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The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King
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The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,158 Ratings  ·  175 Reviews
Alegendary tale, both true and astonishing,from theauthor of Israel is Real and Sweet and Low

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 do
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Jun 17, 2012 Kyrie rated it it was ok
Reading this book felt like listening to a very elderly professor tell a story. It started out about Samuel Zemurray, the banana king. It wandered off and told long tales about various people associated with him, the history of the banana business, the history of Guatemala and Honduras, Che Guevara, WWII, the founding of the Israeli state, Tulane University, how the author wrote the book, and I'm just skimming the surface of the meanderings.

I know more than I did before I read the book, but I di
Feb 09, 2013 Zahir rated it really liked it
An interesting read about Sam Zemurray, the Russian immigrant who came to the United States penniless and died one of its wealthiest and most influential men.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it's an honest portrayal as Zemurray as a complicated human being. It doesn't try to cover up his misdeeds or his involvement in some of the darkest and morally questionable acts in American foriegn policy during his era. Rather, it explains the rise of Cuyamel Fruit and Zemurray's eventua
Mal Warwick
Oct 23, 2012 Mal Warwick rated it it was amazing
Too Wild to Be Believed, but It's All True: The Outrageous Story of America's Banana King

Chances are, you’ve never heard of this guy. But if you’re not aware of some of the things he’s done, you’ll never be a big winner on “Jeopardy” or pass an AP test in modern world history. Just for example, he was the guy who engineered the CIA-led coup that overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954, ushering in an era of intensified hatred for the United States throughout Latin America. He was also pivo
Nan Williams
The story of the time period from 1890 to 1960 (or so)was interesting. I remember the hoop-la surrounding the events in the mid-50s when Allen Dullas was head of the CIA so learning the background for the previous 50 years in Central America was enlightening.

The book, however, was very poorly written. It would go around and around in a circle, covering the same material and then suddenly shoot off into the stratosphere to take on a different subject altogether. Many of these subjects (like the f
Feb 09, 2014 Amy rated it it was amazing
Fascinating man.
Amazing impact on an entire region.
But . . .
I really don't like a story that interrupts itself to (for example) tell you what route he took to work and then say, Not that we know what route he took every day. We have to guess. Just throws me off the stride.
Margaret Sankey
Jun 27, 2012 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Cohen, finding another Tough Jew, relates the outrageous life of Samuel Zemurra, who rose from emigrant poverty as a Mobile shopkeeper by selling ripe bananas along the southern railroads, then branching off into his own plantations, then operating under the wing of United Fruit, then overthrowing the Honduran government with New Orleans goons, then breaking from United Fruit, then taking over United Fruit. Along the way he toppled governments and installed banana republics of breath-taking inco ...more
Jul 05, 2012 Ray rated it liked it
If you ever wondered about that strange yellow "fruit" that easy to eat; try this fascinating story which, among other things, will explain why it's not a fruit. And how it comes from an herb that grows as a rate rivaling the kudzu vine. And how in the history of Central American countries, shrewd entrepreneurs (in the correct sense of the word and not to be confused with business managers) saved piles of what were considered noxious waste into a product of immense proportions. Even how the almo ...more
Jun 05, 2013 Catherine rated it really liked it
A really fascinating portrait of Samuel Zemurray, one of the original banana men. He was such a colorful character, and I never imagined a banana company could yield so much influence (at the beginnings of Cuyamel Fruit, Zemurray organized the overthrow of the Honduran government in order to gain tax benefits for his company). His business practices are not considered entirely ethical these days, but at the time he was a revolutionary and even came out of an early retirement to take over United ...more
May 23, 2016 Andrew rated it did not like it
Was not much of a fan of this book. Felt like a great deal of authorial speculation, and a relative paucity of primary evidence. Perhaps this is due to a lack of documentation of and about Zemurray's life, but that was not made clear by the text.

