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

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  4,443 ratings  ·  461 reviews
A legendary tale, both true and astonishing, from the author 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 h
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Jun 14, 2012 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
Laura Noggle
May 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history, 2019
Scattered both internationally and thematically, this book is a bit of a rambler.

Banana republics, foreign cowboys, embezzlement, monopolies, men of action, and the Latin American nightmare unfold alongside "a parable of the American dream—not history as it is recorded in textbooks, but the authentic, cask-strength version, a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works."

Although this book could have used a heavier handed editor, it was still very in
Oleksandr Zholud
This is a biography of Samuel Zemurray, the banana king. Born in Bessarabia (now Moldova, in 1877 when he was born – the Russian Empire, taken from Ottomans in the 1850s), he emigrated to the US in 1891, started trading ripe bananas, thrown of by then the monopoly United Fruit is 1905, set a new government in Honduras in 1912 and this is only a start! I read it as a part of monthly reading for August 2021 at Non Fiction Book Club group.

This is a story of self-made man, who affected the global hi
Jul 27, 2012 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
May 21, 2020 rated it liked it
The Fish That Ate the Whale took me all the way from the busy docks of New Orleans to the sultry groves of Honduras, and elsewhere, across the world. Everywhere that the towering (literally) figure of Sam Zemurray had set foot.

This is a fascinating read. However, it's less about the life and more about the times that America's banana king lived in. Cohen bases the book on a wafer-thin personal plot - Sam Zemurray arrives in America, an immigrant hungry to succeed. His rise is quick and we get t
Jun 03, 2012 rated it it was ok
The story peaks early, and the remaining 3/4 of the book is a jumble of apologetic mishmash. Cohen would have served his reader better by not interjecting himself into the biography of someone else time and time again. Cohen has an agenda for this book, and he bent the story to fit it. I lost count of the time he states "He would have said this..." or "He would have believed this way...". These conjectures became so tiresome and annoying and I ended up skimming the last few chapters.

2 stars beca
Wade Bearden
Apr 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I know so much about bananas right now it's not even funny. My friends love me for my amazing facts. ...more
Jan 02, 2013 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
Sep 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
In this historical biography, Cohen tells the story of Samuel Zemurray, the Banana King. When Zemurray came to America in 1891, he was fourteen and penniless. When he died in 1961 he was among the richest and most powerful men in the world. His fascinating rags to riches story began when he had the idea to pick up unwanted spotted bananas - the “ripes” - from the docks in Selma, Alabama, and found a way to move them by freight train to market faster than they would spoil. From this humble beginn ...more
Mal Warwick
Oct 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jul 15, 2012 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.
Owen Tuleja
Oct 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
IMO there just was not enough of a story to support the length of this book. The rags to riches story and the entrepreneurship the allowed the Banana King to build a Central American empire was interesting but could have been 50 pages. Unless you have a strong interest in early 20th century Central American politics, I think you'll find most of the political plotting to be boring.

Add to that the author's clear infatuation with the subject and the lack of solid information about much of his life
Mallory Mac
Interesting biography about a man who had a greater impact on history than most people probably realize. I agree with other reviewers that the author is prone to go off on tangents, but I found them all fairly interesting so didn't mind them.

Having read Bitter Fruit (which I highly recommend!), I knew the book would eventually get to United Fruit's involvement in the '54 Guatemalan coup. I was looking forward to learning more about Zemurray's role in the coup - did he help initiate the campaign?
David Neto
Mar 06, 2021 rated it liked it
Immersive and fascinating tale of a prominent figure that was completely unknown to me. Impressive research into the many different aspects and stages of Zemurray's life, and how they connect with key events of the 20th century - the zenith of American capitalism and worldwide political dominance, the nefarious ties between big corporations and government, the subsequent overthrowing of two rulers of central American countries, and the Zionist movement and early settlement of Israel. Being one o ...more
Nishant Mehrotra
May 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the greatest business books I’ve ever read . It’s mini MBA in itself. About someone nobody knows. This is the insane untold tale of Samuel Zemurray, the self-made banana mogul from Russia who went from penniless roadside banana peddler to kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary.

It reads like a James Bond tale. It’s insider’s look at the American Dream filled with great insights on business strategy, leadership and even geopolitics. The google of the 1950s - United Fruit.

Also a tale of wh
Steven Kaminski
May 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
"I'm sorry sir I can't understand your accent." (Chairmen of the board laughing with his board)
Sam Zemurray: "You are all FIRED. Understand that?"

