The Life and Times of America’s
Banana King

By Rich Cohen Farrar Straus Giroux. 270 pp. $27

Samuel Zemurray — known as “Sam the Bananaman” — was a Russian-Jewish immigrant turned New Orleans banana tycoon, the archetypal self-made man. This, in a nutshell, is the premise that governs Rich Cohen’s new account of Zemurray’s life, “The Fish That Ate the Whale.” For Cohen, Zemurray’s career “is the history of the nation, the promise and the betrayal of that promise, experienced in the span of a single life.”

‘The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King’ by Rich Cohen. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

That may be true: Portions of Zemurray’s story, after all, are as good an example of the American promise as one could imagine. Arriving in the South in 1891 without a penny to his name, Zemurray rose to become the head of United Fruit, one of the most powerful firms in an era that, unlike our own, had few misgivings about the excesses of corporate greed. On the other hand, as Cohen acknowledges, Zemurray, especially with regard to his Latin American interests, was “a pirate, a conquistador who took without asking.” This duality — and Cohen’s immensely readable portrait of it — makes for a captivating character, albeit one whom Cohen may like a bit too much. “I can’t help but feel, after all the talk of America’s decline,” he concludes, “that we would do well by emulating Sam Zemurray.” In some ways, perhaps so. In others, however, let’s not.

— James McAuley