a factory in which loose tea was packed into tea bags. Thinking the technique might be adapted to sugar, he suggested the idea to sugar companies, who thanked the naive, patent-less inventor and started making the packets themselves. Only later did Ben and his son Marvin turn saccharin into Sweet'N Low, the sugar substitute that would take the world by storm. mob-associated guys who liked to bill the company for the construction of their mansions. Cohen's wing of the family was disinherited after a dramatic and truly ugly fight about a will presided over by Aunt Gladys, a misanthropic shut-in who wielded frightening powers via telephone and fax. Cohen can't quite decide what kind of book he's writing: He offers a mini-history of sugar here, confusing family history there. But at its best, sardonically dissecting an unlikely success, it spins gold. A cracked family saga and an ode to Brooklyn, that incubator of immigrants and ideas.
From the Publisher

“A small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling--and often hilarious--parable about the pursuit and costs of the American dream . . . recounted with uncommon acuity and wit.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“How decadent to indulge in Rich Cohen's rollicking account of his family and the business it built. . . . Cohen has a terrific eye for detail, the little things that affix people and places in our memories, the gestures and miscues that shape family history. . . . It's a guilty pleasure--sort of like sugar without calories.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch. . . . He moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get.” —The Washington Post

“It is Cohen's good fortune to be on the side of the family that was disinherited. Sweet revenge is the energy behind this glorious book.” —Time

“Cohen tells a fascinating story about family bonds in his quest to discover why his mother was cast out. His skewering of his relatives is merciless. . . . Plenty of writers have dissected their less-than-perfect families.Dealing with the issue with this much heart, though--that's extraordinary.” —People

“Hilarious.” —Newsweek

“This book is an absolute pleasure: expansive, fascinating, funny and full of historical tidbits to read aloud to anyone around.” —Salon.com

“Never less than fascinating . . . Sweet and Low might as well be a Balzacian nineteenth-century novel complete with a crisis, a contested will, and a tragic resolution.” —Los Angeles Times

“Unfailingly entertaining . . . Echoes the cadences of such literary antecedents as Saul Bellow.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Cohen writes entertainingly, lining up characters like objects in a curio cabinet. . . . He is an unusually nimble writer, capable of casually broaching grander themes. By balancing his more ambitious material with Eisenstadt family lore, and moving the drama away from the money he'll never see, he makes the story of Sweet'N Low something more than just a pleasant taste that lingers in the mouth.” —The New York Observer

“Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. . . . Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics--the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York--much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized.” —Library Journal

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

Everyone in my family tells this story, but everyone starts it in a different way. My mother starts it in the diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, a short-order cook, invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low, and with them built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble. My sister starts it with his wife, Betty, the power behind the throne, the woman who, in this version, found in Ben a vehicle for her dreams. Whenever anyone asks what Betty was like, I say, "Betty had her name legally changed to Betty from Bessie."

My father starts the story in downtown Brooklyn, in the courtroom where my Uncle Marvin, the first son of the patriarch, a handsome, curly-haired man who insists on being called Uncle Marvelous, is facing off against federal prosecutors. After assuming control of the Cumberland Packing Company, which makes Sweet'N Low, Sugar in the Raw, Nu-Salt, and Butter Buds, Marvin, among other things that caused a scandal, put a criminal on the payroll, a reputed associate of the Bonanno crime family. That criminal made illegal campaign contributions to Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who sponsored legislation that kept saccharin on the market. Saccharin, a key ingredient of Sweet'N Low, had been found to cause cancer. In the end, Marvin cut a deal with prosecutors, testifying for the government and keeping himself out of prison.

In other words, Uncle Marvelous turned rat.

I start this story at the Metropolitan Club, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where my cousin Jeffrey, the oldest son of the oldest son, the scion of the third generation, is getting married for the second time. Jeffrey, a burned-out surfer, a bloodshot member of the high school class of '78 whose yearbook picture still tells the story, is earmarked to inherit the empire. If Jeffrey read more widely, he would know that he is fated to screw the pooch, lose his grip, open his hands and let the money blast back into the whirlwind.

Or I start with Uncle Ira, the youngest son of Ben and Betty, a vice president of the company, who controls 49 percent of the stock. Ira, who has always struck me as an extreme eccentric, is years younger than his siblings, a pampered, interesting kid who grew into a genuine nut, a man who carries a purse, wears sandals, follows whims, sports an unruly red beard, and lives in an East Side town house with his wife and many cats. Ira has been to his office at the factory just twice in the last ten years. (Though he says he works many hours a day from home via phone and fax.) He is the trick that fate played on empire, the inscrutable brother who has to be watched.

