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

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  3,605 ratings  ·  383 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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Average rating 4.05  · 
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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: 2019, history, nonfiction
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Headed out on a road trip, I downloaded this audio-book from the library because it was available. Happily, I did not know what I was downloading. I didn't even know this was a non-fiction, historical biography, an account of an early global U.S. corporation circa 1910 and it's founder Sam Zemurray.

I thought Cohen did a great job portraying Zemurray as a relatable smart, hard working, self-made man with a natural ability to understand people and situations so that he could alter course to achie
May 25, 2013 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
Margaret Sankey
Jun 27, 2012 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 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
Jul 15, 2014 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
May 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
While the main subject of this book is a Russian-Jewish immigrant turned banana tycoon, it's of course more than that. It's also about colonialism, war, revolution, politics, business and legacy. A lot to digest. If you're looking for a book about an individual and an area of history that is overlooked, then you really can't go wrong.
Betsy Wissinger
Jun 17, 2012 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!

Jul 09, 2012 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.
Jul 22, 2012 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.
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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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