“The Fish That Ate The Whale” Quotes

I recently read “The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King” by Rich Cohen. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. As always, if you liked the quotes, please buy the book here.

The Fish That Ate The Whale“It’s what people mean when they speak of American exceptionalism: unlike the Europeans, we do not yet know you can’t be both powerful and righteous.” (xii)

“He believed in staying close to the action – in the fields with the workers, in the dives with the banana cowboys. You drink with a man, you learn what he knows. (“There is no problem you can’t solve if you understand your business from A to Z,” he said later.)” (12)

“The ability to attract followers would prove crucial. Though he said little, he was recognized as a leader. His team was better, stronger, tighter.” (28)

“The independents who survived this wave – a tidal wave that remade everything that came before – were allowed to survive by United Fruit. They were left to stand as proof of healthy competition. In other words, even its rivals existed so U.F. could prosper.” (47)

“It’s just the sort of person he was,” explained Brogan, who worked for Zemurray in South America. “He was one of those guys, part of him is always figuring. You listen to a man like that. He knows something that can’t be taught.” (52)

“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. The spirit of colonialism infected the trade from the start.” (65)

“There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.” (65)

“He believed in the transcendent power of physical labor – that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body.” (71)

“Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business, from the executive suite where the stock was manipulated to the ripening room where the green fruit turned yellow. He was contemptuous of banana men who spent their lives in the North, far from the plantations. Those schmucks, what do they know? They’re there, we’re here!” (71)

“Go all in, or get out. Sam was young and wanted to bet everything: great fortunes come from big plays.” (74)

“What was Sam thinking, piling debt on debt, risk on risk? By buying out Hubbard, he was taking it all on his own shoulders. But what did it matter? If he failed by himself, he would lose the exact same amount as if he failed with a partner: everything.” (74)

“He had refused to play a bit part in life and went adventuring instead.” (81)

“Lee Christmas said, “Because I want the buzzards to eat me, and fly over you afterward, and scatter white shit all over your God-damned black faces.” (82)

“Every great victory carries the seed of ultimate defeat.” (96)

“When a man becomes my age in the United States,” Christmas told Molony, “he’s only good for fertilizer.”” (98)

“Zemurray never forgot the less. It does not matter hwo many bananas you ship: when you lose your reputation, you lose everything.” (101)

“There was not a job he could not do, nor a task he could not accomplish. (He considered it a secret of his success.)” (103)

“Speaking of Nicaragua, Zemurray notoriously said, “A mule costs more than a deputy.” (105)

“The executives who ran United Fruit had taken over from the founders and were less interested in risking than in preserving. Zemurray was the founder, forever on the attack, at work, in progress, growing by trial and error, ready to gamble it all.” (107)

“A corporation ages like a person. As the years go by and the founders die off, making way for the bureaucrats of the second and third generations, the ecstatic, risk-taking, just-for-the-hell-of-it spirit that built the company gives way to a comfortable middle age. Where the firm had been forward looking and creative, it becomes self-conscious in the way of a man, pestering itself with dozens of questions before it can act. How will it look? What will they say? If the business is wealthy and strong, the executives who come to power in these later generations will be characterized by the worst of self-confidence: they think the money will always be there because it always has been.” (109)

“Victor Cutter’s work was done by way of character building, a luxury of the middle class. Zemurray’s work was done in order to survive.” (110)

“Wars are not won by running your mouth.” (113)

“He formed his philosophy: get up first, work harder, get your hands int he dart and the blood in your eyes.” (118)

“He had since become a man of means. Whereas the young Sam was reckless and immune – from nowhere, with nothing – there were all sorts of ways the middle-aged Sam could be hurt. Success limited his options and made him vulnerable.” (118)

“Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.” (120)

“In some ways, the world was better back then. It did not matter if you were kind or as mean as a snake – you were supposed to give, so you gave. That’s all.” (128)

“He’d clearly been affected by the folk wisdom, what his father told his mother over the dinner table in Russia: that giving with display is not giving, but trading. I give you money, you give me prestige.” (128)

“The greatness of Zemurray lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation. Bad things happened to him as bad things happen to everyone, but unlike so many he was never tempted by failure. He never felt powerless or trapped. He was, as I said, an optimist. He stood in constant defiance.” (139)

“When he was forbidden to build a bridge, he built a bridge but called it something else. For every move, there is a countermove. For every disaster, there is a recovery. He never lost faith in his own agency.” (139)

“The best tycoons are like magicians; they know when to share information and when to withhold.” (141)

“In a time of crisis, the mere evidence of activity can be enough to get things moving.” (148)

“When offered the freedom of America, which is not only freedom here and now, but also freedom from the past, freedom to choose what to remember, he grabbed it.” (162)

“No matter his wealth or power, the Hebrew would always be a stranger in a strange land, vulnerable to the slightest shift in the popular mood.” (163)

“Where did the interest of United Fruit end and the interest of the United States begin? It was impossible to tell. That was the point of all Sam’s hires: If I can perfectly align the interests of my company with the interests of top officials in the U.S. government – not the interests of the country, but the interests of the people in charge of the country – then the United States will secure my needs.” (186)

“Bernays had pioneered a trick he would use throughout his career. If you want to advance a private interest, turn it into a public cause.” (188)

“Castillo Armas had an interesting biography, always a helpful distraction for the media. (If you don’t want them to find the truth, give them a better story.)” (198)

“When you ask why the Jews, of all the people of the ancient world, have persisted into modern times, you can come up with various reasons: maybe it’s the power of the tradition, maybe it’s the will of God, or maybe it’s just that Jews had no choice, were locked in ghettos, confined to towns and professions where they had to marry other Jews. Even when the walls came down in Europe, Jews were hemmed in by prejudice and fear. But in America, where we’re all mutts, Jews were offered real freedom: not only to worship and travel and work, but from history. Jews could be Jews in America, or they could stop being Jews, which, for many, turned out to be the ultimate emancipation.” (226)

“A corporation is a product of a particular place and a particular time. U.S. Steel was Pennsylvania in the 1890s. Microsoft was Seattle in the 1980s. It’s where and when their sense of the world was fixed. The company brain is hardwired. Which is why a corporation, though conceivably immortal, tends to have a life span, tends to age and die. Unless remade by a new generation of pioneers – in which case it’s a different company – most corporations do not outlive the era of their first success. When the ideas and assumptions prevalent at the time of their founding go out of fashion, the company fades.” (229)

“United Fruit struggled under the weight of its own history, its own image. Once considered among the most enlightened corporations in America, it came to be seen as one of the worst.” (236)

“In the end, I decided that his career is the history of the nation, the promise and the betrayal of that promise, experienced in the span of a single life. It starts a hundred years ago, when America was a rising power, and ends the day before yesterday, with the confidence of the people sapped. It might look bad but, as Zemurray understood, as long as you’re breathing, the end remains to be written.” (242)

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