At Jeff's wedding, he approached me in the bathroom. Standing next to me at the urinal, he said, "What is the last thing you want your crazy uncle to say to you in the bathroom?"


"Nice dick."

My brother starts the story in Flatbush, in the icebox chill room of my aunt Gladys, a woman who, for mysterious reasons, had not been out of the house-her childhood home, where she still lived with Ben and Betty-in almost thirty years. I once heard a politician describe a rival's tax scheme as "the crazy aunt hiding in the attic," and I said to myself, "She actually lives on the ground floor." Whenever I asked what was wrong with Aunt Gladys, why she never left her room, words were muttered about arthritis, psoriasis, lack of confidence. Even though she is the least physically active of the Eisenstadt siblings, Gladys, with her telephone, drives the action of this story. In a way I am still trying to fathom, Gladys is its protagonist. When I was briefing my brother-in-law on his new family and told him that Gladys had not left the house since the Nixon administration, he said, "You mean mostly she stays in the house but now and then she leaves the house to go to the store?" I said, "I mean mostly she stays in her room but now and then she leaves her room to go to the bathroom."

As I mentioned, my aunt's room, for reasons I still do not understand, is kept as cold as a meat locker. To this day, if we are in a movie theater or a mall where the AC is really cranking, my brother will say, "It's like Aunt Gladys's room, it's so cold in here." By which we know him to mean more than just the temperature: Gladys's room is where my brother, Steven, learned the nature of things. Once a week, before I was born, my brother and sister were taken to Flatbush to visit their grandparents, aunt, and cousins.

There was an ancient form of primogeniture at play in the family; as the son of the oldest son, Cousin Jeffrey was golden. One week, Grandma Betty decided that a grandchild would, for no particular reason, have a party thrown in his or her honor, complete with cake and gifts. While standing in my aunt's room, Betty wrote the names on a slip of paper and dropped the slips in a hat. A winner was drawn: Jeffrey. Since Jeffrey seemed to win many such contests, my brother grew suspicious. When he picked up the hat, Betty said, "Don't look!" Unfolding the slips, he had the great early shock of his life. Every ballot was marked "Jeffrey." Later, when my brother refused to follow some instruction, Ben led him upstairs and spanked him-a grandfather who spanks!-ending, for my brother, the sweet ignorance of childhood.

In 1995, when my grandfather collapsed in the hospital, the first relative on the scene was my brother. In a nice twist of fate, Steven found himself charged with making life-and-death decisions for the man who had helped him recognize the unfairness of the world. And the winner is? Jeffrey! In the months following Ben's collapse, the family battle moved into its titanic phase, with Ben shuffling from doctor to doctor and everything up for grabs: the money, the legacy, and the story itself. When Grandma Betty died, I found out that my mother had lost this battle and that she and all of her children had been written out of the will-the factory and assets of the company are worth an estimated several hundred million dollars. Betty's last words came in a legal document: "I hereby record that I have made no provision under this WILL for my daughter ELLEN and any of ELLEN'S issue for reasons I deem sufficient." Her issue? It was like being called discharge, or refuse, or excrement. She swallowed a dime but it came out in the issue. So fate has placed me in the ideal storytelling position: the youngest son of the once-favorite daughter. Outside but inside, with just enough of a grudge to sharpen my sensibility. I am Napoleon staring at Paris from Corsica. All they have left me is this story. To be disinherited is to be set free.

Excerpted from Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2006 by Rich Cohen. Published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
July 30, 1968
Place of Birth:
Lake Forest, Illinois
B.A., Tulane University, 1990

