WHEN RICH COHEN’S The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King arrived in my mailbox, I was excited. Excited because its topic lay at the intersection between several of my intellectual pursuits: the historical world of banana workers, chronicled by calypsos like Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and the contemporary politics and culture of Central America and the Caribbean. In fact, I’m set to travel to Guatemala to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in a few short weeks. But after I’d carefully removed the dust jacket and turned to the Preface, Cohen began to worry me. He writes that his interest in Sam Zemurray — the “Banana King” of the title — was piqued during his undergraduate years at Tulane: “Unlike lectures in other classes, this was an epic, gaudy in character and incident, filled with mercenary soldiers and dirty wars, financial battles and the sort of political shenanigans familiar from the smoky back rooms of my hometown, Chicago.” And yet, a little more than a page later, he concludes that, “If you want to understand the spirit of our nation, the good and bad, you can enroll in college, sign up for classes, take notes and pay tuition, or you can study the life of Sam the Banana Man.”
I cannot deny that my wariness of Cohen’s opinion of academic history is felt at a personal level; after all, I completed my Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Texas just last spring. But a more general wariness is warranted, too. As Robert Zaretsky pointed out in his review of Jonah Lehrer’s scandalous Imagine: How Creativity Works: we live in an era when journalists and pundits presume the knowledge and skill to write historical works, including biography. On the surface, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When David McCullough publishes a new book, at least we know someone is taking history seriously — even if it’s a bored business traveler looking for distraction on a domestic flight. But journalists, even those under contract with major American publishers, are not bound by the same evidentiary rules as academic historians. Many barely peek into the primary sources, preferring to summarize others’ work in a more “accessible” style.
Thankfully, Rich Cohen isn’t guilty of this. Though he’s a journalist — a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, to be precise — it’s clear from reading the entirety of his new book that he’s done the research legwork, culling from both firsthand accounts and documents and the best of the secondary literature. So what, then, is his truck with the academy in the Preface? If anything, it seems to be about a particular philosophy regarding the presentation of fact. In his review Zaretsky invokes Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War as an example of historical writing that is “truthful” without necessarily being accurate. That, I think, is where Cohen is aiming. While The Fish That Ate the Whale isn’t, to my knowledge, inaccurate, there are numerous places where Cohen inserts himself into the narrative to say, in effect, “I don’t know what Zemurray was thinking in this moment, and probably there’s no real way of knowing, but here’s what I imagine was going through his mind.”
Is that hedging against complaints of falsifying the record? Maybe. But it also reminds me of the work of his Vanity Fair colleague, Nick Tosches. In his biographies Hellfire (Jerry Lee Lewis), Dino (Dean Martin), and Where Dead Voices Gather (blackface vaudevillian Emmett Miller), Tosches doesn’t even bother to hedge, giving his subjects inner monologues that he, the writer, could not possibly have access to. And yet there is something more “truthful” in his frequently short biographies than in many of the massive tomes that have become standard in the genre. That “truth” is a matter of distillation, of essence. For Tosches, as for Cohen, biography is either the long form of the parable or an aggregate of many; they’re inclined toward biblical rhetoric, though Tosches has somehow managed to cross the more morbid wing of Roman Catholicism with a fiery home-grown American revivalism, and Cohen is — not insignificantly — Jewish. In addition, they are by inclination the chroniclers of a lost working-class world, of immigrants and farmboys, both fresh to the city. They live and dream in the shadow of the past, whose cast is determined by their ability to conjure the essence of their particular subjects. Or, perhaps, just our willingness to believe what they have to say about how that subject looms over today. The choice in this matters, yes, but perhaps not so much as what we can extrapolate therein. The pursuit of this kind of truth is more than a matter of journalistic vs. academic style, as very few attempt it in the first place. It is, as Cohen indicates, the stuff that the best undergraduate lectures are made of. But it’s too thorny for most historians, academic or otherwise. It requires bringing a literary verve to the facts, a lyrical historiography.
When considering the subjects of Cohen’s and Tosches’ books, it’s hard not to think of Whitman’s well-worn line about human contradiction. For instance, Hellfire occupies that zone within Jerry Lee Lewis where the venal clashes with the righteous. The Fish That Ate the Whale zeroes in on the internal conflict that beset Sam Zemurray, aspirant immigrant and oppressive tyrant in one body: “His tragedy was not that he was worse than other businessmen, but that, despite all his brilliance and good intentions, he was no better.”
The Fish That Ate the Whale follows a classical narrative arc, appropriately enough. But instead of a five-part structure — from exposition to denouement — Cohen charts Sam Zemurray’s life via chapter clusters that mimic the stages a banana passes through as it goes from field to table (or, ultimately, trash heap): Green, Yellow, Ripe, Brown. The effect of this organization is to foreground the ever-present threat of that old enemy, Time. Zemurray’s American story began in Selma, Alabama as the immigrant son of Russian Jews, and from there he traveled to the docks of Mobile in search of better prospects. He discovered bananas on the waterfront in 1893, finding a niche by purchasing the “ripes” that the big fruit companies would otherwise toss away, rushing them up the Illinois Central in rented boxcars and selling them to grocers he’d telegraphed ahead on the line. This kind of work, done by “fruit jobbers,” was the domain of the immigrant: “Bananas were especially disreputable, with the taint of cholera and the stink of the docks.” But unlike most fruit jobbers, the lowest rung in the banana trade, Zemurray became quite successful; he took on a partner in 1905, and ultimately purchased a fleet of ships and plantations in Honduras, where the future Banana King worked in the fields alongside the laborers.
