The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
By Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Reviewed by Nathan C. Martin
Samuel Zemurray, former president of the United Fruit company and history’s most ambitious banana magnate, has a lot in common with Daniel Plainview, the antihero of P.T. Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood (which Anderson loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, although no character named Daniel Plainview exists in that novel). Both Zemurray and Plainview worked their way up from essentially nothing around the turn of the 20th century to become masters of monstrous corporations—Zemurray, a Russian immigrant, started his great ascent as a fruit peddler on the streets of Selma, Alabama. Both struck tall and imposing figures, raped the land for profit, had early success but eschewed retirement in favor of lifetime pursuits of power and wealth, had great tragedies befall their only sons, used their everyman’s grit and on-the-ground know-how to outsmart and belittle their well-bred competitors, and ended their lives bitter and mumbling in cavernous mansions (Zemurray died in 1961 in one of the grandest homes in New Orleans).
Beyond Plainview, Zemurray was personally responsible for tremendous political upheaval throughout Central America and largely responsible for what we know as “Banana Republics,” the semi-soverign equatorial nations that produce the fruit the United States eats. Zemurray’s interventions created a template the American government went on to employ throughout Latin America. He began while president of his own banana upstart, Cuyamel Fruit, by engineering a “popular uprising” in Honduras, where he installed into the presidency a banana-friendly autocrat with the help of a wily band of mercenaries and a single gun boat called the Hornet. A few decades later, as the unquestioned emperor of the banana kingdom, he convinced the CIA to overthrow Guatemala’s elected socialist leader and install a similar amicable oligarch. He accomplished the latter with the help of Edward Bernays—nephew of Sigmund Freud, inventor of modern public relations, and one of the American 20th century’s more insidious figures. Zemurray and Bernays used political connections and propaganda in the context of Cold War paranoia to engineer the coup. This established a dictatorship that led to a civil war that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans—the massacre in the report at the center of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness. Zemurray may have been involved with the assassination of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long—Cohen suggests this, but conspicuously does not claim it as truth—and was also generally racist, and if he felt like it could be a very big prick.
So why does Rich Cohen treat Zemurray like some hurdy-gurdy buckaroo in The Fish that Ate the Whale, comparing him to John Wayne on one page and John Rockafeller on the next, presenting his life as a rollicking tale of hardscrabble wherewithal in which the immigrant from the docks beats “the elite” to the punch, giving those Ivy-Leaguers a real comeuppance, making millions while walking daily in Honduran banana fields as the fat cats sat in their Boston offices, inventing idioms in his second and third languages and earning endearing nicknames—”El Gringo,” “Sam the Banana Man”—along the way? Daniel Plainview never got this sympathetic treatment, even though he was sticking it to silver-spoon-fed elites while making millions and coining catch-phrases (“I drink your milkshake!“). What gives?
Three reasons: Zemurray’s history is part of Cohen’s story; Zemurray’s history is part of of the Jewish story; and Zemurray’s history is part of America’s story. (And, the obvious fourth: Zemurray was a real person, and it’s always more complicated to deal with real people than fictional ones.)
Century of the Self is a damning documentary that looks into Zemurray’s insidious collaborator, Edward Bernays.
Cohen stumbled upon the Zemurray epic as a student at Tulane University, which Zemurray endowed heavily with banana money. Cohen’s lasting fascination with his subject and his desire to craft a rip-roaring tale are palpable throughout the book, evident in the action-packed vignettes he constructs and the vocabulary he chooses to describe the actors (“banana cowboy” is a favorite term). He employs punchy expressions to drive home his points—on a single page in the book: “It was always an option: if the leader is in the pocket of the other guy, change the leader” and “This was a preferred Zemurray tactic: if you meet a truly formidable foe, flip him.” Cohen also tends to insert snippets of his own life and writerly pursuits at slightly awkward intervals, prostrating himself before his subject: “This is easy for me to write, of course, sitting at my desk, looking at the autumn landscape out my window, repairing to the kitchen now and then for a cup of coffee, but it was the hardest work in the world. If this is the kind of book I want it to be, it will leave you with a sense of the fields, the heat and fear, the snakes in the brush that have to be killed with a single blow, the sting of the poison that makes you want to lie down, just for a minute, in the shade of the ceiba tree, the scorpions that …” You get the picture.
Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, tied years of his life up in creating an “enthralling narrative” full of “verve, wit, and page-turning excitement,” as one of his early blurbs reads. Moralistic commentary on Zemurray’s actions doesn’t make for page-turning verve—not to say that commentary is completely absent, it’s just brushed brusquely to the side, done away with quickly so we can get to the next adventure (mule treks across the isthmus, railroad quests gone awry!). Cohen, who conducted massive amounts of research for this book, was also cognizant of the fact that Zemurray, while popularly unknown, has been subject of quite a bit of historical work, was covered widely in the press of his day, and that he’s mainly framed as something of a robber baron. In order to make a fresh book, you need a fresh angle, full of swagger and gusto—the Zemurray-as-Plainview story has already been told in lesser-known, less enthralling books.
The Fish that Ate the Whale cleaves closely to one of Cohen’s favorite tropes: Jewishness. His other books include Tough Jews and Isreal Is Real. He borrows the latter’s title for a chapter in The Fish that describes Zemurray’s support for the creation of a Jewish state after World War II. Besides the Holocaust, Zemurray’s son, a pilot, died in the war, leaving the father emotionally unmoored and looking for a cause. Zemurray—allegedly, as he took great care to conceal his actions—not only procured dozens of ships to transport beleaguered Jews from Europe to Palestine around a British blockade, he also used his vast political influence in Central America and the Caribbean to secure United Nations votes in favor of partitioning Israel into separate spaces for Arabs and Jews. “Behind them,” Cohen writes, “behind the creation of the Jewish state, was the Gringo pushing his cart piled high with stinking ripes.”
Zemurray was never a staunch practitioner of Judaism, as Cohen points out, and though it’s impossible to pin down precisely how Zemurray’s Jewish ancestry influenced Cohen’s portrayal of him, the author’s clearly personal treatment of the issue raises eyebrows at points. In probably the oddest passage of the book, Cohen inserts himself into Zemurray’s psyche to postulate about the old man’s regrets: “Here was a man who lived every aspect of the Jewish experience in America. He came with the great influx from Eastern Europe, prospered with his times, was devastated by the war. He married a Jewish woman, belonged to a synagogue, said Kaddish for his dead. He was a Zionist. Israel was important to him, and he was important to Israel. And yet he did not teach his children or grandchildren to be Jewish—to marry Jews, raise Jews, worship as Jews, fret as Jews. And none of them did. I do not think Sam did this intentionally, or wanted it to happen. It was just one of the things that unfolded when he was away on the isthmus. He was too busy to pay attention, did not care enough to notice, until he was old and it was too late. His particular line diverged from the story of his people, has been swallowed by the freedom of America. I believe that was Zemurray’s regret, the sadness of his final years. He accomplished everything, and let everything go. Of course, this is just me imagining myself into the mind of a man I never met and can never really know.”
While this passage represents a singularly bizarre instance, Cohen’s tactic of presenting large swaths of lush description and speculative insight and then abruptly qualifying them before moving right along is what tempers much of his treatment of Zemurray throughout the book. And on the rare occasion that he offers a Latin American perspective, Cohen likes to use excerpts from One Hundred Years of Solitude, presumably for their melodiousness. But taken out of context, Marquez’s passages seem to present him revering the banana men’s power nearly as much as Cohen does. Cohen selects this particular poeticism from Solitude to punctuate a paragraph about Zemurray’s rivals damming water sources that fed his banana fields: “Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of town.” (Cohen has since written about how Marquez’s book helped bring down the United Fruit legacy.)
But toward the end of The Fish that Ate the Whale, in the long chapter that describes the Guatemala incident, the details pile up so darkly that shades of Zemurray as Daniel Plainview inevitably show through—the devastation, the deceit, the murder, the failure of wealth to heal, the lurching forth of a corporation power-drunk. Here, Cohen reverts to the argument he posits early in the book: that Zemurray’s tragedy is America’s tragedy, and that like our great nation, this great man’s folly was believing he could have it all without paying the price. Of course, Plainview—along with his Christian zealot alter-ego, Eli Sunday—is an allegory for the United States, too. So which is the more accurate depiction? The line of delineation between the two characters—Zemurray and Plainview—as they are presented, and the two American narratives they represent seems to be Zemurray’s feverish myopia versus Plainview’s barely concealed self-destructiveness. This dichotomy persists in our characterization of contemporary power brokers. Think of the collapse of 2008—were its progenitors merely ignorant, or did they know and just ignore the fact that they were driving the economy into the dirt? Or is it more complicated than that? This last possibility creates the gray space in which Cohen works, in which he feels free to tell a riveting story and shrug off the implications of its protagonist’s deeds. We need larger-than-life stories as much as we need moral judgment to remind us that it is equally important to live vigorously as it is to live carefully. But as it remains painfully clear that corporate recklessness is something we have not nearly evolved past, our history books concerning gung-ho capitalist forefathers can stand to be more critical than this one, even to the detriment of its wild and well-told story.