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.
Cohen provides a boatload of angles for his biography of little-known antihero, Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961), presenting his story as a parable of American capitalism, an example of the American dream in decline, the story of 20th-century America, a quintessentially Jewish tale, and "a subterranean saga of kickbacks, overthrows, and secret deals: the world as it really works." Fortunately, Cohen (Sweet and Low) backs up his hyperbole. Once a poor immigrant buying ripe bananas off a New Orleans pier, Zemurray became the disgraced mogul of the much hated United Fruit Company. Along the way, he aided the creation of Israel; funded many of Tulane University's buildings; and had a hand in the rise of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Cohen claims Zemurray was to New Orleans what Rockefeller was to New York, but the better comparison may be to Robert Moses, who bulldozed both land and people to build many of New York's roads, parks, and bridges. The reader gets to decide not only whether the ends were worth the means, but whether the means were worth the ends.