"The Fish That Ate the Whale" by Rich Cohen

Jeff Glor talks to Rich Cohen about "The Fish That Ate the Whale."

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Rich Cohen: I was a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, where the President lives in the grand mansion that had once been the roosting place of Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man, where the buildings are named for Sam and members of his family, where the professors, speaking in whispers, tell legends of the big Russian, Alabaman, New Orleanian Jew who came to this country penniless at 14 and by 18 had made a fortune selling bananas that other traders dumped as too ripe. The professors spoke of his as Gatsby's house guests spoke of their mysterious host in the Fitzgerald novel: I heard that he killed a man. You live in such a place only so long before you start to wonder, "What the hell is going on here? Who was this guy." I was inspired by whispered stories heard in New Orleans about Sam the Banana Man, El Amigo, Z, the Gringo, The Russian. I have a simple journalistic rule: any man with three nicknames is going to be a good story. Zemurray had five.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

RC: Just how central Zemurray was in the history of America in the 20th Century. He was not an oddball, sidelight, eccentric, but a key player, unknown to people today because that's how he wanted it. Here was the guy behind the guy behind the guy behind the guy. His company, United Fruit, known in Latin America as the Octopus--because it had its tentacles in everything--was a key player in American history, a secret force behind revolutions and social movements. No matter what door I opened, I found Sam, with his piles of bananas. Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, John Foster Dulles, Franklin Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, Huey Long . . . no matter where you look, Sam is there.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

RC: I'd be installing hot tubs in some resort town in the Dakotas or the Idahos, earning just enough cash to free me for a life in the mountains, among the white peaks, where I would have a best friend, and we would talk and confide and cry from lack of oxygen, while our very beautiful wives waited in the little towns, where yellow light glowed. Or I might be a lawyer.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

RC: I am reading "Patton: A Genius For War" by Carlo D'Este, as well as Mike Ditka's autobiography "In Life, First You Kick Ass." I am also reading, and not for the first time, the George Trow book "My Pilgrim's Progress."

JG: What's next for you?

RC: I am working on a book about the Chicago Bears, my team, especially the Ditka/McMahon/Payton/Dent/ Fencik teams of the 1980s that made the Chicago winters bearable, cause, you know, it gets cold in that town in the winter, and it's just as flat as a skillet.

For more on "The Fish That Ate The Whale," visit the Macmillan website.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.