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

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The remarkable historical profile of an unforgettable figure - Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man - who emerged from nothing to become one of the most powerful men in America.

Subject: History
The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King, Rich Cohen

Whether you know him as El Amigo, the Banana Man, the Gringo, or simply Z - whether you even know him at all - Sam Zemurray lived one of the greatest untold American stories of the last hundred years.

A tough, uneducated Russian Jew who found himself and his fortune in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, Zemurray built a fruit-selling empire hustling rotting fruit to market to eke out the slimmest profit, to eventually become a backchannel kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary. The Fish That Ate the Whale spans the transition from Old-World business to New-: from privateer adventurers seeking fortunes in remote frontiers, to buccaneers of high finance and wars fought with media, no-bid contracts, and necessary illusions.

Part of what makes this book so remarkable - and its dubious hero so compelling - is the almost invisible ease with which Cohen's threads intertwine to create a larger pattern that seems so obvious once you step back to see it. Z's story spans the birth of modern foreign relations, the creation of the CIA, smuggling dispossessed Jews out of Europe, the invention of Israel, corporate espionage, the Bay of Pigs, political assassination, and the unspoken motives of the Cold War. It is a twentieth-century epic, and standing at its core is a man unlike any we've seen before or since, who, for good or ill, looked at what was, but saw only what was possible.

Available Formats

  • eBook
    ISBN: 9781448104659
    Published: 05/07/2012
    Imprint: Vintage Digital
    Extent: 288 pages
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"I found the story riveting, mainly because of the mischievous ease with which Cohen tells it. He has done his research, but he's no prissy, footnote-addled academic" - Peter Conrad, Observer

"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 the tales of Sam Zemurray, the banana peddler who built United Fruit. This book recounts, with delightful verve, his military and diplomatic manoeuvres in Central America and his colourful life and business practices" - Walter Isaacson, author of 'Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography'

"Sam 'The Bannanaman' 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

"This remarkable book… is a beautifully written homage to a man whose pioneering life mirrors so much of America’s beauty and beastliness. The life of Sam the Banana Man is Cohen’s eloquent hands, is as nourishing and odd as the bendy yellow berry that made him great" - Melissa Katsoulis, The Times

"Great fun… The author has a tremendous imaginative facility, and he brings vividly to life the broiling quays of of New Orleans in its commercial heyday" - Alex Goodall, Literary Review

"Rich Cohen…has undoubtedly picked a remarkable subject and infuses the narrative with a breathless excitement" - Josh Glancy, Jewish Telegraph

"A very good read" - Peter Chapman, Financial Times