Sweet nothin'

Rich Cohen talks about postwar Brooklyn and how he lost his claim to the Sweet'N Low fortune

Rich Cohen loves the comic-strip-like, cotton-candy-pink cover of his latest book, Sweet and Low. “All nonfiction books look the same these days—they all have some black-and-white photo of an unhappy child on the cover,” the author says. “The idea with this cover is to let people know that this book is alive and new and different.”

A Brooklyn-gothic tale that zips through waterfront factories, greasy diners and mob-owned McMansions in “Guyland” (i.e., Long Island), Cohen’s fifth book is certainly alive. It delves into his family’s sticky past to reveal how his relatives got rich—his grandfather invented those ubiquitous pink Sweet’N Low packets—and then expands to ponder outer-borough immigrants and corruption. While Cohen’s books Tough Jews and Lake Effect also touched on his family’s past, he feels that Sweet and Low is the culmination of his story-driven auto-biographical writing. “I figured out how to make the entire book candy,” the Manhattan writer, 37, says of his latest page-turner. “After all, the book is about a product that is sickly sweet.”

In addition to being a riveting snapshot of postwar Brooklyn, Sweet and Low gives the details of an event that has long bothered the author—his disinheritance. Or more precisely, the disinheritance of Cohen’s mother and her children after a well-intentioned referral of her father to a top heart specialist goes mortally wrong.

For years, Cohen didn’t feel right about telling the odd story of his grandparents and the disinheritance. But that all changed three years ago, when Cohen learned that his wife was pregnant. Wishing he had more to pass down, the author became determined to get something out of his Sweet’N Low association. “I wanted to write the story to claim it,” Cohen says. “This story is my inheritance.”

Most of the Sweet’N Low history that Cohen knew came from his grandparents, so his first order of business was to throw himself into research. “I needed to sort out what was true and what was lore,” he says. He started interviewing family members and looking into depositions from a court case his mother initiated to contest the will. He also dug through thousands of pages of court papers on his grandfather’s business, the Cumberland Packing Company. These gave detailed evidence of Cumberland’s white-collar criminal behavior; most notably, the company put two crooks on the payroll as “executives” and made sizable contributions to key politicians when saccharin—Sweet’N Low’s main ingredient—was (incorrectly) suspected to be a carcinogen and up for an FDA ban.

The author found the mass of material at once fascinating and unnerving: “It was like going to the movies to see a documentary that turns out to be about your family.” Although Cohen sometimes felt as though he was pawing through garbage, ultimately, he says, “I wanted to know the truth, to know what really happened.”

Cohen grew up in Illinois, but he often visited Brooklyn with his father, cataloging colors, smells and sounds, which are rendered in crisp detail in Sweet and Low. “It was the land of nicknames,” Cohen remembers. “My dad would yell out to this scary-looking guy, 'Hey, yo, Inky!’—and would tell me later how the guy drank a bottle of ink back in high school.”

Sweet and Low concerns a particular family, but Cohen’s storytelling gifts lend the book a narrative arc that the author thinks is universal. “Everyone has a Sweet’N Low story,” Cohen says. He explains that his tale has three acts: It begins with his grandfather’s ingenious idea of transforming a tea-bag machine into a sugar-packet contraption, then devolves into a minefield of corruption and greed, and follows through with the dramatic disinheritance. “People always want to tell the first part or the last,” Cohen says, “but it’s the difference between them that is so sad.”

Although Cohen’s book dwells on some bitterness, his touch remains sweet. “I like all of these people,” the author says, even of his disinheriting grandparents. “They’re still my family. They’re still where I come from.”

Sweet and Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) comes out Tuesday 4.