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Books  >>  Biography

Rich Cohen

The Fish That Ate the Whale

Rich Cohen The Fish That Ate The Whale The Life And Times Of America's Banana King
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Biographical note:

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.

Main description:

Named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and The Times-Picayune

The fascinating untold tale of Samuel Zemurray, the self-made banana mogul who went from penniless roadside banana peddler to kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary

The fascinating, untold tale of Samuel Zemurray, the self-made banana mogul who went from penniless roadside banana peddler to kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary

 
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. Working his way up from a roadside fruit peddler to conquering the United Fruit Company, Zemurray became 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.

Zemurray 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 and precipitating the bloody thirty-six-year Guatemalan civil war, the Banana Man lived a monumental and sometimes dastardly life. Rich Cohen’s brilliant historical profile The Fish That Ate the Whale unveils Zemurray as a hidden power broker, driven by an indomitable will to succeed.

Review quote:

“Rich Cohen books constitute a genre unto themselves: pungent, breezy, vividly written psychodramas.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Lively and entertaining.”—The Boston Globe

“This biography of the complex and often contradictory figure of Zemurray is Cohen’s most engaging and entertaining book to date.”—Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal

“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. I loved this book.” —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

“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

“Cohen ... gives us the fascinating tale of ‘Sam the Banana Man,’ a poor Russian Jew who emigrated to Alabama as a teenager and ended up controlling much of Central America . . . Rich Cohen books constitute a genre unto themselves: pungent, breezy, vividly written psychodramas about rough-edged, tough-minded Jewish machers who vanquish their rivals, and sometimes change the world in the process. Within this specialized context, Cohen’s Zemurray biography admirably fills the bill.” —Mark Lewis, The New York Times Book Review

“Cohen’s narrative has considerable charm, whether pondering Zemurray’s Jewish identity or claiming him as a man ‘best understood as a last player in the drama of Manifest Destiny.’”—The New Yorker

“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

“Masterful and elegantly written…A cautionary tale for the ages.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“[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. What’s rarer about Cohen’s style is his skill with metaphor. His are apt and concise, but they’re also complex . . . There are men of action and there are men of words: The contrast between them is a sort of shadow narrative in The Fish That Ate the Whale . . . 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

“[A] grippingly readable biography . . . 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 a


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