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the reader will decide, villain or hero

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

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King, Rich Cohen, author, Robertson Dean, narrator


This is the story of Sam Zemurray, A Russian Jew, originally from Maldova, who led the United Fruit Company for 25 years. He was born in 1877 and came to America in 1891 at the age of 14. When he arrived, he had nothing. When he died he had lived a life that took him to the very pinnacle of success and back down again to the bottom. At one time, he was one of the richest and most powerful men. He had influence with both the leaders of the United States and the leaders of foreign countries. His influence over the Latin American banana business was monumental. His influence over Latin America was widespread.

He got the idea for his banana business one night, while walking in New Orleans. As he describes the street he was standing on, it sounded like he could also have been on the Reeperbahn, in Hamburg Germany’s red light district of yore. From the moment he witnessed the sight of this magical fruit, called the banana, which has no growing season and produces fruit all year long, his life’s map was drawn. El Amigo was born. The Banana King’s history had begun in earnest. From the head of his successfully run business Cuyamel, he morphed into the man who controlled the largest banana business in the world, United Fruit.

His story includes the tragic history of the 20thcentury with the Depression and the Holocaust influencing many of his decisions. When the dream of a Jewish state was realized, it was with his help. He was influential in persuading many Latin American heads of state to agree to the creation of the Jewish state, and so he helped birth the state of Israel. Although as a Jew, he was not deeply rooted in the practice of Judaism, he was rooted in the idea of being a Jew. He had a hand in many events of the world, and in some ways, he was an unsung hero but on the opposite side he was an unsung villain. His business practices and influences on governments were often brutal with disastrous consequences. 

When he wanted something, Zemurrary got it. He used legal and illegal, moral and immoral means to attain whatever he wanted. He dealt with the heads of multiple governments, not only his own, he made bargains with a heavy hand, was influential in overthrowing governments, most notably Honduras and Guatemala, one in defiance of the United States and one working in unison with them.

The names he was involved with are famous. He dealt with J. P. Morgan, Hunt, Pierrepont, Roosevelt and many other government and banking names that live on today. On the other side he was also involved with men who were tyrants or revolutionaries, like Che Guevara, Christmas, Castro and Chavez, among others.

His name was often synonymous with revolutions as well as commerce. He witnessed the birth of the banana business and the death of his influence in it. His life, like the business, ended on a downward trend, but his rise makes quite a story.