Along the way, Cohen provides the reader with a horticultural history of the banana — the better to explain how Zemurray’s company (Cuyamel Fruit) came into conflict with United Fruit, the “Whale” of the title. In 1910, having shed his partner and finding the current government unsuited to his needs, Zemurray orchestrated a coup in Honduras using ne’er-do-wells, mercenaries, and an exiled Honduran general, drug out of the dives of the French Quarter. By this point, Zemurray and Cuyamel were serious rivals to UF, and this competition reached a head when, in 1929, the Justice Department demanded that Zemurray sell out to UF in order to stave off a war that the two companies had helped foment between Guatemala and Honduras. Zemurray retired to his house in New Orleans and busied himself with philanthropic activities, including donating substantial sums to Tulane University.
By 1932, however, the Ivy League-educated board at UF — who had no experience on the isthmus whatsoever — allowed the stock of their once mighty empire to tank. Zemurray, the largest stockholder in UF, executed a hostile takeover and cast out the executives who’d mocked his thick accent and fruit jobber origins. With Zemurray at the helm, UF flourished during the Depression, and its ships and infrastructure became an important part of the Allied effort in WWII. To Zemurray’s great misfortune, his son died in combat, his plane gone down over North Africa. With no male heir to carry on his legacy, Zemurray, Cohen suggests, needed a purpose to set himself; he became involved in the creation of the state of Israel, covertly helping to deliver ships, arms, and — crucially — the votes of Central American countries at the United Nations.
By the early 1950s, Zemurray was back to his coup-coordinating ways, though now in conjunction with his public relations man, Edward Bernays, and the newly created Central Intelligence Agency; Operation Success, the C.I.A.’s name for the overthrow of the “communist” president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, would set the tone for American involvement in Latin American for years to come, and precipitated a decades-long civil war in that country. Now in his late seventies, Zemurray retired permanently, perhaps having realized that, in Cohen’s words, “[a] corporation is the product of a particular place and a particular time,” and that his United Fruit was ill suited to the Cold War era. Zemurray died in 1961 at the age of 84. Cohen concludes, “The story of Sam Zemurray is the story of New Orleans. It was booming when he found it and it’s foundered since he died.”
But Cohen is no hagiographer, even if his use of the exclamation point seems at times unwarranted: “Now look what he’d accomplished!” And although the early days of the banana trade in Central America are presented as the last, romantic gasp of the Wild West, and the more cutthroat business deals Zemurray sealed are colored by admiration for his chutzpah, when Cohen gets to the long-exploited indigenous peasantry of the isthmus who began revolting in the 1950s — at the close of Zemurray’s active life in business — the author gives every indication that this was the Banana King’s due: “One definition of evil is to fail to recognize the humanity in the other: to see a person as an object or tool, something to be put to use.”
If Cohen seems to spend less time on certain salient topics within Zemurray’s biography — like the plight of the workers or the Guatemalan coup — this can likely be forgiven if we consider his book within its broader discourse, which includes both Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir of indigenous life in the wake of the civil war that Zemurray’s actions helped initiate, and books like Stephen Schlesinger and Stephner Kinzer’s classic Bitter Fruit, which recounts in exacting detail the events in Guatemala but mentions UF’s president only a handful of times, reducing his backstory to a minimal two pages. But it’s also worth considering where The Fish That Ate the Whale — and Cohen’s other books — fit within the prevalent tendencies of Jewish history. Even a cursory glance through his rather substantial bibliography reveals that the author is a serious Judeophile. However, both in his biography of Zemurray and with previous books like Tough Jews, Cohen has staked a claim on the stories that defy the notion that these children of Abraham are only history’s victims. And so, he’s recounted in fact the lives of the kind of Jews that Sergio Leone rendered so well in Once Upon a Time in America: the gangsters and legit businessmen who hustled for their piece and sometimes got it, even when it cost them dearly.
This is nowhere clearer than in the final pages of The Fish That Ate the Whale, where Cohen begins by stating, “Let me explain in a Jewish way—with a story.” He then recounts an anecdote about an exchange between Zemurray and his namesake grandson near the end of the businessman’s life:
The boy, twelve or thirteen, stood in the threshold. Zemurray studied him, then asked, “What religion are you, anyway?”
“Christian,” said the boy.
Zemurray turned and went down the stairs, muttering.
Out of the shtetl, out of the ghetto; wealthy enough to build his own private golf course when the Gentiles wouldn’t let him into their clubs, but no one to sing the Kaddish over him in death. Such was the remarkable and, in its way, tragic life of America’s Banana King.
Lest I veer too far into A Serious Man territory — the work of other Cohens — let me say that The Fish That Ate the Whale is brimming with the kind of anecdotes that make you want to buttonhole the nearest person with a “Listen to this!” After reading this book you’ll never again hear Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” without thinking of O. Henry. And, if you’re under 50, you’ll finally understand those jokes about slipping on a banana peel. Parables can be funny, too.