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When Samuel Zemurray arrived in America in 1891, he was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. In between, he worked as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, a dockside hustler, and a plantation owner. He battled and conquered the United Fruit Company, becoming a symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures. In Latin America, when people shouted “Yankee, go home!” it was men like Zemurray they had in mind.
Rich Cohen’s brilliant historical profile The Fish That Ate the Whale unveils Zemurray as a hidden kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary, driven by an indomitable will to succeed. Known as El Amigo, the Gringo, or simply Z, the Banana Man lived one of the great untold stories of the last hundred years. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, he built a sprawling empire of banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. From hustling on the docks of New Orleans to overthrowing Central American governments, from feuding with Huey Long to working with the Dulles brothers, Zemurray emerges as an unforgettable figure, connected to the birth of modern American diplomacy, public relations, business, and war—a monumental life that reads like a parable of the American dream.
“In The Fish That Ate the Whale Rich Cohen sketches a lively and entertaining portrait of Samuel Zemurray, a banana importer and entrepreneur who rose from immigrant roots to take the helm of the storied United Fruit Co., among other accomplishments . . . Cohen unfurls a rich, colorful history of a man who championed the establishment of the State of Israel by providing arms and ships to the Irgun, the nascent underground army. He gave muscle and capital to Eisenhower’s decision to stage Operation PB Success, a CIA coup against Jacobo Arbenz’s teetering democracy in Guatemala in 1954 . . . Was he a conquistador, pirate, explorer, tycoon, or a man of the people? Cohen’s textured history shows that Zemurray played all of these roles, making him the ultimate Zelig-like character of the 20th century.”—Judy Bolton-Fasman, The Boston Globe
“There’s a lot to learn about the seedier side of the ‘smile of nature’ in this witty tale of the fruit peddler-turned-mogul.”—Chloë Schama, Smithsonian
“Americans puzzling over the role of today’s powerful corporations—Bain Capital, Goldman Sachs, Google—may profit from considering the example of the United Fruit Company . . . A new account of United Fruit and one of its leading figures, Samuel Zemurray . . . The Fish That Ate The Whale . . . usefully reminds us of some of the wonderful things about capitalism, and some of the dangers, too . . . The book recounts all the Washington insiders hired by Zemurray as lobbyists, including Tommy “the Cork” Corcoran. A business that lives by Washington is finally at its mercy, as United Fruit learned when the antitrust cops came after it. It’s all something to remember the next time you peel a banana.”—Ira Stoll, Time
"Rich Cohen books constitute a genre unto themselves: pungent, breezy, vividly written psychodramas."—The New York Times Book Review
“[An] engrossing tale of the life of Sam Zemurray . . . With his nimble narrative journalism, Cohen makes a convincing case that the somewhat obscure Sam Zemurray was in fact a major figure in American history. Cohen does so with a prose briskly accented with sights, sounds and smells, and invigorated with offhand wisdom about the human journey through life . . . At the end of Cohen’s story, impetuous doers such as Zemurray not only cede the moral high ground, but also live to witness the terrifying power of the talkers . . . If some level of this book proposes a contest of Cohen vs. Zemurray, then the win goes rather unambiguously to Cohen; to paraphrase Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is mightier than the banana.”—Austin Ratner, The Forward
"Cohen fleshes out the legend [of Samuel Zemurray] in a 270-page account full of novelistic scene setting and speculative flights—the kind of writing that . . . puts Cohen firmly in the tradition of non-fiction reportage pioneered by Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. Based on scores of interviews, four years of archival research and on-the-spot reporting from Central America and New Orleans, the book carries its details easily, sweeping readers on a narrative flood tide that matches the protean energy of Zemurray himself . . . As sketched by Cohen, the big man emerges as a complicated, all-too-human hero, one whose bullish nature sometimes blinded him, but never let him accept defeat.”—Chris Waddington, New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Cohen’s biography of ‘Banana King’ magnate Samuel Zemurray in The Fish That Ate the Whale is really a history of the yellow fruit itself . . . Zemurray exemplified both the best and worst of American capitalism. His saga provides plenty of food for thought next time you grab one off the bunch.”—Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly
“This is a rollicking but brilliantly researched book about one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth century. I grew up in New Orleans enthralled by tales of Sam Zemurray, the banana peddler who built United Fruit. This book recounts, with delightful verve, his military and diplomatic maneuvers in Central America and his colorful life and business practices.”—Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of Steve Jobs
“Sam ‘the Banana Man’ Zemurray was a larger-than-life character. Rich Cohen is a superb storyteller. Put them together and you have a startling and often hilarious account of one of the forgotten heroes (and villains) of the American empire.”—Zev Chafets
“In Rich Cohen’s masterful and enthralling narrative, one man’s character is not simply his fate but also that of a nation. With verve, wit, and page-turning excitement, The Fish That Ate the Whale unfolds as compelling story of bold success coupled with reckless ambition.”—Howard Blum, author of The Floor of Heaven and American Lightning
“If this book were simply the tale of a charismatic and eccentric banana mogul, that would have been enough for me—especially with the masterful Rich Cohen as narrator. But it’s not. It is also the story of capitalism, psychology, immigration, public relations, colonialism, food, O. Henry’s shady past, and the meaning of excellence.”—A. J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
“What a story, and what a storyteller! You’ll never see a banana—and, for that matter, America—the same way again.”—Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Lazarus Project
"Known in his prime as "Sam the banana man." . . . a Russian Jew who immigrated to Alabama in 1891, Zemurray eventually settled in New Orleans, where he grew to be head of the United Fruit Company. Known as the 'octopus,' United Fruit virtually ruled Central American republics in the first half of the 20th century, all because of banana exports. Cohen offers a lively biography of Sam and his empire, leaving the man and the company open to scrutiny and criticism while giving readers a remarkable profile of 'a living, breathing, jungle-clearing, government-toppling banana man.' Cohen also discusses bananas, their cultivation, gathering, shipping, sale, and consumption—a supply-and-demand success story for Zemurray and others like him."—Library Journal
"Cohen provides a boatload of angles for his biography of little-known antihero, Samuel Zemurray, presenting his story as a parable of American capitalism, an example of the American dream in decline, the story of 20th-century America, a quintessentially Jewish tale, and 'a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works.' Fortunately, Cohen backs up his hyperbole. Once a poor immigrant buying ripe bananas off a New Orleans pier, Zemurray became the disgraced mogul of the much hated United Fruit Company. Along the way, he aided the creation of Israel; funded many of Tulane University’s buildings; and had a hand in the rise of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Cohen claims Zemurray was to New Orleans what Rockefeller was to New York, but the better comparison may be to Robert Moses, who bulldozed both land and people to build many of New York’s roads, parks, and bridges."—Publishers Weekly
Rich Cohen is a New York Times bestselling author as well as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He has written seven books, including Tough Jews, Israel Is Real, and the widely acclaimed memoir Sweet and Low. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and Best American Essays. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, three sons, and dog.
Rich Cohen on the Banana King and the American Dream.
Here's what I'm sure about: You've never thought about reading a book about the banana business and/or Sam Zemurray, the guy perhaps most responsible building it. Here's what I'm also sure about: You absolutely should read The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King," by Rich Cohen." --Mark Bazer
Nicholas Lemann in converation with Rich Cohen at the Tenement Museum.