Man. Riveting story and figure in this book about Sam Zemurray a Russian immigrant who would become one of the most powerful CEO's in the 20th century and also someone who in some quarters would be reviled because he actually overthrew governments. That's how we got the term 'Banana Republics'. He also went on to be one of the major players behind the
Jacek Bartczak
Nov 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
"If New Orleans was New York, Samuel Zemurray would be John D. Rockefeller"

Despite the fact that the life of the entrepreneur is a rollercoaster, bio's of today's founder is boring compared to people who like Sam Zemurray started companies 100-150 years ago. Book is about the world where business met:
- World's Wars,
- formation od the country of Israel,
- racism,
- business colonization of Central America (for instance: the US company United Fruit controlled 75% of ALL trade in Guatemala),
- changin
Nov 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a fabulous book about one of the most successful, famous, resilient, empire building, philanthropic, tough businessman you've never heard of. It is books like these that remind me why I love history and biography. I had no idea that banana companies shaped South American politics for decades (Banana republics). Another interesting fact - the Big Mike (with very moist skin) was the origin of the whole slipping on the banana peel thing. The Cavendish replaced the Big Mike in the 1960s and ...more
Gus Gochnour
Sep 14, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Great review of the life of Sam Zemurray and the US banana trade. I had no idea that Central America and the Caribbean was run largely by American businessman for the first 60 yrs of the 20th century. So many conflicts and troubles that we still see today (Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras) can trace their difficulties back to American greed and capitalism. Fascinating look - this book is a mixture of a biography, a biology of bananas, a cultural and historical overview of New Orleans and Central A ...more
Mike Siems
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Despite being a History/Foreign Affairs major with a Latin America concentration, I had never learned about the 100+ year history of United Fruit, and the story of the American banana men, particularly the originally penniless, and relentless immigrant Sam Zemurray who started his own company to rival UF (also know as "el Pulpo"), then agreed to merge with the company, and eventually rose up to lead it when it was being mismanaged. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how the US ...more
Rhett Reisman
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The scope of Samuel Zemurray's story is incredible.

When I started listening to this audiobook, I was incredibly bored. I honestly don't care that much about bananas or how they are farmed (despite definitely eating more than the purported 77 / year of the average American).

As the story continued I realized why this book is loved by so many people.

I can't think of many people in modern history who started in such a low, insignificant place and ended up becoming so powerful. Obama, maybe George
Frederik Jukema
Dec 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This biography about Sam ‘The Banana Man’ Zemurray is a beautiful and sad story at the same time. Rich Cohen tells the tale about the beauty and darkness that results from America’s spirit. Sam Zemurray was truly one of the greatest entrepreneurs, knowing every inch of its business and leveraging that.
The only reason I refrain from giving it 5 stars is because the author tends to get off topic a little bit, killing momentum in the story. But I still 100% recommend reading this book. I’ll definit
Oct 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographies
Good book, just not my favorite writing style. I had previously read the multi-part article about the goings-on in Guatemala (, which went into more detail on that one series of events than this book did, but this book provided a really nice big picture context in terms of Zemurray's life.

This is another important part of American history that is not typically taught in school.
Alex Dunn
Aug 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios, business
If you live in New Orleans, this book paints a great picture of a very different era of the city and is a must read for those who like both business and bios.
Titans of any industry are always interesting to learn about, but this guy went from a young immigrant sweeping floors in his uncles shop, to toppling some of the largest companies in the USA if not the world.
A few learnings and mediations from this book.
1. Where is the line between being great at business, and being great for the world. T
Aug 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Christina
Fantastic read; my new favorite book I've read this year! Everyone knows Carnegie and Rockefeller, but not Zemurray. Such an interesting story that shows an important part of US's history and meddling in the Americas that also ties into what I am reading in House of Morgan. ...more
I knew embarrassingly little about United Fruit and a friend sent this book to me a while ago. It fits n with my recent deep dive into CIA activities 1940s—1960s since the overthrow of the Arbenz government of Guatemala features, but the book is largely about the Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in New Orleans, competed with United Fruit, and eventually took them over entirely.

Samuel Zemurray’s story is interesting enough without the writer getting cutesy as he can at times, but it’s kept t
Aug 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An incredible story. Got everything from rags to riches, the exercise of immense power, personal and country tragedies and more.
Nithila Talgaswatte
Jun 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An absolutely fascinating read, I honestly cannot believe that prior to reading this book I had never heard of either United Fruit or more importantly Sam Zemurray!

The fact that one man could have impact & influence so many different events in so many different countries is truly astonishing!
The most interesting parts of the first half of the book were facts about bananas - I had no idea that you can't eat a banana straight off the tree (plant, whatever). "The fruit does not begin to ripen until picked and cannot be eaten from a tree without retching. Even in ancient times, those who ate bananas had to harvest them, then wait for the harvest to ripen in palm-front huts, a system copied by United Fruit. [...] The banana had its origins in the jungles of Southeast Asia, in the wildern ...more
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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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