Furthermore, took substantial issue with the author's decision to frame Zemurray's life as an intensely Jewish experience, despite no evidence that Zemurray himself perceived it as such and perhaps even repudiated such a notion. Particularly galling at
Lisa Filipczak
May 14, 2016 Lisa Filipczak rated it it was ok
I read this for my public health book club and I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. The story was interesting at times but too long. I can't say I'd recommend this to others.
Doctor Sax
I thought this was a superb book! A inside look on how the United Fruit Co. and capitalism ruled south and central America for generations. It got to the point that if Zemurray did not get his 'concessions' from the local government...HE JUST REPLACED THE ENTIRE GOV'T. This had it all for me - CIA corruption, murder, tyranny, rebel factions etc. I enjoyed 'tough Jews' by the author Rich Cohen so I already liked the writing style.
Jul 29, 2014 Alger rated it really liked it
A chatty book that is a portrait of an era and a man that defined the relationships of the US and Central America into the present (as I write this the Sula Valley of Honduras is the most violent location in the world, causing a 'crisis' of children from the area fleeing into the US).

Even among people who know of Sam Zemurray and his unlikely and outrageous role in Latin America he is an enigma; a man known more for his involvement in events than what he thought of those events or his motives. I
May 31, 2014 Laurie rated it liked it
2.75 stars.
This is the story of very interesting character in American history, Sam Zemurray, a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to the US penniless and died one of the richest and most powerful men of the time, the rise of the banana empire and related politics between the US and Central America.
While the history is interesting, the presentation needed editing. It felt like a lot of back and forth and with so many people and events being covered the story needed more cohesion than I felt it ha
Aug 03, 2012 Julie rated it it was ok
The story of Samuel Zemurray is truly one for the history books, yet is fairly unknown. He effected world politics in enormous ways, both for good and bad. Unfortunately this epic life is written by an amature who continually inserted himself into the story, thus dimishing the impact.
Betsy Wissinger
Jun 22, 2012 Betsy Wissinger rated it it was amazing
A wild ride. The latter half of the book is where Rich really warms to his subject, as it gets really bizarre (CIA cloak and dagger stuff). Love the one liners. As Rich said, he realized you can shoot to score from anywhere on the ice and he scores a lot!

Oct 26, 2015 Ryan rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Ryan by: John Breese
Shelves: business, history
I bought and read this book based on a recommendation from my friend, John Breese. I'm glad I did.

This book is well written and was especially fascinating to me. Not only did I learn a lot about the history of the banana business, I also learned some of the real life back story that inspired fictional works like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.

I had never even heard of Samuel Zemurray prior to reading this book. He is such a hu
Dave Wallace
May 17, 2016 Dave Wallace rated it really liked it
I think this may be better than a 4 star book, but biographies are just not my real fancy. It's a fascinating story and a real arc. The prose is good with a lot of clever phrases and wry humor, maybe better than good. From poverty in Moldova, Alabama (not a lot of difference there) and New Orleans, to taking over United Fruit Company from the Boston pansy-elite to overthrowing Central American governments for profit, to finally being undercut by the stinkin CIA. The author often breaks the 4th w ...more
Dan Hatcher
Feb 07, 2016 Dan Hatcher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Samuel Zemurray is the definition of a self-made man of the early 1900s. He started selling bananas in his teens and by the time he was 50 owned much of Honduras and Guatemala, where the climate was ripe for growing and harvesting this lucrative crop.

The entanglements with governments both at home and abroad are what make his life story stranger than fiction. Early in his career, he led a coup to topple the Honduran government and install a regime friendly to his interests.

Rich Cohen is a grea
I live near Hammond, Louisiana, and this is where Zemurray Gardens & Zemurray Park still exist, remnants from Sam the Banana Man's "Hammond Plantation". I found it intriguing to read about the events in Central America that I overheard my parents discussing, the United Fruit scandals, the Banana Republic. Even Sam's immigrant to millionaire coming of age in the early 20th century was the stuff of a novel, full of adventure, conspiracy, war, and even a bit of romance here & there. The Jew ...more
Mar 18, 2015 Ben rated it liked it
A rambling but mostly interesting story about a little known, very powerful figure in American business and global influence. Sam Zemurray came to the US from Moldova with the shirt on his back, and over decades of hard work and shrewd dealings, ultimately took control of the United Fruit Company. He overthrew and propped up banana republics, meddled in affairs of state, hired swashbuckling mercenaries, and took on everyone from JP Morgan to Huey Long. I'd give 3 1/2 stars if I could, just becau ...more
Jul 22, 2012 Lisa rated it liked it
What a sordid history of the banana as we know it. Some of it was too much, but I did learn a lot.
Ian Cassel
Jan 16, 2016 Ian Cassel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business-titan
This book is about the life of Samuel Zemurray, the Banana King. You know the phrase, 1CBanana Republic 1D, well Sam invented it. Let me first say that I 19m embarrassed to say I 19ve never heard of the man before reading the book, and yet his business accomplishments rank right up there with the greats. When you look back at the turn of the 19th century, these were the years of the business titans. Rockefeller with Oil, Carnegie with Steel, JP Morgan with Electricity, Ford with Automobiles, Van ...more
Max Nova
Apr 26, 2016 Max Nova rated it liked it
The Fish That Ate The Whale - The Life and Times of America's Banana King is an unabashedly sensationalist account of the life of Samuel Zemurray.

