The Fish That Ate The Whale
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
- A Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Month
iBookstore Book of the Week
- Entertainment Weekly "Must"
- People Magazine"Great Read"
- Rolling Stone Magazine"Summer Must Read"
CBS Author Talk, with Jeff Glor
Rich Cohen on Morning Joe
Weekend Edition with Scott Simon
The Reading Life with Susan Larson, WWNO, New Orlean
Booklist, starred review
In this gripping biography—it’s as page-turningly exciting as any thriller—Samuel Zemurray, once the most powerful banana importer in America, comes off as a sort of real-world Charles Foster Kane (if Kane had been in the fruit trade and not a newspaperman). Zemurray was not above fomenting rebellion in foreign countries to ensure that he had a ready supply of bananas, and he was such a ruthless and clever businessman that he went head-to-head with the mighty United Fruit—itself an extremely powerful entity—and emerged victorious. Cohen’s lively and entertaining prose style (“a ripe banana you have left in the sun that has become as freckled as a Hardy boy”; “juke joints that stayed open from can till can’t”) provides the perfect vehicle for this story of the surprisingly cutthroat world of the banana trade; it is nearly impossible to put the book down, and that’s something you don’t say about a lot of biographies—and especially biographies of businessmen. For anyone who enjoys a good life story, this one is an absolute must-read.
— David Pitt
Cohen provides a boatload of angles for his biography of little-known antihero, Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), 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.” 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. The reader gets to decide not only whether the ends were worth the means, but whether the means were worth the ends.
Library Journal, starred review
This spirited book introduces readers to Samuel Zemurray (1877–1961), known in his prime as "Sam the banana man." A Russian Jew who emigrated 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 (contributing editor, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone; Sweet and Low: A Family Story) 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. VERDICT This is popular history and biography at its best, making for an easy verdict: this book will appeal strongly to lay readers and scholars alike. Highly recommended to all.
Cohen focuses on Zemurray’s expansion into Central America, and the book’s semi-secret plots make it read more like a mystery than the biography of a businessman, with characters plotting military overthrows in back-alley bordellos. The Banana Man’s ascent raises broad questions. Was Zemurray a rapacious conquistador or a great American businessman? The line, Cohen shows, is blurry. We cheer the hustling immigrant’s entrepreneurial spirit but regret his tactics. The fruit wasn’t the only thing almost rotten. 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.
What People Are Saying:
“This is a rollicking but brilliantly researched book about one of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century. I grew up in New Orleans enthralled by the 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, author of Steve Jobs
“What a story and what a storyteller! You'll never see a banana—and, for that matter, America—the same way.”
—Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Lazarus Project
“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 a compelling story of bold success coupled with a reckless ambition. I LOVED this book.”
—Howard Blum, author of The Floor of Heaven and American Lightning
“Sam ‘The Bananaman’ 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, author of Rush Limbaugh, An Army of One
“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. I love this book.”
—A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically