New York Times best selling author appears for 7th annual Common Read

The English Department and the Writing Center hosted their seventh annual Common Read program with New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen. Cohen’s 2012 book “The Fish That Ate the Whale” is currently being read in American literature classes at Southeastern, so students in attendance received a chance to have their book signed by the author after the read. Department head Dr. David Hanson says Cohen is the program’s 14th author to visit campus and read for students. Hanson introduced Cohen as “one of the most interesting journalistic voices of our time.”
“The Fish That Ate the Whale” is the biography of Samuel Zemurray, a Russian, and Jewish, immigrant who came to America and became a self-made banana mogul. Zemurray was first the founder of his own fruit company Cuyamel Fruit Company, and then soon was head of United Fruit Company, at his time, the largest fruit company in the business. This version of the American dream is a love story about the banana, which according to Cohen, was a magical, and profitable, fruit to someone like Zemurray. In his homeland of Russia, coming across a banana was rare. Cohen hopes students reading his book realize how vast American history really is. People in books and dates on calendars are more than that; they are actual people and events.
“American history is more interesting and stranger than [one] could possibly imagine,” said Cohen. “This really seems like a thing in a book, or dates on a calendar, but in fact it’s these people and their desire to do things, and their ambition. Put that all together and you get American history.”
Zemurray began his banana peddling in Selma, Ala., and then changed his location as he had higher hopes for his business. He moved to New Orleans in the 1890s with goals of becoming a major importer in the fruit business. Zemurray purchased land in Honduras in the early weeks of 1910 and started importing bananas into New Orleans to sell. Overtime, he became very wealthy and funded the financial effort to overthrow the Honduran government, with the help of mercenaries Lee Christmas and Guy “Machine Gun” Maloney. This was to establish a competitive market for the banana since Untied Fruit was monopolizing the industry.
Soon, Cohen says, United Fruit, under Zemurray’s control, “became more powerful than the government.” He the retired in New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue. The President’s House for Tulane University, on St. Charles and Audubon Park, was originally Zemurray’s home. He passed away on Nov. 30, 1961.
Cohen claims it was a combination of that majestic house, New Orleans and his college alma mater Tulane University that made him write this book. If he had never attended Tulane, he would have never entered Zemurray’s former home and he would have never written “The Fish That Ate the Whale.” Cohen was invited to a dinner inside the famous house in honor of his father; he had given a speech at the Tulane Business School when Cohen was a history major there. Here, his imagination and interest peaked.
Ironically, the Tulane history major went on to author 10 books and a slew of magazine articles for Rolling Stone, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. The Chicago native is also currently a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Cohen got his start in magazine writing when he was a peddler for The New Yorker.
“Waiting around to do stuff, I started reading old New Yorkers, all the way back to the late 1920s and 30s,” said Cohen. “In those old magazines I discovered the kind of story, and the kind of writer, that I love so much that I wanted to try and do it myself.”
Writing this book just made sense to Cohen, he felt a connection between him and Zemurray. They were both from Jewish heritage, and Cohen’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants as well. The Chicago native loves New Orleans because of its uniqueness and authentic feel.
“There is no city in America that is anything like New Orleans,” Cohen said. “Its completely unique and different. In my opinion, there are only really four great cities in America, and they’re all cities that were built before the car, so you can walk around. That’s New York, Chicago, San Francisco and New Orleans.”