To be fair, it is a sensational story. Rising from his impoverished Jewish immigrant background to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the United States, Sam Zemurray overthrew governments in Honduras and Guatemala and was (allegedly) instrumental in the creation of the Israeli state. His tactics were a model for the CIA's overthrow o
Carlos Pellot
Feb 06, 2013 Carlos Pellot rated it it was amazing
Those of us familiar with the biblical story of the Jewish patriarch Jacob won't get too far into The Fish That Ate the Whale before recognizing the similarities between him and Sam Zemuray, the subject of Rich Cohen's outstanding biography. The constant scheming, striving and conniving is evident in them both. Both were exiles. Both worked tirelessly beyond the limits of human expectations. Both lost a son (kind of). Both achieved their goals even when it cost them dearly. One is a descendant o ...more
Sep 24, 2013 Ru rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I definitely wasn't expecting a book about the origins of a banana empire to be as serious as this book was. Sam "The Banana Man" Zemurray, a Russian Jew, emigrated to America and ultimately became the largest banana distributor in the world. With a corny nickname and the emergence of the banana as a common food item in the late 1800's, I thought humour would be prevalent in this biography, but it's actually very serious in tone, nearly from beginning to end.

Zemurray, like most successful busine

If you have ever wondered where the term "Banana Republic" derived from, this book answers that question. It is a fascinating treatment of a complicated figure in American history that you may not have heard of if you don't have a connection to Bananas, New Orleans, or Tulane. The first two thirds are also useful to business people interested in the entrepreneurship.

The biographical parts of the book were fascinating, and to the best of my knowledge accurate. I found the pieces on the CIA an
Andrew Meyer
Nov 08, 2012 Andrew Meyer rated it really liked it
A fascinating book about a fascinating life. Zemuarry was the quintessential American success story of the early 20th century. As such, his life is interesting in and of it's self, but more interestingly, he interacts with many of the other fascinating men of his time. Beyond his business success, which is well presented, you also meet:

* Chaim Weizmann - who is critical in the founding of Israel.
* Edward Bernays - who defined Public Relations, which Bernays came to understand vacationing with hi
Eapen Chacko
Nov 15, 2013 Eapen Chacko rated it it was amazing
I don't recommend reading business books. They have a half life of about six months, and most of them should be magazine articles. This is the best business book I've read, because it about so much more than the tale of a great entrepreneur.

This is a great story about a 14 year old Maldavian Russian immigrant who comes to Selma, AL to work in his peddler uncle’s store. His curiosity takes him to the docks of Mobile, AL where he sees the beginnings of the banana trade. He puts $150 of his saving
Dec 13, 2012 Laurence rated it did not like it
I have finally returned the book to the library unfinished. It kept falling from my hands. I have not been able to catch up and been motivated to read as it was so poorly written it was a shame!

It felt like some parts were aggregated together from different notes without editing, and that the book had not been written by the same person, or that person had really never done any editing work. I can't congratulate the publishers.

I am sure the story is fascinating. But I never got past chapter 7 an
Jan 02, 2013 Christopher rated it really liked it
(This is my review which appeared in the October 18, 2012 issue of the Christian Science Monitor)


Georges Doriot, the eminent Harvard Business School professor and widely acknowledged “father of venture capital,” had an annual ritual: He would have his students examine a Boston business directory from 100 years prior and then ask them how many of those businesses were still in operation. Invariably, the response ranged from few to none. It was a sobering
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RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

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