The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen

Rating Now: 10/10
Max Rating: 10/10*


To rise from a lowly immigrant Jew to the puppet master of central American governments is an amazing rise and the subject of The Fish That Ate the Whale. Rich Cohen weaves a fantastic narrative of Sam Zemurray, who started in the banana business by selling the products that most companies were throwing away (ripe bananas). As he progressed, Zemurray had a hand in everything, including clearing fields, hiking through dangerous rainforest, and planting.

This gumption and grit gave him a unique understanding of the banana business, made it more profitable, and saw his small firm engulf and overcome United Fruit, the largest conglomerate of fruit in the world.

As both the author and Ryan Holiday suggests, the book encapsulates everything that is great and terrible about the American dream. That a man could start from so low on the social and economic totem pole and rise to be pulling the strings of the CIA and U.S. president Eisenhower is an awe-inspiring feat.

Of course, in doing so, Zemurray made moral decisions that didn’t treat the Earth as sacred, didn’t enrich the lives of the poor field workers, and eventually opened the way for Communism to take hold in the western hemisphere.

An inspiring yet cautionary tale and one of the most enjoyable pleasure reads in a long time.

Key Takeaways:

  • Bananas are extremely versatile and high-yielding plant (an herb not a tree), which grows quickly (20 inches in 24 hours) with 3 harvests per year
  • Zemurray was able to build a more profitable, efficient, and long-term business because he learned every aspect of the banana business while most other Anglo-Americans wanted to run their fortune from Boston / USA
  • A man of his times, Zemurray used his power to overthrow the governments of Honduras in the early 1900s and Guatemala in the 1950s
  • PR and too much power can burn. Edward Bernays helped crystalize public opinion, brought the CIA, and U.S. gov into the war on Guatemala, but afterwards people asked questions and realized they had been duped


  • Read Edward Bernays – According to author Rich Cohen, Bernays was the architect of much of the public relations for United Fruit, which allowed them to dictate popular opinion and bring the U.S. military into their corner to support their interests (in Guatemala). The nephew of Sigmund Freud, he literally invented the term “public relations” and wrote numerous books on the subject in the 1920s and 1930s. Lately, I’ve been less interested in new business, marketing, etc books, but reading some classics like this is going to prove valuable.

* The time of life I read a book impacts the score. My Rating Now is how valuable the book was currently. However, at a different part of my life it might receive my Max Rating. Sometimes they are one and the same.

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