In Rich Cohen’s universe, there seem to be only two types of Jewish men: the
fearful and passive ones who are repeatedly trampled upon by a remorseless and
anti-Semitic world, and the men who choose to fight back.
biography, The Fish That Ate the Whale, studies the life and times of Sam
Zemurray, known to most as “Sam the Banana Man,” who arrived penniless in 1891
at age 14 from what is known today as Moldova and died 69 years later one of the
richest men in the world.
Cohen’s piercing portrait is not glossy; it is
a gritty, behind-the-scenes look at how Zemurray was able to do what he did.
Some of the most moving passages in this fine book are Cohen’s own meditations
about Zemurray; it feels as if he is always trying to understand what drove
Zemurray grew up on a wheat farm and when his father died young, Sam
decided to set sail for America. Cohen says that by 16 he was mature beyond his
years, and imagines him “as hardened as the men in the Walker Evans photos, a
tough operator, a dead-end kid, coolly figuring angles: Where’s the play? What’s
in it for me? His humor was black, his explanations few. He was driven by the
same raw energy that always attracted the most ambitious to America.”
Sam’s most potent power was his ability to see value where others only saw
Zemurray noticed that when the banana boats docked in Mobile,
Alabama they left bananas too ripe for further shipment discarded carelessly on
the boat. He offered to buy them. Zemurray loaded his haul on a train headed for
his home in Selma, Alabama, where his uncle had a store. He hoped he could make
it home in time to sell them. However, the train kept getting delayed and Sam
feared his bananas would soon be rotten. A Western Union man suggested he wire
the upcoming towns on their route and alert them that fresh, delicious bananas
would be available for sale to the local merchants for dirt-cheap prices. It
Local sellers lined up and purchased Sam’s bananas
right off the train. Sam began running the same train route and was soon selling
more than a million bananas a year, making him wealthy by the time he entered
his 20s. The owner of United Fruit, Richard Preston, who shipped more than half
the bananas in the world, was so impressed with Sam’s ingenuity that he signed
an exclusive contract with him, allocating all of his “ripes” to him for a set
But Sam was just getting started.
COHEN IS a beautifully
talented and vibrant writer who seems to effortlessly brings his pages to life.
His narrative includes wonderful riffs on the history of bananas and how and
where they are grown, the development of the banana trade in Latin America under
its various corrupt governments, as well as the state of American politics and
business during the early 1900s. Cohen is not an ideologue, and this serves him
well as a writer and thinker. He is unafraid to share his gut response with the
reader, as well as his uncertainties.
There is always the nagging sense
that Cohen wishes he could get closer to Zemurray. His research uncovers that
Sam was a loner who preferred his own company to idle chatter. He was unusually
health-conscious and known to stand on his head for 15 minutes after eating,
believing this to aid digestion. There were some who felt he had a chip on his
shoulder and resented being excluded by the Protestants and Catholics in America
due to his Jewish origin. Others felt he couldn’t care less. Cohen believes
Zemurray “was less the sort of man who didn’t care than the sort of man who
could make you believe he didn’t care.”
Zemurray quickly began to buy
land to begin growing his own bananas. He began in Honduras and extended his
reach to several other countries including Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama
and Costa Rica. He felt superior to his competitors who remained entrenched in
New York or Boston and did not possess his hands-on experience.
most of his year living on his plantations amidst his workers and managers and
continually strove to create a better and more efficient business. If a
government was unfriendly to him, he harnessed the means to replace those in
charge with political leaders more accommodating to him. If he could not secure
a bank loan, he went through illicit channels.
Cohen sometimes paints
Zemurray in a romantic light, as a sort of Jewish cowboy in love with Central
America, “where nostalgic Americans could live their dream of western
Soon enough, his company, Cuyamel, had 10,000 workers and
was harvesting eight million bunches of bananas that everyone claimed were the
tastiest, with the fattest fingers, ever seen. For Sam though, it was still not
Even the most charmed lives eventually crash against
something they can’t manipulate. Sam lost his son, a fighter pilot, during the
opening battles of the Second World War. It changed him. He became determined to
help create the Israeli state and he used his incredible pull and power in Latin
America to change votes that were crucial to the United Nations vote that
established the Jewish state. He worked directly with Ze’ev Schind, who took
command of the Mossad in 1947, by helping him secure the ships and visas Schind
needed to smuggle almost 40,000 Holocaust survivors out of Europe and into
He became more interested in building schools and hospitals in
the countries where his banana plantations flourished, and offered substantial
funds to his hometown Tulane University in New Orleans, where his wife and
daughter still lived.
My father, long gone now, was a small manufacturer
of ladies’ apparel in New York City’s garment center. He once told me with what
sounded like disappointment that no man in America makes it really big without
stepping over somebody else. It might just be a small illicit act; perhaps some
sort of office sabotage, or something far more sinister.
His words always
bothered me, because they rang with truth, and had within them the true story of
capitalism and power and what it does to the men who embrace it. Cohen’s
terrifically intuitive biographical portrait of Sam Zemurray allows us to take a
very close look.