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Sweet and Low: A Family Story 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am reading and quite enjoying this book.  While I can live with the fact that it is more than a bit overwrought (presumably for effect) in the narrative), the editing in the Nook version is atrocious. Misspellings, missing words, errors in punctuation combine to distract and detract from what otherwise would be a riveting story.  It is disappointing, to say the least. Still and all, I intend to continue on with the story, unless and until the copy editing makes it impossible to do so.  
SOUTHERN-READING-WOMAN More than 1 year ago
Rich Cohen may have been part of the "issue" excluded from the Sweet and Low family fortune, but he is rich beyond dollars and cents because he possesses a beyond genius writing ability. How I settle in to his masterful handling of images of scenery, situations, and people. It's dipping into butter added movie popcorn and being carried along into the story playing out on the screen. He is a beautiful writer with a beautiful soul. Keep them coming, Mr. Rich Cohen, and I will keep reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is about so much, sugar and Brooklyn, and legacy and invention. But, and here's what I loved, you peel all that back and what you have is the great human drama of a family growing up and growing apart. If you do not recognize your own family in these pages, you do not have your eyes open. Or you come from Leave it To Beaver land. In the end, you come away with a new sense of your family, and a new appreciation for the people in your life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book. It is about the American dream, crazy relatives, lost fortunes, getting what you wish for, and the birth and death of familes. It is about everything. With wild asides and tremendous flashes of humor. I laughed (and cried) the whole way through. It's a perfect Christmas gift!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Are you interested in how family dynamics effect business? How family business effects families? How individual lives become infected with the family business dynamics? Rich Cohen has written a stunning account of his family¿s quite well known business, the Cumberland Packing Company which makes Sweet n Low, Sugar in the Raw, NuSalts and Butter Buds. 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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This very unusual, literary corporate biography is written from a unique vantage point: Author Rich Cohen¿s family members are the protagonists. The corporate owners and inventors of Sweet¿N Low are his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. The other driving force here is the story itself, a thick syrup of invention, feuding, a loving family, criminal graft, federal investigation, Brooklyn, America¿s obsession with dieting and an immigrant saga. Since this is also the history of Cohen¿s relatives, he has unique insights into the motivations, emotions and feelings behind the corporate decisions that shaped how a fortune was made, disputed and distributed. The story, which flows loosely between time periods and subjects, is an excellent corporate biography, particularly when it covers the dangers of running a family business. The story has all the cinematic elements of a dark comedy. We recommend it to business and recreational readers for its interesting journalistic storytelling, and its insightful presentation of the family and corporate dynamics hidden inside that familiar little pink packet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is, unfortunately, a great story of several tragedies - the disintegration of a family and the degrading of a family business. Cohen does not seem to write with rancor, which would have been completely understandable under his circumstances. The treatment of his mother (and Cohen's siblings) by her selfish, loveless mother and obsessive, nasty father - to say nothing of her crackpot sister and mealy-mouthed brother, was atrocious. That mealy-mouthed brother's stewardship of what had been a great family business was equally as atrocious. Nasty people, great story.
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
They say revenge is sweet. How about revenge is 'Sweet and Low,' a not very flattering account of family and fortune? Author Rich Cohen evidently had get-even in mind as he makes it plain that he doesn't much care for members of his family and he certainly didn't like being disinherited. Nonetheless, scandal and vitriol often add spice to the listen and this is the case with Cohen's narrative. His grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, began it all when he opened a diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Ever on the lookout for an opportunity, he saw the wisdom of putting sugar into little packets rather than having it sit in clogged glass table dispensers. As the tale goes, he pitched his brainstorm to a sugar company that claimed it as their own. Angry but undaunted Eisenstadt then came up with the idea for Sweet `N Low, which was offered initially as an aid for diabetics but soon swiped by diet crazed Americans. The family was in high cotton.......until studies linked saccharin to cancer. As they say, there goes the business. Or, as Cohen would say, 'Fourteen rats get cancer and nothing will ever be the same.' Once corruption was discovered within the company court battles ensued, Cohen's mother's side lost, and their names were whited out in wills. Cohen may be bitter but he's also a dandy writer ('Lake Effect' and 'Tough Jews'). His descriptions of family from the kind of woman 'who wanted you to think she never went to the bathroom' to Uncle Marvin who said to call him Uncle Marvelous are hilarious. The highs and lows of Sweet `N Low isn't exactly The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire but it is an interesting and often smile provoking listen. - Gail Cooke
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rich Cohen is a dramatic storyteller who has written a book that is hard to put down. Ostensibly the story of immigrants in quest of the American dream, the health and diet crazes, the Boro of Brooklyn and how and why businesses fail, at it's core this is the story of the oddball family who came up with SWEET AND LOW and became very rich. Fortunately, the author, a former insider (referred to as an 'issue') was disenherited and set free, so we are able to get the real scoop. It's one hell of a story, well researched, immensely absorbing, rife with bizarre characters and above all, hilarious. WOW!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The only people who might not enjoy this book are those figured between its pages. It is a gripping story about America, the world of sugar and the striving classes, tamed in the end by chemicals. This IS the story of the twentieth century. A real page turner, and you'll learn something too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rich Cohen's book reads like some sort of oedipal nightmare the story of a wealthy author who is out to destroy his family after his grandmother leaves him out of his will. Mr. Cohen feels that he and his mother are entitled to money that they didn't work for. A complete and total waste of time. Recomended for other children of privledge who feel they are entitled to money simply for being born.